Empathy means to identify with and feel other people’s concerns. A major factor in whether a child develops the ability to be sensitive to the feelings of others is how well he understands his own feelings and can express them. Therefore, the first lesson we try to teach the preschool children is how to recognize and express their own feelings and emotions.
We start by looking at pictures of children expressing different emotions and we help the children label what the people in the pictures might be feeling. Then the children try to make a similar face to the child in the picture. We also have puppets and flannel board pieces expressing various emotions along with other games that help the children learn about feelings.
Our preschoolers have a feelings doll named Jamie who helps in understanding feelings. Jamie is a large boy/girl doll with a blank face. We have various ethnic felt faces a child can choose from to attach to the velcro on Jamie’s face. Then Jamie can be happy, sad, angry, silly or embarrassed. If the child wants to, he can make up a story about Jamie and his/her feelings.
Another technique we use is to read a story during our preschool circle time about strong emotions, or sometimes we have a planned conflict between our puppets. Then we discuss how the different characters may have felt and let the children come up with ideas on what they could have done with their feelings. At all times, the children are encouraged to share their own feelings, even if they are negative.
When we have a real situation where a child is dealing with strong emotions, we first try to tune-in to the child’s feelings and then help them label how they are feeling. Other children who are present may also be asked how they think the emotional child is feeling. This can be very helpful if a child has unintentionally hurt another child’s feelings. We ask them to look at the other child’s face to see if they think the other child is enjoying what is happening. All of this helps the children become aware of how our actions affect other people’s lives.
We often use hugs to respond to someone in need of comforting. The children are encouraged to tell us if they need a hug and we often ask an upset child if they would like a hug. To encourage empathy and to help the children respond to someone else in need of comforting, the preschoolers have a “Hug Rug”. Any child may bring out the rug and stand, or sit on it. When others see the child on the Hug Rug they know that child wants a hug and they respond accordingly. Children may give hugs to the adults also as happened when a staff member had recently experienced the loss of her father. The children saw her sad face and, without prompting, asked if she needed a hug. Hugs and tears were shared by everyone.
Even our youngest children are encouraged to be sensitive to and respond to the emotional needs of the other children. When a toddler is missing his parents, it is not uncommon to hear another toddler tell him, “Mommy be back”.