What do the research findings show about how to help children develop empathy?
Kathleen Cotton, a former Research Associate with the School Improvement Program of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL), summarized 37 research documents which provided effective methods to help children develop empathy.
Empathy is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings”
Here is what Ms. Cotton found in her research about developing empathy in children.
1. Positive parenting practices matter.
Researchers have identified relationships between the use of certain parental child-rearing practices and the development of empathetic feelings, understanding, and social behavior in children.
Parents whose behavior toward their preschool children is responsive, non-punitive, and non authoritarian have children who have higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy and prosocial behavior.
Parents with an authoritarian style have very high expectations of their children, yet provide very little in the way of feedback and nurturance.
Authoritarian parents tend to punish mistakes harshly. When they give feedback, it is often negative.
Yelling and corporal punishment are also commonly seen with an authoritarian parenting style.
2. It is important to model, demonstrate and discuss empathy.
Supportive adults (e.g., parents, teachers) are encouraged to reason with children, even young ones (e.g., about the effects of their behavior on others, about the importance of sharing and being kind, etc.) in order to promote positive social behaviors and empathy.
Parents encouraging their school-age children to discuss their feelings or problems, is also positively related to the development of empathy.
Parental modeling of empathetic, caring behavior toward children and toward others in their children’s presence is strongly related to children’s development of prosocial attitudes and behavior as well.
When children have hurt others emotionally or physically, research supports the practice of providing developmentally appropriate explanations to help children understand why a behavior is hurtful to someone else and how to “make amends.”
While there are parents who do all of these things and still have children that struggle with empathy, the research indicates that in general positive parenting practices contribute to the development of empathetic feelings and behavior.
Related Article: 10 Simple Ways to Improve Children’s Behavior (Home and School)
3. The following two child-rearing practices are found to be negatively related to the development of empathy.
1. Threats and/or physical punishments used in an attempt to improve children’s behavior.
2. Inconsistent care and parental rejection of a child’s emotional needs.
Inconsistent care (e.g., inconsistency in parents’ reactions to their child’s emotional needs) and parental rejection/withdrawal of their child’s emotional needs, are both associated with low levels of empathy on the parts of the children.
Children from homes in which one parent is physically abusive to the other may have low levels of empathy.
For example, they are may be unable to recognize the emotional states of other people and respond appropriately.
4. Here is what research suggests about using rewards to teach empathy?
The provision of extrinsic rewards or bribes to improve children’s behavior is not always effective.
Researchers have found that providing payoffs for prosocial behavior focuses attention on the reward rather than the reason for it.
Additionally, the desired behaviors tend to lessen or disappear when the reward is withdrawn.
I want to address these findings further…
Research indicates that extrinsic rewards/bribes can be harmful (i.e., do what I say and you will get candy, be nice and I will buy you a toy).
However, research also indicates the benefits of allowing children to earn privileges for behaviors such as following expectations, being responsible, helping out, making good choices, etc.
Research also supports the idea that positive reinforcement such as praising and recognizing appropriate behavior is also beneficial.
It is important to understand the difference between bribes/external rewards and natural/logical reinforcement (e.g., first clean up you area and then you can watch your show or you need to use nice words and keep your hands to yourself if you want to keep playing this game with your friends).
Do you want to see the research?:
Check out the following studies: Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence and a Summary of the Effects of Reward Contingencies on Interest and Performance.
Related Article: When Do Rewards Make Sense for Children?
5. Empathy training uses the following four components to increase empathetic feelings, understanding, and pro-social behaviors.
1. Interpersonal perception and empathetic responding.
This first component utilizes a cognitive approach.
Students learn what empathy is, how it develops, how to recognize different emotive states in themselves and others, and how to respond to others positively. The goal is to enhance their empathetic perceptions and skills.
Check out this amazing kid-friendly video that explains empathy and how to respond with empathy.
2. Initial focus on one’s own feelings.
When a parent, teacher, etc. is seeking to increase the ability of a child to understand another’s perspective, it is important to have them focus on their own feelings initially.
This can include the different kinds of feelings they have and what feelings are associated with what kinds of situations (Black and Phillips 1982; and Dixon 1980).
3. Focus on similarities between oneself and others.
When children focus on similarities between themselves and another person (s), this is also effective in developing empathy.
Identifying these similarities is the logical next step following the focus on one’s own feelings.
As Brehm, Fletcher, and West (1988) point out: “Virtually all discussions/reviews of the empathic process have noted the close connections between responding empathically to another person and perceiving that person as similar to oneself.”
For example, Hahn (1980) found that cross-cultural empathy is improved if classroom activities first focus on similarities between other cultures and one’s own society, before pointing out differences.
4. Role-play different scenarios.
Role-playing is affective in increasing empathy.
In role-playing, children and/or adults take-on the role of a real or fictional person and imagine or act out that person’s feelings and/or behavior.
Children’s empathy is even noted to increase when asked to imagine the point of view of an animal, plant, or inanimate object.Video Presentation of Article
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Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
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