What Does Research Say About How We Can Teach Children to Have Empathy?

In Bullying, Counselors, Educators, Parents, Social Skills, Social-Emotional by Rachel WiseLeave a Comment


What is 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”

Interestingly, research demonstrates an impressive correlation between students’ training and skills in empathetic understanding and their academic performance.

Kathleen Cotton, the author or coauthor of more than 70 publications and a former Research Associate with the School Improvement Program of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL), summarized 37 research documents which provided effective methods or strategies to help children develop empathy. To see Kathleen Cotton’s full summary check out Developing Empathy in Children and Youth.

Of the 37 research documents, thirty-two were studies or evaluations, four were reviews or meta analyses (a method for systematically combining pertinent qualitative and quantitative study data from several selected studies), and one reported results of both a review and evaluation. Participants in the research studies included preschoolers (six studies), elementary students (fourteen studies), secondary students (four studies), elementary and secondary students (six studies), university students and other adults (six studies), and the age/grade of students in one study was not specified.

Both sexes and various racial/ethnic groups were represented among the research subjects. Of the school-age participants, most were students in regular school programs, but special education students were also represented, as were incarcerated youth. Most subjects were American, although the research base also included studies involving participants from Finland, Israel, Australia, and Canada.

Practices and treatments whose effects were investigated include empathy training (nineteen studies), parenting practices and other home factors (eight studies), and classroom strategies and program designs (seven studies). Three studies identified correlations between empathy and other traits.

Looking at outcome areas, twenty-one of the reports were concerned with participants’ scores on measures of cognitive empathy (the ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions) and/or affective empathy (the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety). Other outcome areas include:

  • Prosocial behavior (e.g., sharing, helping, comforting, making reparations)–nineteen
  • Cross-racial, -ethnic, or -nationality acceptance and respect–four reports.
  • Additional indicators, such as school attendance, self-esteem, self-disclosure, self-control,
    and aggression–five reports.

Here is what the research showed:

Parenting Style Plays a Role. 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:

how to teach empathy to a child
  • 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. Mistakes tend to be punished harshly. When feedback does occur, it is often negative. Yelling and corporal punishment are also commonly seen with the authoritarian style.
  • Reasoning with children, even quite small ones, about the effects of their behavior on others and the importance of sharing and being kind is effective in promoting empathy and prosocial behavior.
  • Parental modeling of empathetic, caring behavior toward children and toward others in the children’s presence is strongly related to children’s development of prosocial attitudes and behavior.
  • When children have hurt others or otherwise caused them distress, research supports the practice of giving explanations as to why the behavior is harmful and suggestions for how to make amends.
  • Parents encouraging school age children to discuss their feelings or problems is positively related to the development of empathy in those children.

While, there are parents who do all of these things and still have children that struggle with empathy, the research indicates that in general these parenting practices contribute to the development of empathetic feelings and behavior.

Related Article: 10 Simple Ways to Improve Children’s Behavior (Home and School)

Researchers have also identified parenting/child-rearing practices which are negatively related to the development of empathy. These include:

  • Threats and/or physical punishment meted out in an attempt to improve children’s behavior are counterproductive.
how to teach empathy to a child
  • Inconsistent care (e.g., inconsistency in parents’ reactions to children’s emotional needs) and parental rejection/withdrawal in times of children’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 have low levels of empathy. For example, they are typically unable to
    recognize the emotional states of other people and respond appropriately.
  • The provision of extrinsic rewards or bribes to improve children’s behavior is counterproductive. As with other research on extrinsic rewards, researchers have found that providing payoffs for prosocial behavior focuses attention on the reward rather than the reason for it and that the desired behaviors tend to lessen or disappear when the reward is withdrawn.

I want to address this finding further. While 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), additional research 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). Want to read more about this research? Check out the following research studies: Computational Development of Reinforcement Learning during Adolescence and a Summary of the Effects of Reward Contingencies on Interest and Performance.

Related Article: 25 Privileges You Can Let Your Child Earn for Good Behavior

Research supports that empathy training to enhance empathetic feelings and understanding and increase pro-social behavior is effective. This applies to children of all ages and to adults, and characterizes both full-scale empathy training programs and short-term treatments. The specific components within empathy training approaches that are associated with increases in empathy include:

  • Training in interpersonal perception and empathetic responding. A cognitive approach, in which 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, enhances their empathetic perceptions and skills. Check out this amazing kid-friendly video that explains empathy and how to respond with empathy.
  • Initial focus on one’s own feelings. When seeking to increase the ability of children to assume another’s perspective, it is most fruitful to have them focus first on their own feelings–the different kinds of feelings they have and what feelings are associated with what kinds of situations (Black and Phillips 1982; and Dixon 1980).
  • Focus on similarities between oneself and others. Activities which focus children’s attention on similarities between themselves and another person (or other persons) is effective in increasing affective and cognitive 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 enhanced if classroom activities focus first on the similarities between other cultures and one’s own society and only later begin calling attention to differences.
  • Role-Taking or Role Playing. Activities which call for children or adults to assume the role of a real or fictional person and to imagine or act out that person’s feelings and/or behavior are effective in increasing both effective and cognitive empathy. Increases in empathy are noted even when children are asked to imagine the point of view of an animal, plant, or inanimate object.

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