A Big Dream that Begins Small: Building Empathy in the Early Childhood Classroom

February 22, 2022

Schools are microcosms of the world beyond their walls. Factors like race, culture, class and gender set the stage for what takes place in our schools as learners from different groups interact. The conflicts that can arise make it harder to build a sense of community in classrooms. And community counts if we are to achieve equity in education and advance progress for all. So, how can our teachers counter the impact of a mainstream culture that too often values the fair-skinned over the dark, the affluent over the poor, the able over the disabled and the familiar over the different? The best way to do this is by building empathy in children when they’re still small.

Young children are far more empathetic by nature than we tend to believe. Infants as young as 14 months old can display signs of this trait, like showing concern for a parent who’s hurt or upset. By the time children are toddlers, they’re seasoned people watchers who know what makes someone laugh or cry. They also want to be around other kids and wonder about those who seem different This sense of interest in others is the first step toward building bridges. The way ahead involves the daily work of teaching children to listen to what others say and respond in a kind, concerned way.

Often, parents can’t do this alone since families make up small, tight-knit units of the diverse world. Besides, parents tend to cherish their precious offspring, so they can’t be impartial judges of how their children treat other folks. Sure, they can pass on general lessons like “There are consequences to your actions” and “You shouldn’t hurt other people.” Still, most parents can’t see their children with unbiased eyes and don’t treat them like anyone else’s. The work of showing children how to connect with those who are different falls to other adults who have daily contact with young learners: our early childhood teachers.

Community begins in the early childhood classroom. For most young children, being a classmate at a day care or preschool is their first active step into a social structure outside the family. The vision of community that the early childhood classroom provides can color a child’s ideas about equity and cooperation for a lifetime. And there are daily chances for teaching children to build bridges through what goes on in our early childhood settings.

Take block building for example. Children gain character and vital social skills when they play as a group and must share a limited number of blocks. They have to take responsibility for their own play area and think about their safety and that of their friends. They have to take turns, share ideas and decide on the division of labor. And since every block building session is not a success, children also get life lessons in tolerance and frustration when blocks come tumbling down.

Block play, like much that happens in an early childhood classroom, takes place within small groups. Working closely with peers gives children the chance to express themselves while conferring with others and working in a collaborative way. This can lead to a social scene where feelings run amok and where give-and-take is always in play. It’s real life at the preschool level.

And early childhood teachers play a key role in helping the children interact in a way that builds communication and cooperation. That includes establishing ground rules, such as no running in the classroom, looking out for the safety of all in the group and using words instead of fists to settle fights. Most important of all is building a culture of caring based on learning how other children feel.

That’s the point of the “peace table” you’ll often see in Montessori classrooms. When two children are fighting, teachers lead them to the table, a tranquil spot reserved for conflict resolution. On the way there, a teacher sets the tone by asking the children what happened and telling them they’re not acting in a safe way. Then the teacher has the children ask each other some questions: What happened? How are you feeling? And most important of all: How can I make you feel better?

Peace tables help replace yelling and hitting with positive vibes. And teachers also have a number of other ways to help children “develop prosocial skills, form friendships and treat each other with respect, kindness and compassion,” as the Council points out in Essentials for Working with Young Children. Teachers can organize team projects, such as making a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, taking turns eating a picnic lunch outdoors or turning a plastic carton into a cabin. They can model what children should say to express interest in playing with others. And they can support children who find it hard to make friends or aren’t welcomed by other kids. “Nobody benefits from being rejected or excluded,” as the Essentials points out, “no matter how they behave.”

When children seem to misbehave, they may be instead showing the impact of their culture. And we can again look at block play to see how the outside world shapes what goes on in our early childhood settings. For example, some families tend to use implicit commands, such as “Johnny, can you please put the blocks away.” So, children from these families know a teacher is telling them to put the blocks away. Meanwhile, children from other families may interpret this request in a different way since adult requests in their culture tend to take a more explicit form, like “Johnny, put away the blocks.” So, these children aren’t acting up when they interpret the teacher’s implicit command as a choice about whether to put the blocks away. They’re reflecting the culture of their homes.

Culture also defines the amount of personal space that puts children at ease when they’re working together with blocks or engaged in other group pursuits like circle time or dramatic play. In some cultures, children feel comfortable playing close to one another. In others, the space may feel too confined and lead children to hit or shove a playmate who seems too nearby. So, teachers need to find ways to help children perceive the needs of their peers, become attuned to their reactions and realize that we’re all small parts of a large, diverse world.

Building empathy in early childhood classrooms is also about showing children to value each other’s unique attributes, experiences and ideas—a goal of dramatic play, according to the Essentials. “Dramatic play,” it explains, “helps children understand and experiment with different social roles, consider others’ needs, appreciate different perspectives.” And teachers play a leading role in helping children see that they’re players on a wide stage, says Tina Malti, a psychology professor and author of a report on school-based interventions to promote empathy in children. “Every single classroom is a microcosm. And each child in that classroom has varying capacities or mental needs. If you don’t look at the varying needs, you miss the opportunity to promote empathy in the best possible way.”

Children are ready to learn this life skill when they come to the early childhood classroom. Our teachers must be, too. And preparing them to meet the needs of children from diverse backgrounds demands more than boosting requirements for multicultural courses. Such content knowledge, while fundamental, only takes on meaning when teachers make a committed effort to build community in their classrooms. So, they need to consider the way they think about race, culture, class and gender—all those social forces that come into play in early childhood settings. That means reflecting on their assumptions, talking with peers about their behavior toward others; and constantly honing their own social skills.

Early childhood teachers, like the young learners they serve, bring outside baggage into the classroom. They need to examine any prejudices they have and take deliberate steps to avoid passing them on to children. Teachers have to look inside themselves and see how they, too, are shaped by the outside world. This type of self-reflection can help them in promoting a peaceful culture of respect among tomorrow’s citizens of the world.

It’s a lofty goal, so it’s best to start when young children are still learning how they should treat other folks. That’s the time to help children embrace what joins us together and respect what sets us apart. Though our children come into early childhood classrooms with diverse backgrounds, teachers can spread a social glue that sticks with the children as they grow up. The early childhood classroom can set the stage for future progress by being a safe place filled with a sense of empathy and understanding—an essential part of equity in early learning, the Council points out. We know the life lessons that early childhood teachers pass on in the microcosm of the classroom can have a macro impact by leading to a kinder, more caring world. And the best way to reach this big dream is by beginning small.

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