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What’s the best way to teach empathy to an infant, toddler, or preschool aged child?

Joanna Parker joins the Teaching with CLASS® podcast to answer that question. Joanna has spent her entire career in early care and education. She’s worked with Head Start, Early Head Start, child care, early intervention, public PreK, and home visitation programs at the local, community, state, and national levels.

Joanna explains that defining empathy in early childhood is all about understanding social-emotional development. Children will not display empathy the way adults do because they are still developing social-emotional skills. But educators can instill foundational skills for children to build upon as they mature.

Joanna’s 3 strategies to promote empathy in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers:

Positive Climate:

Being in tune with children, respecting children’s emotions and needs, support friendship skills creating a sense of belonging and community

Teacher Sensitivity:

Being responsive to children, narrating what children are feeling (emotional literacy) and explicitly individualizing

Regard for Child/Student Perspective:

Child focus and choice, providing opportunities for independence and autonomy promoting a sense of being capable and competent


Joanna also shares:

      • Ways empathy begins to appear in those early childhood years
      • Strategies to help toddlers build friendships
      • Tips for educators to ensure that they are modeling acceptance and eliciting other perspectives throughout the day


This episode focuses on Responsive Caregiving, Behavioral Support, and Emotional Support.


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Transcript 

Joanna Parker:
Theory of the mind is really cognitively when children in the older preschool age start to recognize that others think differently than they do. It's actually recognizing that that person may be upset around something that you wouldn't find upsetting, or that they like something that you don't like. And so being able to take the perspective of another, that's a huge cognitive milestone.

Mamie Morrow:
Hi, everyone. So glad you're here. I'm your host, Mamie. Welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast, where we explore topics that help educators deepen their connections with children and enhance their social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development. Today, we're talking about empathy. We're exploring what it is, why it's important and how educators can support the development of empathy with infants, toddlers, and preschool children. Our guest today is Joanna Parker. She comes to us with years of experience and expertise in head start, early head start, childcare, early intervention, public pre-K and home visitation. She's been busy. She is passionate about advocating for all children to have access to quality care and early learning experiences. And now I invite you to enjoy the conversation.

Mamie Morrow:
Joanna, thank you so much for joining us today.

Joanna Parker:
Oh, I'm happy to be here.

Mamie Morrow:
We have some really interesting conversations in our class learning community, and a fabulous question came in, and they asked what's the best way to teach empathy to a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old that just can't grasp it and their emotions are all over the place. And I know that empathy is a passion of yours. So I would just love for you to have a conversation with us about this. And can we just start with, can I ask you to please define in your own words what is empathy, and why is it so important?

Joanna Parker:
So that's a great question. So thank you so much, Mamie. I'm a huge early childhood nerd and I love the domains of development. I love diving into child development, and particularly, I really love the nuances with our infants and toddlers and realizing all of the amazing things that they do and know. And so when we think about empathy, when we think about it, we tend to think about it in a adult frame of the ability to really take the perspective of another, to be able to acknowledge and recognize when someone is having a hard time. I kind of get Brené Brown in the back of my head talking to [crosstalk 00:03:19]. That really a very complex social, emotional skill of where you're able to recognize how another is feeling and to feel empathy, to be there with them, to listen, to support. Right?

Joanna Parker:
And so when we think about little ones, that's not where children are cognitively. That's not where they are developmentally. But again, part of why I love the domains of development is recognizing that there are all these building blocks. There are all these foundational skills. And so I love that the question includes our toddlers and not just our preschool age children, and I'm actually are going to go back to our babies, right? And really recognizing that even from infancy, there is this sense of kindness and preferring people that are helpful or characters that are helpful all the way up to with our older preschoolers, the theory of the mind, and really understanding that other people think about things differently than you do. And so I think as we try to define empathy and what that looks like in early childhood, it's really understanding social, emotional development and those foundational skills that build up to how we think about it as adults.

Mamie Morrow:
Okay. So you've given us a lot to unpack in in one episode. All right. So let's go back to the infants and the toddlers and help educators understand where those children are developmentally in developing that empathy and why we simply can't expect them to display empathy in the same way that we do as adults.

Joanna Parker:
So it really does go back to attachment, and that as human beings, we are programmed to connect with others, and that infants seek out adults to care for them and to meet their needs. And those early attachment relationships, the ability to build a relationship with another is how we support those skills and is what that looks like. And I also would share because I just find it really interesting and amazing. And if you look at research that happens at universities, I'm always like, how do they come up with that they're going to do this to a baby and that they're going to learn something out of it? So there's the study out of Yale and the Infant Cognition Lab that had puppet shows with infants, like children under 12 months of age. And it had different scenarios that showed that infants preferred characters who were helpful or kind.

Joanna Parker:
So they would see the little play, the little scenario, and then they would be asked which character would get a cookie. And they tended to give the cookie to the character that was helpful. And so I think getting back to your question, because I know I kind of go all over the place as I get excited about child development, really recognizing where an infant or a toddler is on that developmental continuum and really focusing on their ability to build relationships and connect with others. And a lot of that is built through how you are, how you interact with that child.

Mamie Morrow:
So I think one exciting thing we can do on this conversation is give teachers at these different stages of development some specific ideas of what they can do to support this growth of empathy. So it sounds like infant teachers are incredibly important at the early stage of this development. So what would be a couple key strategies that you would like to express to our listeners who have the opportunity to be working with our babies, our youngest? And how can they be helping these children to develop empathy at their young ages?

Joanna Parker:
So I think it goes by back to responsive caregiving, which is the domain of the infant class tool. And it's being responsive. It's when an infant cries that you acknowledge that, that when an infant is tired or hungry or needs something, you are responsive to them, that we are giving the message through our sensitivity, through our responsiveness, that the world is a safe place and that that infant can count on you to meet their needs. And that's really a primary piece that builds towards empathy. And so when we think about responsive climate and really thinking about how you build relationships with babies and are there with them and are focused on them and when a baby cries, even if you're attending to someone else, because a lot of times when we're in an infant classroom and there are many babies, there are many things going on, just verbally acknowledging that infant who is distressed, that talking to babies, telling them about what's going on in the world, all of the things that are really part of the infant class tool in terms of responsive caregiving does actually support social, emotional development and empathy.

Mamie Morrow:
So Joanna now, as our infants are transitioning to their toddler classrooms, can you give us an idea of where our toddlers are in this development of empathy? Also, what our teachers can do to really support them in that journey?

Joanna Parker:
Definitely. So I also kind of think about this in alignment with self-regulation. And I've come to realize I actually don't like the term self-regulation, but I don't know what else to use, because we know that as humans, we build the capacity to manage our emotions, our body, our behavior by ourselves, without support between the ages of five and 25. And with our infants and toddlers, we think about it as co-regulation, because they really are managing through their relationship with the adult, with the caregiver. But then we start to talk about it as self-regulation with preschoolers when we really shouldn't, but that's an aside. And so when I think about toddlers, because toddlers are so focused on independence and their sense of identity, and so really thinking about how we support our toddlers in beginning to understand expectations, to beginning to have more control and decision-making and independence throughout the daily routines.

Joanna Parker:
And so again, when I think about the class tool and the toddler class tool, where my mind really goes to is behavior guidance and recognizing that when we think about this for toddlers, it's really about how we are in tune with that toddler, how we are really providing focused attention and supporting the child in knowing the expectations and beginning to know how to meet those expectations, and that through those respectful interactions and through that real dance of figuring out how much we can guide versus how much we're really giving leadership to the toddler, we're teaching, again, some of those social, emotional skills and really beginning to teach the friendship skills that are part of empathy of beginning to really understand the perspective of others and even being able to recognize or respond to the emotions of another child in the classroom.

Joanna Parker:
And I think it also a really connects to regard for child perspectives and how we offer choices and independence within the structure of the classroom and goes again back to developmentally appropriate practice and developmentally appropriate expectations of while toddlers really want to be independent and they want to do everything by themselves, they sometimes are not physically able to.

Mamie Morrow:
And that gets frustrating for them.

Joanna Parker:
It gets frustrating for us as adults too, because we want that coat to get on the child. We want... For those of you in cold weather, I remember standing in the hallway watching a one-year-old classroom in Wisconsin get eight children into snow pants, boots, coats, all of that stuff. And they had it down. Oh, it was so impressive, but it's that dance of giving enough independence that we can also step in and that relationship that you have with that toddler and those routines, so that it all just kind of flows because there's that consistency. And again, a lot of the practices that are part of behavior guidance connects to this.

Supporting Toddlers in the Friendship Building Skills

Mamie Morrow:
I'm a big proponent of establishing routines so that you can then infuse independence. Right? So once the teacher has some really consistent routines well established and the children know those routines, that's the wonderful space to be able to start to infuse more and more independence into of those moments. So it sounds like one thing that teachers should really keep in mind in the toddler years is how can I set up my classroom and our routines and our daily structure for the children to have as much independence as possible as we can safely allow? And so I encourage our toddler teachers to be taking on that challenge and thinking about that. If I can go back really quick, because you are talking about supporting our toddlers in the friendship building skills as really a key building block towards empathy. And as we all know, toddler years is the great age of parallel play. So how do we support these young children in developing friendships? Do you have a few strategies to share?

Joanna Parker:
So that's an interesting piece in terms of bringing up play, right? And recognizing that play is a developmental skill, and that with our older toddlers, we start to see parallel play. But even before that we have the onlooker play. And I think it really is about recognizing and explicitly calling out what children are doing. And so thinking about how you can verbalize to a child what their peer is doing, what their peer is thinking, what their peer is feeling, and being intentional in having opportunities for children to come together, and this is something that I... It's funny because I was in a training and it was talking about how when we're looking for quality in toddler spaces, we need to make sure there are group experiences. And like I just went, "Ah! That's not okay." As an infant toddler person, we don't want large group with our ones and our twos, but it's really about choice that if you build it, they will come kind of idea of if you have interesting, exciting things, then the toddlers will come together.

Joanna Parker:
And that we have to have those opportunities for peer interaction to begin to build those skills and then to use our language to really talk about what's going on in the environment and label that for the children, so that that's really calling their attention to their friends in the classroom and what their friends are doing and feeling and thinking and saying.

Mamie Morrow:
So you were talking about one of my favorite indicators of self and parallel talk, which is such an important strategy for teachers to use as their sportscasting not only what the children are doing, but then I love how you're also talking about infusing that with sportscasting what the other children might be feeling and thinking at the time and what the teacher's feeling and thinking to really start to support that emotional literacy, right? To really understand emotions and start to put words to emotions. And as these babies are now transitioning into the preschool years, how can we continue this journey that has begun for them?

Joanna Parker:
So I think it's, again, going back to that self-regulation piece, or whatever we want to call it, and beginning to use the environment for prompts. So that recognizing that as children enter the preschool years, it's not just through their interactions with you as the educator, as the adult, that they're able to calm down, manage their body, their feelings, their behaviors, but you can actually have visuals in the environment that support children and knowing what to do. You can create spaces like a calm down corner for children to go to. I've seen in classrooms where they actually have rituals that are part of community building and that we are greeting each other in the morning. We are recognizing who's here, who's not here. We're sending well wishes to people who are not here, so that sense of belonging, that sense of community. You also can, as the children are getting older and particularly if you're in a multi-age preschool classroom and you can have those peer models of having children help to problem-solve and to help children calm down or to take the perspective of another, or to come up with a solution when there's conflict over sharing or turn-taking.

Joanna Parker:
And there's actually this really great video I saw in social media a little bit ago, about two brothers, where one brother was talking to the other brother and having him breathe and teaching him how to calm himself down when he was upset and frustrated, and really recognizing that it's not just us as the adult, who is the teacher, who is the model, that we can also support that between peers.

Mamie Morrow:
Oh, and I just imagine the opportunity for independence and responsibility and jobs and support in our classroom if kids can do so much more than turning on and off the lights and leading the line, right? They can now go and help each other to calm them down, and we can teach them these skills and they can support others in learning those skills and developing those skills. I just, my mind is blown. I think that that would be so incredibly special in a classroom, and what a great way to really intentionally and explicitly teach empathy.

Joanna Parker:
I was a classroom where one of the jobs was peacemaker, and they had this stick that the children had all decorated. That was the peacemaker stick. And whenever there was a conflict, then the peacemaker went to a specific area with the children where there was a conflict, and they came up with a solution. And that was one of the jobs in the classroom, and it was just lovely.

Mamie Morrow:
And not only is that social, emotional development for the child and the peers that they're working for, but that is concept development and instructional support, right? There's so many opportunities in our classrooms that we just need to find out more about how to really harness those moments to support children in developing their fullest selves. And that kind of gets us to a topic of neuroscience and theory of the mind. Can you help us think about kind of what's going on in our cognitive development throughout these times?

Joanna Parker:
So theory of the mind is really cognitively when children in the older preschool, early primary grade age, start to recognize that others think differently than they do. And that's a huge cognitive milestone that in getting ready for this conversation, I was looking at state early learning standards. I was looking at some standards that are part of a formal assessment tool, and really looking at that progression of being aware of when someone else is upset and beginning to then identify why you think that other person is upset. Right? But with theory of the mind, it's actually recognizing that that person may be upset around something that you wouldn't find upsetting, or that they like something that you don't like. And so being able to take the perspective of another, and that's a really key skill that I think even as adults, we struggle with, that gets us to Brené Brown empathy, right?

Joanna Parker:
And that's probably why there's a lot of resources out there in the world to help us as adults with our own self-regulation and our own ability to take the perspective of others and realize that people think about things differently and may have different beliefs and values than we do. And I think that that really also highlights how important it is to really think about diversity and equity throughout our interactions with children and throughout our curriculum and experiences that we offer for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that we want the classroom experience to be a mirror where children see themselves, but also a window where they're able to see other ways of being and other forms of knowledge that really helps to support them as children are come cognitively getting to a place of really being able to understand differing perspectives, that that's just been part of their worldview from the beginning that we really value and celebrate difference.

Mamie Morrow:
And let's just dive into that just a little bit more. How as educators can we ensure that we are modeling the acceptance of other perspectives and even eliciting other perspectives throughout our day? How can we set ourselves up so that we can model that to children and ensure that we are genuinely providing that for all of the children in our classrooms as well?

Joanna Parker:
Well, I think that we have to take that perspective, right? And utilize our own theory of the mind skills that, I mean, you think about it with infant caregiving - how we are with babies is very cultural, and how we think about self-help skills, how we think about basic caregiving routines of sleeping and eating. And so having that openness to ask families, how does the baby sleep at home? How do you feed the baby? What foods are you offering? And instead of having our internal dialogue up, well, that's not how I would do it, that we respect that. And we try as much as possible to provide care in the same way that the family would at home. And I really like the framework of ask, acknowledge, and adapt of where you're having those conversations, you're acknowledging where the difference lies, you're adapting as much as you can.

Joanna Parker:
And I think that gives really strong messages to children throughout the years that you value the differences of others, that you respect different ways of being different forms of knowledge, and that you're willing to adapt and change as needed. I think sometimes as educators, we're not aware of how strong our body language is and that when we are dismissive of a family practice or not inclusive of families' languages, that we're giving a message that is not inclusive and really doesn't support that idea of valuing and taking the perspective of others.

Mamie Morrow:
This has been such a wonderful and eye-opening conversation. And I would love to ask you, what would you hope that our listeners are taking away with them? If you want a couple things on their mind really present and thinking about what they can take back into their classrooms, what would you say might be some key takeaways you would hope that they would take with them?

Joanna Parker:
So I think it always just goes back, for me at least, to the power of how you are, and just recognizing that it's those little interactions and those little moments that you may not even be aware of that have such strong messages and really support those key social, emotional skills that are ultimately tied to children's cognitive development, their language development, and their overall wellbeing. And so I think that if you can just take the message that it's not rocket science, it's just the little moments and being present and being kind.

Mamie Morrow:
I think that's a great way for us to think about it as we are reviewing and reflecting on this wonderful conversation. Thank you so much, Joanna, for joining us today and sharing your wealth of knowledge and expertise. And thank you also to our member in the class learning community who asked us this fabulous question that really sparked this podcast. So thank you, Joanna.

Joanna Parker:
Thank you. This has been a lot of fun.

Mamie Morrow:
If you're interested in continuing this conversation with other educators and even asking fabulous questions that can spark a podcast, I'd encourage you to join our wonderful class learning community. You can share or learn more strategies with thousands of educators from around the world. The link to join is in the show notes available on your listening platform. Also in the show notes is a link to a few really helpful blog posts on this topic and some of those fun videos that Joanna spoke about and that she would love to share with you.

Mamie Morrow:
One last thing before I go, can you believe this is the last episode for the year of our first season? So much to be excited about, and I want to thank all of you for being on this journey with me. It's been truly wonderful speaking with so many experts about such important topics, but honestly, the best part has been getting to share those conversations with each and every one of you and hearing your feedback. Thank you so much for making the time to listen and for letting us know how we're doing. The podcast team and I are taking a break while we prepare for our next season, but we'll be back in just a couple of months with new guests, new topics and new energy. So thank you again so much for listening and I'll see you all again next year. But until then my friends, be humble, be teachable, and let's always keep learning.

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