Education Cheat Sheet: How to Teach Your Child Empathy During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Modeling behavior, asking the right questions and sharing stories can help keiki discover how to care for others.
Empathy, the act of understanding others’ feelings, is something that teachers aspire to teach their students. They also rely heavily on families to support a child’s social emotional and academic learning more now than ever. In the article “Cultivating Empathy in the Coronavirus Crisis,” Emily Boudreau referred to psychologist Richard Weissbourd’s suggestions for how parents can support children by modeling empathy as individuals: by listening and taking action. Shifting our attention to the needs of others can also help families combat feelings of isolation and cultivate empathy in children. In other words, we can use this time as an opportunity to practice empathy at home. Here are some strategies teachers use in school that can be easily used in the home setting:
Understanding My Own Feelings
“I”statements are simple but powerful prompts to guide children to express themselves. When we listen carefully and support children to say “I feel…,” “I think…” and “I need…,” we are helping them pause, identify and express what’s going on inside them. After acknowledging their feelings, we might move on to reassure the child and perhaps offer a solution. Many times we have to not offer what they want and that’s okay! (Teachers have to do this all the time!) In this process, it’s important for adults to set an example by sharing their own feelings appropriately and encouraging the child to do the same. “I” statements offer reassurance and a voice to the individual. It sets the tone to create a safe space for both adults and children.
- Heart-Mind Online Resources for Families: The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, a secular, non-political, non-profit organization is inspired by Dalai Lama’s belief in balancing education of the mind with that of the heart. The Heart-Mind Online has a variety of resources for educators and families to help support positive social and emotional development.
- Centervention’s Free Social Emotional Learning Activities: Centervention provides online games for students to practice their social and emotional skills. This particular page has a variety of free resources with lessons, activities and printables. This site offers ideas for families to engage children in regulating emotions, expressing feelings, and to reinforce strategies for social development.
Learning About Diversity
I was reminded of the words from an educator friend when we were discussing ways to teach children how to care and how to work together. She shared that one of her teaching mentors explained: “Children have to know each other in order to care about one other. And it’s only when they care about one another that they can start to work together.” Questions like “Who’s in your family?” “What’s your favorite activity?” seem to be generic questions but are critical entry points for children to connect. In our school’s remote learning platform, we share student work and voices through images and video, have virtual time with students during morning and closing meetings and also have entertainment times where children share their talents remotely. At home, virtual opportunities to connect with others, family games and conversations, and even snail mail or pen pals can offer opportunities for your children to connect with others.
- Penpal Schools: Educators from over 150 countries use this resource to set up pen pal exchanges and encourage student collaboration. It is a fantastic tool to promote global and digital citizenship. Parents can create an account and also monitor student communication.
- Diverse Book Finder: The Diverse Book Finder aspires to be a resource to those who seek to create collections in which all students can see themselves and each other reflected in the books they read. Use this search engine to diversify your home library!
- Stories of Diversity from Scholastic: Scholastic offers a list of picture books, biographies and novels that celebrate differences and help readers foster tolerance and respect.
Diving into the World of Stories
Literature is a creative realm where imaginative empathy can be practiced. Putting yourself in a character’s shoes starts from diving into a story. Don’t worry if your children aren’t reading independently or don’t have deep interests in chapter books yet. Whether reading a story out loud, sharing a real-life story, or watching a movie, there are many ways children can experience the life of another. Biographies, nonfiction articles or news events are also options. Sometimes, a child might prefer to empathize with an animal or a house pet. While reading, listening, or observing, take a moment to ask your child, “How do they feel? What do you think they are going to do next? What would you do if you were them?” Instead of asking about the content, these simple questions help us make connections with the world.
- Books that Teach Empathy from Common Sense Media: Common Sense Media has a list of books for all ages, recommended for those looking for themes like celebrations of friendship, differences and caring for one another.
- Movies that Inspire Empathy from Common Sense Media: Common Sense Media also has a list of movies for all ages, with a lead character that grasps the observer’s attention throughout the story through their strengths and transformation.
- Story Online: Story Online has videos featuring actors reading children’s books alongside the book illustrations. This is a useful read aloud resource to listen to stories together with your child.
Modeling to Be a Part of the Solution
On a daily basis, children come to the adults in school for support. While we have the responsibility to keep children safe and guide them when necessary, it is important we maintain some boundaries so children can problem-solve creatively and independently. At school, you’ll find teachers asking children, “What do you think?” “How do you think we can make this situation better?” You’ll be surprised by the strategies and solutions children come up with! If you feel like you can’t do it alone at this time, partner with your child’s teacher and school to help streamline the message to your child. Moreover, modeling by being a problem-solver yourself and looking for ways to lend a helping hand to others at this time, could be the most powerful way to teach empathy.
- Design for Change Podcasts: Design for Change aspires to equip youth to take steps to transform empathy into social action: feel, imagine, do and share. Children and families can choose a social cause to learn about. The podcasts are less than 10 minutes and also have accompanying warmups, design sprints and community action projects children and work on.
- Design for Change #DoGoodFromHome Challenge: The #DoGoodFromHome Challenge encourages children to use compassion and creativity to engage in acts of good from their homes. Get inspired by looking at the Daily Challenges with your children and challenging yourselves to do one good at a time!
The effect of the pandemic is immense and often leaves one feeling powerless. However, we can’t deny that there have been moments of positivity and joy during these difficult times. The “aha!” moments, or opportunities to teach children, which teachers call “teaching moments,” are everywhere. But perhaps we should start to call them “empathy moments,” so we can all engage in being a better version of ourselves each day. By practicing our empathy muscles, we can grow stronger to care for ourselves, think and live beyond ourselves, and proactively engage in creating a better tomorrow.
Michiko Sugiyama is the coordinator of learning resources at Hanahau‘oli School. She obtained her master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University and taught in New York City public schools for eight year before joining Hanahau‘oli in 2017. During this stay-at-home time, Michiko is experiencing the joys and challenges of remote learning!