Teaching Empathy

Activities for Teaching Kids to Listen With Understanding & Empathy

Set a Great Example

Next time you find yourself talking to your child about getting dressed in the mornings, utilize three simple steps. Remember the acronym E.A.R. E is for eyes: Look her in the eyes to increase connection, showing you are listening. A is for attention: Clearly pay attention -- place your cell or magazine down, and turn off the TV. R is for reflect: Repeat her words and reflect her emotions, demonstrating understanding and empathy. For example, "I hear you Suzy, you felt sad when you had to stop playing and get dressed. By modeling good listening skills, your child can learn how to do the same.

Read Together

Reading together is an enriching way to increase listening with understanding. Accomplish this with two specific types of books. Begin with a subject matter book. Essentially, understanding is grasping an idea. Use a book about any topic to facilitate understanding; teachers frequently introduce a story describing a complicated subject, to prompt further discussion and understanding. Secondly, use a book written directly about empathy or understanding. For example, mindfulness is a modern Buddhist philosophy teaching listening with empathy through mindful listening.

Act It Out

Dramatic play also teaches empathy. During sibling rivalries, call a time out and stop the conflict. Have children switch places and take turns acting out the other's behavior. Literally being in the other’s shoes is a wonderful way to increase awareness of that person’s point of view. Alternatively, have children act out typical childhood or family situations, taking turns playing different roles. One example may be being the captain of a sports team or the last one chosen -- another example might be asking children to eat their vegetables and taking turns being the child and parent.

Get Creative

Teach listening through art. Gratitude and empathy interplay. Children learning gratitude for what they have gain empathy for those without. Have children create gratitude bracelets, with each bead representing something they are grateful for, such as a home or enough food to eat. Children discuss difficult feelings easier if they are illustrated first, thus giving the feelings form and providing a safe outlet for discussion. The activity can vary; it's meant as a catalyst for discussion. Your child can draw a picture of his home or create a painting of a body, identifying places and colors for certain emotions. For example, he might paint his head red for anger and his heart yellow for joy.

Activities for Toddlers to Build Empathy

Pretend Play

Pretend play offers the perfect opportunity to model empathy in a safe environment for your child. Using dolls, animals, or another favorite toy, act out different scenarios. For example, you might show one stuffed animal comforting another stuffed animal who misses his mommy. Empathy isn't only important when dealing with negative emotions, though. Model feeling happy for others, such as a toy car feeling happy when his friend wins the race. As your toddler gains more skills, he might even be able to get into the action as well, creating his own scenarios. You can then ask, "How do you think Mr. Bear feels?"

Showing Emotions

Recognizing the facial expressions that go along with various emotions is one of the first steps to understanding others' feelings. Practice making these faces with your toddler. Together, you can make happy, sad, sleepy, scared, excited or bored faces, for example. Then, you can take turns making the faces, either directing the face that your child makes or -- if she's more verbal -- having her guess which face you are making.


Reading books about feelings offers you an opportunity to discuss the feelings of others. "Baby Happy Baby Sad," by Leslie Patricelli, is simple enough for younger toddlers to understand, and they often enjoy seeing pictures of other little ones. If your child prefers more complex stories, consider "Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day," by Jamie Lee Curtis. This rhyming text with elaborate pictures covers a range of emotions your child might start to understand. As you read the book, show the emotions through your own facial expressions and tone of voice.

In-the-moment Empathy

Modeling empathy in the moment is perhaps the best way to teach it. When your child upsets another, such as by taking a toy away or accidentally bumping into her, your first reaction might be to make him say, "I'm sorry." According to the Zero to Three website, though, those words don't have much meaning for young children. The smarter move is to explain, "Jamal feels bad because you took the toy he was playing with" or "Annie got hurt when you bumped into her." Even if your child isn't involved in causing the other child's emotions, you can still help explain the feelings. "Rajbir feels sad because he misses his mommy," can go a long way toward building empathy.