HELPING BRAINS DEVELOP EMPATHY SKILLS BEGINS EARLY

Today I am sharing a guest blog filled with a wealth of information for both parents and professionals working with children. The focus of the article is on the development of empathy. This of course is a critical social/emotional skill. It is a higher area brain function, but the development begins through relationships early in life. 

This valuable article was published by Kids Enabled™ . This is a is a resource for parents and professionals to address the issues and challenges that come from caring for and teaching children with learning differences. The article is co-authored by Lauren Zimet, M.S.,CCC/SLP, Sharon Sokolik, M.A., CCC/SLP, and Contributing editor, Maggie Parry. 


Teaching Children to Empathize

Kate and Taylor are on the playground swinging. Jamie comes over to ask for a turn. Kate says “No! We’re swinging now!” Taylor doesn’t say anything. A few minutes later, Jamie re-approaches the swings, and asks again for a turn. Kate shouts “Go away, we’re swinging!” Jamie’s eyes fill with tears. Erica walks over, puts her arm around Jamie and says, “I know how you feel, let’s go play on the monkey bars, we can swing later!” That is empathy in action.
According to the late Stanley Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and author of Great Kids, one of the 10 traits of a “great kid” is empathy. However, for some children with learning differences, feeling empathetic is more difficult since many learning differences involve deficits in social skills.
Where it begins
For most children, the ability to empathize comes naturally, assuming the child’s environment is one of caring and discipline. Greenspan states that for children to learn empathy for others, they must first experience empathy for themselves. As a child is cared for, he learns to care for others. However, if there is a learning difference involved, especially one in which the child has trouble relating, reading social cues and discerning the emotions of others, the ability to empathize may need to be taught.
Simon Baron Cohen, in Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind, discusses the concept of “theory of mind,” i.e., having the ability to “reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Children who have difficulty processing verbal and nonverbal information presented by others will not be able to correctly interpret the actions of others. This is quite common with children who have the diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, NVLD, social pragmatic disorder, language processing as well as those individuals that do not have any formal diagnosis, but misinterpret social cues.
Lynne Soraya, who writes Asperger’s Diary: Life Through the Lens of Asperger’s Syndrome for Psychology Today, is an adult living with Asperger’s. She recalled that every day at school she saw a copy of the statement, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” She understood what that meant; the problem, however, was that what she wanted done unto her was entirely different than what another child might have wanted. All people are different in their needs, and even neurotypical children have difficulty always responding appropriately to others’ feelings.
Does my child lack empathy?
Being empathetic is a key component of building a relationship with someone else. Here are some signs your child may need assistance to be able to be more understanding of how others may feel:
  • The child can’t seem to read nonverbal hints or cues given by peers (i.e. facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice).
  • The child has difficulty understanding how someone might think or feel about someone or something.
  • The child has difficulty expressing appropriate responses or actions for what others may be feeling.
  • The child isn’t able to recognize that there will be consequences as a result of how they respond to others.
  • The child has the inability to validate emotions that others are expressing, telling them to just “let it go” or “get over it” without truly understanding why someone has particular feelings.
What parents can do
Adam Cox, in his article Learning and Teaching Social Skills: A Relationship-Based Approach, states, “To be in an empathic relationship with another person or group is the opposite of self-absorption. Empathy implies a departure from a state of self-centeredness, and immersion into the subjective experience of others. By definition, empathy is pro-social, because it emphasizes the value of comprehending and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people” (http://www.iser.com/teaching-social-skills.html).
However, many kids with learning differences don’t always understand this value of knowing what others feel. They feel left out, but they don’t know how to be a friend and sustain meaningful relationships. Fortunately, for most kids struggling with a learning difference, empathizing with others is a skill that can be taught and nurtured. Even very young children can be taught to recognize the facial expressions that show “happy,” “sad,” and “mad.”
There are many ways in which parents can make teaching empathy a part of the everyday routine. Below are activities suggested by some of the experts.
Dr. Meryl Lipton is a behavioral pediatric neurologist, assistant professor of pediatrics at Rush University Medical Center, and executive director of Rush Neurobehavioral Center. She offers the following to struggling parents. (For the full article see http://www.makeitbetter.net/family/education/892-how-to-teach-your-child-to-have-empathy)
  1. If your young child seems baffled by or indifferent to the emotions of others, try drawing faces together, or take turns with your child making a face that’s happy, sad, calm, bored, angry or surprised. Each should guess what the other’s face expresses.
  2. Model empathic behavior. A parent might say, “Your sister Noel seems upset. Let’s ask her what’s bothering her.” Or “Noel is sad that her friend cancelled their sleepover. How can we make her feel better?”
  3. Encourage your child to see things from another person’s perspective. “You’re really good at soccer, but Bradley isn’t. Do you think he wants to keep playing? What could you do that he would like?”
  4. Help your child recognize that people have different interests and preferences. See if your child can list the favorite ice cream flavors of family members and friends. Or ask what different people do for fun: Who plays baseball? Who builds with Legos? Who plays cards? Who plays video games? This sounds simple, but even older children can benefit from a habit of reminding themselves of their friends’ likes and dislikes before they get together.
Merry Gordon, in her article, Kindness Counts: Teaching Empathy, suggests the following activities for teaching children how to recognize the feelings of others. (For the full article, see http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Kindness_Counts_Teaching_Empathy).
  1. Feelings flashcards: Create a set of feelings flashcards to help your children master this important skill. Cut out pictures of people from magazines that represent the emotions you want your child to learn. Very young children should stick to basic human emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. For older children, you can represent more nuanced emotions—surprise, confusion, confidence or shyness, for example, and use more body language prompts than facial features. Glue or tape these pictures to index cards, and on the other side write the emotion represented by that picture. Use the cards as you would any flash cards—hold the card up and have your child guess the emotion and perhaps try to replicate it: “Good! Now how would you show through your body that you were happy about something?”
  2. Talking stick. Often, one of the hardest parts of empathy for children is respectfully listening to another’s point of view—especially if it is a point of view they find disagreeable. The concept behind a talking stick is simple: the person holding the talking stick speaks his or her mind, and the other people make respectful and sincere efforts to understand that person’s point of view until they get the stick and are thus enabled to speak. Help your child to decorate a tree branch, dowel or paper towel roll with markers, paints, findings, etc. If you have more than one child, even decorating the talking stick can be a lesson in empathetic communication as you encourage your children to take turns and collaborate on designs. At the next sign of a disagreement, or if an important family decision needs to be made that involves input from all members, break out the talking stick and see how much it improves your children’s ability to listen to each other and treat others’ opinions as important. When children feel that their own views are valuable, they are more likely to be considerate of others’ views.
Two more great options for facilitating social thinking:
  1. When working with children who may have a hard time with a 2 dimensional flash card game, instead, do more role playing with puppets and dolls, playing with different scenarios. Using photographs of your child and family, you can make stick puppets by securing photo face to a Popsicle stick to act out feelings. You can also use photos in a mini-photo album called “My Feeling Faces” (photos of friends, family making different emotions). It can be fun for children to identify their loved ones in different situations.
  2. Create social stories. A social story describes a situation, skill, or concept in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives, and common responses in a specifically defined style and format. For example, parents can create a social story about making a sad friend feel better or what to say to the new child in class. The goal of a social story is to share accurate social information in a patient and relevant manner so that it’s understandable to children who have trouble deciphering social situations and cues. For some examples of how to create and use social stories, visit the following web sites:
S. K. Adams and J. Baronberg, authors of Promoting Positive Behavior, suggest the activities below to help children discern expressions and body language in order to judge how others are feeling (http://www.education.com/reference/article/help-children-identify-emotion-empathy/).
  1. While reading stories to children, stop occasionally and ask children to identify the characters’ feelings in the context of the story. Discuss how the characters’ observable behaviors reveal their feelings.
  2. Do simple role-plays by asking children, “Show me how your body and face would look if:
    • You got a birthday present.
    • A big dog barked at you.
    • A friend put a worm in your hand.
    • You found a snake on the playground.
    • You fell down and tore your new pants.
    • A friend knocked down your blocks.
  3. Help children recognize that people may have different feelings about the same thing; people have different likes and dislikes. “Jason is excited when there is a thunderstorm, but Juanita gets scared.” “Timmy likes to climb high on the jungle gym, but Sam doesn’t.”
  4. Help children recognize that their feelings about a situation may change. “Alejandra, you are feeling sad now and want to sit by yourself, but later you may feel differently and may want to join the group at circle.”
Modeling empathy and talking about/exploring feelings and emotions are a good starting place. Leading by example is a great way for children to make connections with their feelings and emotions. Getting your child involved in a social thinking group that incorporates perspective taking and functional problem solving with peers can be extremely beneficial. Becoming more empathetic can be a challenging task for anyone, however with the right support (for child and family), it can be done!
More for Parents
  • Visit the library and bookstore. Look for books with simple pictures of faces and emotions. Children learn from seeing real pictures of people showing their feelings.
  • You can even take photos of your family making different “feeling faces” and make these into a book to talk about WHY someone may feel a certain way.
  • Visit parentingscience.com. Dr. Gwen Dewar is a parent and professional who writes on the many issues of parenting and child development. She has an informative blog.
  • Visit positivediscipline.com. Author Jane Nelsen is a licensed marriage, family and child counselor and the co-author of the Positive Discipline series.
  • Visit socialthinking.com and click on “books and products” for a list of tools to help parents and professionals teach social thinking to kids.
  • Visit http://foreverfamilies.byu.edu/Article.aspx?a=167 for an informative article by Forever Families regarding ways to teach empathy.
Lauren Zimet, M.S.,CCC/SLP and Sharon Sokolik, M.A.,CCC/SLP are licensed speech pathologists. They facilitate social thinking groups for children, held at Tools for Families, JFCS in Dunwoody, GA. These unique social thinking groups are being conducted in schools, during the class day as well and/or after school. They work with teachers/schools and parents to help children learn to be better perspective takers. Lauren and Sharon work with children of all abilities (neurotypical) as well with children on the autism spectrum, NVL disorders, Asperger’s, apraxia, AD(H)D, and more. They are happy to speak with parents/teachers/therapists to share information on social thinking and teaching empathy.

Lauren can be reached at The Healthy Foundations Program at Early Insights, www.earlyinsights.com; laurenzimet@gmail.com.

Sharon can be reached at: Sharon Sokolik & Associates, www.sharonsokolik.com; sharonsokolik@gmail.com. 404.944.9561678-463-6512
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