Teaching Young Children Empathy: 3 Simple Steps

Teaching young children empathy and modeling empathic behaviors around infants, toddlers, and young children is crucial during early development. ChildSavers Child Development Services Program Specialist, Koni Garofalo, explains 3 simple steps to fostering empathy in young kids.

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What is empathy? Why is it important?

Are you familiar with the phrase, “walk a mile in another’s shoes”? It’s about understanding the feelings and perspectives of other people. Empathy is the ability to take on or imagine the perspectives of others. When children develop the capacity to empathize with others at a young age, it increases social and relationships skills, and helps children better understand their own emotions.

There are a few ways we can support children as they grow in empathy.

Teaching young children empathy: Building relationships with caregivers

The first step towards teaching children empathy is building strong, secure relationships with caregivers: inside and outside of the home. Relational bonds help establish connections that help kids learn how to love and feel accepted because they experience being loved and accepted themselves.

Helping young children recognize others

The ability to take on the perspective of another person begins with something simple: the recognization of others. With infants and toddlers, non-verbal empathy skills must be developed.

Examples of non-verbal empathy building exercises include:

  • Facing infants and toddlers towards each other during tummy time
  • Facing young children towards each other (and/or at an adult) during meal times
  • Playing in front of a mirror, so the child can physically see themselves interacting with another person

As children develop a better understand of verbal communication, we can practice linguistic empathy building skills such as:

  • Making self portraits to express present feelings, and reviewing those emotions together
  • Practicing recognizing emotional cues and basic emotions in a mirror
  • Pinpointing emotions with words in real time
    • “Sarah looks hurt, let’s go check on her.”
    • “Sarah, were you sad when she pushed you?”
    • “Sarah is sad because you pushed her down. How can we make her feel better and make this right?”
    • “Let’s apologize to Sarah, because she was sad when you pushed her.”

Modeling empathy for children

When adults model empathic behaviors with children and adults, they will absorb those skills. Show the children in your life what it means to be an active listener and a validator of feelings and perspectives.

We can also model empathy during playtime with kids by using puppets or dolls to act out situations that involve others’ feelings or perspectives.

Building on foundations of empathy

Empathy is a complex skill. These techniques can help build a foundation for kids to practice empathy throughout their lives. Practicing these skills at a young age will only aid relationship building, ethical behavior, and expanding their worldview as they grow up. Let’s help kids start their journey with empathy today. It’s never too late start.

Additional resources for building children’s emotional capacity and health:

Watch: Teaching Young Children Empathy (3-Minute Video)

Koni Garofalo is a Program Specialist for the Child Development Services team at ChildSavers. She joined the CDS team in June of 2019. Koni earned her master’s degree from Walden University in Early Childhood Studies specializing in teaching adults in 2013. She has 5 years of experience in the classroom with children ages six weeks to 12 years. In her present role she serves teachers of young children, both in family day homes and child care centers, helping them further develop their skills in interacting with children. Koni is a certified observer for the toddler, pre-K, and infant CLASS tool.


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