Blog Tags

Teach EYFS Article - Empathy

Here is another in my series of articles based on conversations with children, first published in Teach Early Years magazine. In each piece, I focus on one prominent theme. For this one, it’s EMPATHY. My thanks to editor Jacob Stow for allowing reproduction, and if you want to know more, details of this and their other magazines and resources are available at:

• What lesson would you like grown-ups to learn about how to talk to children?
. Try to think more like them.                                  
 (B - female)

It’s curious really isn’t it? We’ve all been children, and some of us start our own families fairly early on in adulthood, and yet we all struggle to understand younger generations. More than that, we find it really difficult to remember what it was like to be a small child.

However I’m sure we all have particularly powerful memories that have stuck with us over the years, and it may be surprising to us which are the things that resonate still. It’s not always the big events, it’s often what might have been a throw away remark or a passing comment that didn’t even register with the adult who delivered it. Despite our knowing this, it’s easy to forget that it’s possible for something seemingly mundane to become lodged in a child’s memory.

It’s impossible to totally guard against this, to be that self-policing would surely lead to madness! It’s difficult to be us, and we have virtually no memory of how difficult it is to be them. So what do we do?

B talked a lot about struggle. Although she was too young to fully articulate her feelings, it was clear that she carried a great sense of frustration and exasperation from her attempts to communicate with adults, and this took several forms.

Firstly, there was an innate understand of her lowly status; as a child in the greater scheme of things, and as a younger child in both her family and her class at school. Her confidence and self-esteem levels were low. B’s family were new to the area and she felt a keen sense of uncertainty and powerlessness amidst what had been a considerable upheaval in her young life. Then there was the fight for attention. In a busy classroom peopled by a large number of boisterous confident boys, her sensitivity made it difficult for her to put herself forward and express herself.

Although very little of this was articulated verbally, it was easy to pick up through observation and what she gave away in non-verbal cues and patterns of behaviour. And through empathy.

It’s a skill that we all need to develop, and it’s one of the most satisfying to see displayed in our children. It never fails to startle me how even very young children are capable of putting themselves in the position of their peers, and showing a real understanding of one another’s feelings. There is absolutely no doubt that the children that are most able to access this virtue are those who have had it modelled to them most effectively by the adults with whom they spend time.

So we have a job to do, and for two equally valid reasons. Take some time for yourself, in a quiet room, close your eyes and indulge in some purposeful recall. Think back as far as you can, to your earliest memories, and concentrate on how you felt at the time. And in your day to day life, try and keep a hair trigger empathy-wise. Physically get down to children’s level more often, there may be something really straightforward that you’re missing.

Most importantly, when you are exercising empathy, or you witness one of those wonderful moments when your children spontaneously express it; vocalise it. Help the children involved and those observing the action understand exactly what’s going on. Describe the situation and the behaviour, check in with the protagonist(s) that your description is accurate, and let everyone appreciate what a positive and positively human trait this is.

Posted in: