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Empathy: An Important Life Skill

The second essential life skill that every child must acquire, according to Ellen Galinsky in “Mind in the Making,” is the ability to take another’s perspective. This life skill directly speaks to the open dialogue every director should have e between every family  and his/her staff.

From about the age of 3, children are able to be empathetic. Empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is available once the child goes through a physiological change called a bio-behavioral shift. This means that the child’s brain connections literally, physically change in such a way that allows for behavioral changes. One behavioral change in empathy. Another is being able to have interpersonal conversations with other people. Children are also able to include others in their pretend play once this shift happens. Many children demonstrate some or all of these skills earlier, but they begin to work together by about this magical age of 3.

It is when we can take another’s perspective that we can create real connections and friendships. When we are connected to others, we modify our behavior so that we can support these friendships.

It can be hard for children and adults to take another’s perspective. However, it is vital that we do. Research has shown that when we are able to take another’s perspective, we execute our inhibitory control, or our ability to delay our own gratification for the benefit of others. Research shows that children who master this have less conflict and less anxiety in social settings.

Our teachers help the children develop and practice the skill of taking another’s perspective by including it as an expected skill in every activity. Regardless of where the child is on his or her journey to master this skill, each teacher assumes that she is capable and will eventually master it through exposure, practice, modeling and time.

You can support your child as he learns to take another’s perspective by pointing out the play peer’s goal. For example, when children play, and there’s a disagreement in how the play should proceed, you can say, “I see that your friend wants to do X’.  It also seems like you want to do X, which is a little different than your friend’s plan. How do you two think we can have both of your ideas (plans) as we play?” By providing this narration, you are verbally taking both children’s perspective and helping them auditorily process what they are viscerally experiencing. Your teachers should be more than willing to demonstrate this other technique, which will help the children learn to take another’s perspective. We would love to share them with you. Please feel free to ask.

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