Behavior Development · Family · parenting

Educating Empathy


This is a continuation of my series on behavior management. Check out the first post here and the second one here.

The pre-kindergarten classroom was filled with the dull roar of four year olds at play. My eyes darted around the room, taking in the potential problems and hazards when I heard it: It was the loud thud, the crash of Legos followed by the scream and cry of a four year old boy. Low impulse control had brought one child to drop the Lego structure he had built on the head of another boy. Of course there was no reason other than a moment’s thought followed by a knee jerk response.

I squatted down at the two boys levels. One was in tears, putting on a show that would be worthy of an Oscar (of course we all know this was no act, Legos are lethal).  Before I could get two words out, the offender looked at my wide eyed “It was an accident!” We all knew it wasn’t an accident. There was nothing accidental about dropping a mass of Legos on someone else’s head. It may not have been his intention to hurt this other child, but it was the furthest thing from an accident as possible. I stared into the hardened eyes of my pre-k offender, I wondered how did we get here.


Most teachers in this moment would have the “say sorry” or “don’t do that” or even “it wasn’t an accident” conversation.  Children are egocentric by nature. They seek instant gratification with very little foresight or concept of others. As they get older, they begin to understand others to an extent, but not to the same measure of an adult. Expecting them to feel remorse for smashing Legos on another child’s head may not seem like a steep request, but for some children it is. It doesn’t mean that I was staring a psychopath in the face at that moment in time, it just meant that that child wasn’t “there yet”.

I want children to develop a sense of empathy without the ritual of forces apologies and lectures on choices. Impulsive behavior like this is very common, but shouldn’t be accepted or ended in “I’m sorry” because I guarantee that that child isn’t sorry.

I came up with this script for this situation. I teach the offender to say “Are you OK?” rather than “I’m sorry” “it was an accident” or whatever other insincere nonsense they’ve developed. Asking if someone is OK doesn’t have to have much meaning behind it. They might not care how that other child is feeling, but asking does two things. One it helps the victim express how they feel, how mad, sad, hurt they are. Two, it makes the offender begin to see that their action affected someone else. The goal is over time that offender will see that impulsive, accidental, or even very purposeful actions affect others in a real way.

I have the offender follow up with the question “What can I do to help?” or “What can I do to make it better?” The goal of this is to help the offender make recompense to the victim. This teaches actions have consequences in a very real way. It starts the building blocks of empathy. Hopefully the child will begin to feel for the other party, in a way saying “sorry” could never accomplish. This also helps the victim move forward. Too often do I have children that give that quick and meaningless “sorry” to the injured party and run off, leaving the other child to stew in emotions of hurt, anger, and frustration. Sorry doesn’t soothe those emotions, even adults often feel “sorry” is just pointless social drivel.


“What can I do to help?” helps children solve their own problems. The victim may come up with something very harsh, like letting them smash Legos on the offender’s head. Clearly at school that cannot be a solution, but as a teacher, caregiver, parent, you can guide the victim the first few times to find what will help them move on: a hug, having the offender leave them alone, rubbing the injury, and so on. As this became the method this afternoon, I found these victims coming up with great solutions. I had some children say “rub (where it hurts)” or “I don’t want you to play with me or around me” or “I need a cup of water”. Kids are creative and will come up with a solution. I didn’t have a single victim ask to return the injury, not even the mad ones wanted revenge. I found that after this was used, children were able to move on (both sides) and not have a poor choice ruin their day.

Many offenders were happy to follow up with the request of their hurt peer. I had only one child that wasn’t on board with it. He kept “accidentally hurting” the boy he was playing with. He would cry and scream as if he was the victim. At that moment I did what I do for toddlers: I give a lot of attention and love to the victim and help him, while ignoring the offender. When the victim was fine, I would tell him that his behavior is not ok and follow up with a fitting consequence. This child clearly found that by crying and freaking out more than the victim, he would “get out of trouble”.  There isn’t a perfect method that will work for everyone, after all, we’re not all the same. I believe over time of using this method will help offenders learn empathy, victims to learn to take control back, and have more peace in your classroom, house, or whatever.

How do you teach empathy?



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