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A begin to ECSEL School Story – Part III: Turning Exclusion into Empathy

Lauren Orf
May 9, 2024

Welcome to the third installment of “begin to ECSEL School Stories,” the blog series where we address common challenges that early childhood educators face on their journey to support children's emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Last time, we explored the important role that early childhood educators play in modeling, guiding, and teaching foundational social-emotional skills to the children in their care, including helping children understand when their actions and behaviors are unkind. This is not always an easy task, especially when educators observe behaviors like teasing, excluding others, and even bullying.

In this blog, we will explore how children’s relationships with their peers form and change, what to do when we notice unkind behaviors like excluding others, discuss an ECSEL tool that can help with problem-solving and understanding others, and continue to address the important role that early childhood educators have in helping children understand the feelings of others, practice perspective-taking, and build empathy and prosocial skills.

Peer Relationships & Social Challenges in Early Childhood

As adults, when we notice unkind behaviors like exclusion and teasing, we can often project our feelings about them onto young children who are often just trying to figure out their place in the world with the skills they have. While we have years of learned experiences and understanding of what kindness is, what it means to be unkind, and how our actions affect others, children are just getting started.

Children often seek out and form relationships with their peers through play, proximity, and identifying common interests. Walk through any preschool classroom and you might overhear snippets of conversations centered around these blossoming friendships: excitement over the idea of building the tallest tower together, role-playing as the same favorite character in dramatic play, and giggling about what game they are going to play outside.

But part of children’s development includes testing limits and boundaries with others. As frustrating as this can be for caregivers, children push these boundaries to find answers and a sense of security: What power and control do I have in this situation? What kind of reaction will I get from others if I do this? What happens if I do it again?

This is why the role of early childhood educators is so important. It is the optimal time to model kindness, teach empathy, and guide children to practice prosocial skills while helping them understand the consequences of their actions in a safe and caring way.

Partnership with Ellis Early Learning

Our begin to ECSEL Educator Training Program partnership with our lab schools at Ellis Early Learning has given us a unique opportunity to observe both the exciting and challenging moments that unfold in classrooms each day. We’ve also been able to connect with the amazing teachers and leaders at Ellis and provide them with tools and strategies as they navigate these moments with the children in their class.

Addressing behaviors like excluding others, teasing, and even bullying is never easy and requires quite a bit of patience and consistency, but it starts with a focus on the emotions involved and guiding children to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others. Teachers can help children with this process at the begin to MakePeace Table.

The begin to MakePeace Table: A Problem-Solving Tool

When a social problem arises in the classroom, it can be challenging to try and solve the problem with children in the heat of the moment. The begin to MakePeace Table provides children with a safe space to calm down, share their feelings, listen to their friends, and work together to find a solution. Even with teacher guidance, children are given agency over brainstorming solutions that work for everyone. Most importantly, the goal of the MakePeace Table is not for everyone to feel happy at the end – it's okay to still be a little frustrated or disappointed if the solution involves a compromise! What really matters is that children are given the opportunity to feel heard and listen to others while working together; building important empathy, prosocial, and problem-solving skills along the way.

begin to MakePeace Table

Turning Exclusion into Empathy

Children’s relationships with each other will grow and change as they do, and unfortunately, this can sometimes result in behaviors like excluding others from play. Witnessing this as an adult can understandably cause our own personal feelings to arise, but it is important that we remain a calm and guiding presence for children these moments to help them understand. So, how do we do this?

Let’s explore what this looks like with an example. All names have been changed for the purpose of this blog:


During free play, Marta, Alexis, and Dani were all playing together in the dramatic play center. Marta and Dani were taking turns at the cash register but weren’t allowing Alexis to have a turn. ECSEL Coach, Lauren, observed this happening and decided to use this moment as an opportunity to build empathy:

Lauren: “Hi friends, what are you playing?”
Marta: “We’re at the store! We need to buy all of these things and then we push the buttons to pay.”
Lauren: “Oh I see. Is everyone getting a turn?”
Dani: “Yep!”

Alexis put her head down and crossed her arms, not saying anything.

Lauren: “Hmm, can you take a look at Alexis’ face? What do you think she is feeling?”
Marta: “I don’t know.”
Alexis: “I’m feeling sad. They won’t let me take a turn and that makes me mad and sad.”

Lauren invited the three friends over to the begin to MakePeace Table to try and solve the problem and help the children understand all the feelings involved.

Lauren: “Marta and Dani, what would you feel if a friend told you that you couldn’t have a turn in a game you are all playing together?”
Dani: “Probably sad.”
Marta: “Yeah, sad.”
Lauren: “That shows me that you understand what your friend is feeling. So, what can we do to solve this problem and help your friend feel less sad?”
Dani: “Well, we can all take turns for real this time.”
Lauren: “Does that sound like a good solution for everyone?”
Dani & Alexis: “Yeah!”
Marta: “Well now I’m sad because I don’t want to take turns with her.”

Marta left to sit in the cozy corner, but Lauren kept the focus on the friends who agreed to take turns while continuing to model inclusion:

Lauren: “Okay, thank you for sharing your feelings. I see you are calming your body in the cozy corner. When you are feeling better, we would love for you to join our game and take turns with us!”


Strategies for Building Empathy & Discouraging Exclusion

As a teacher, in a situation like this, you may feel the need to shut down the exclusion by saying something like, “That’s not nice, we need to include our friends at school.” And while this response may redirect the behavior, it doesn’t help children understand why excluding others is unkind and how it can make others feel. Here are some strategies you can use both in the heat of the moment and during other parts of your day to help children build empathy, recognize when exclusion is happening, and strengthen their relationships with their peers.

  • Provide opportunities for children to practice perspective-taking by having group conversations about their likes, dislikes, interests, and personal experiences. Helping children understand that other people have their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas and that we all have similarities and differences is an important part of nurturing empathy.
  • Use consistent language both in and out of the heat of the moment to guide children’s perspective-taking. Asking questions like, “What do you think they are feeling?” “What would you feel if someone did this to you?” “What would you do if you saw this happen to someone else?” and “What would be one kind way to solve this problem?” during social problems or while reading a story can help structure children’s thinking through an empathetic lens.
  • Group and partner projects are a great way to encourage teamwork and communication, especially with children who don’t always have (or take) opportunities to play together. Through these projects, children work together to accomplish a goal and get to share the feelings that come with attempting and succeeding in doing so.
    • Be sure to validate and praise the outcomes of teamwork and check in with everyone’s feelings throughout the process!
  • Read stories that focus on inclusion. Storybooks are such a powerful medium for allowing children to view the world through the eyes of others. Children can learn valuable skills as they follow along with characters who experience what it would be like to be excluded, to include others, and to help solve various social problems.
    • As you read, pause to check in with the feelings of each character, and to ask what happened to cause those feelings, who is around to help, and what they could do to solve a problem.
    • Practice the skills children learned during the story with a related game or activity to children can apply these skills to their own real-life experiences.
    • Remind children of how they helped the characters in the story if a related situation arises in the classroom


If this ECSEL story resonated with you or if you are experiencing anything similar in your classroom, we want to hear from you! What kinds of social situations are most challenging for you to navigate with children? What strategies work best for you? What strategies do not work for you? Feel free to comment below!

Stay tuned for the entire series!

Part 1: Dealing with Disappointment

Part 2: Redirecting vs. Understanding Unkind Behaviors

Part 3: Turning Exclusion into Empathy

Part 4: Effectively Communicating Our Own Feelings to Children

Part 5: Navigating Co-Teaching Team Dynamics



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