Building Empathy and Kindness Through Emotional Understanding

November 13, 2020

“Is that your lunch? It looks kind of weird...”
“Well, if your favorite color isn’t purple then I don’t want to be your friend.”
“Girls can’t play this game, only boys.”
“I don’t want to play with you, I only want to play with her. She’s my best friend.”

How often have you heard phrases like this being uttered in your classroom? As a preschool teacher, I personally hear comments like these often as the children in my class begin to notice similarities, differences, likes, and dislikes while building social skills and relationships with their peers. As educators, our first reaction when we hear these statements may naturally be to shut them down by saying, “that isn’t kind,” and asking the child to apologize or check in on their peer. While this is a completely warranted response, it is important that we approach each of these instances as teachable moments. How we as educators respond in these day-to-day moments can be crucial in scaffolding important conversations that may arise around bigger concepts such as diversity, equity, and inclusion.

My begin to ECSEL training helped me exponentially as an educator to encourage relationship-building among the children in my class. By viewing their interactions with each other through an inclusive and empathetic lens, I could in turn support them in making empathetic connections with one another. In my classroom, there are so many moments where two children will find out they like the same thing, and happily exclaim, “that means we’re friends!” I often find myself validating their excitement about these discoveries, while also being sure to add “and it is okay for you to like different things and still be friends!”

Of course, there are also moments when noticing differences can prompt an exclusionary response:

Child A: “Well, we want to play superheroes and we don’t want to play that with girls.”

Child B: “Yeah, this is just for boys.”

Child C: “That’s not kind, I’m going to tell the teacher!”

Child C was right, that wasn’t kind...and it also wasn’t right. It is never okay to exclude someone because of their gender, skin color, what they eat, what they choose to wear, or the many differences between and among us. When approached to help solve the problem, I was presented with a teachable moment. My intention was not to prompt an apology, but to instead help the children involved understand each other’s feelings; a critical step toward finding a solution.

Begin to ECSEL educators learn how to support children in building their emotional intelligence through:

  1. Recognizing and identifying their emotions and the emotions of others,
  2. Understanding the differences between emotions and what can cause certain emotions to arise,
  3. Learning how to express emotions constructively, and
  4. Being able to regulate heightened emotions

In a begin to ECSEL classroom, we use these steps along with key tools designed to help the children in our class problem-solve and strengthen their empathy skills. Here’s how this situation played out:

Me: Child A, Child B, look at your friend’s face. How is she feeling right now?

Child A and B: “Sad?”

Child C stomped over to Our Emotions Board, a begin to ECSEL tool that helps with emotional identification, and slammed her picture on the “ANGRY” column.

Child C: “I’m angry because you won’t let me play with you because you said I was a girl and that’s mean!”

Me: Child A and B, do you hear your friend’s words?

Child A: (moves his picture over to the “ANGRY” column as well) “Yeah but I’m angry too!”

Child B: “We just don’t want to play with you right now!”

At this point, I had everyone pause and take a deep breath before we continued the conversation, to help regulate the heightened emotions.

Me: (To Child A and B) “I understand that the two of you have your own idea for a game, but how would it make you feel if we said you couldn’t play our game because you were boys?”

Child A pointed to where his picture was on Our Emotions Board, indicating that it would make him angry.

Me: “I see. That shows me you understand how your friend is feeling right now. It doesn’t feel good to be excluded because of who you are, does it?”

All of the children shook their heads. With this newfound understanding, I challenged the children to continue on their own:

Me: “So, how can we solve this problem?”

There was a thinking pause, and then…

Child A: “We can maybe play a different game all together? Like with the blocks?”

Child C’s eyes lit up.

Child C: “Ooh, we could build a castle for the animals!”

Child A and B: “Yeah!”

Before they transitioned to this new idea, I asked each of them how they were feeling now that they solved the problem. They each took turns moving their pictures to the “HAPPY” column on Our Emotions Board, and used some not-quite-walking feet on their way to the block center.

Later on in that same week, we were reading Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev during circle time. At one point in the story, the main character and his tiny elephant are making their way to Pet Club Day, only to be met by a sign on the door that says “Strictly No Elephants.” Without prompting, Child A raised their hand and shared, “That’s not kind, just because he has an elephant doesn’t mean they can’t be in the club!” A big smile spread over my face and I responded, “you are absolutely right, because is it kind to exclude someone because of who they are or what they look like?” The child shook his head “no,” and said “they should take down the sign and let everyone join.” I knew he had held on to what he learned from solving the problem with his friends earlier in the week, and was able to apply his understanding to try and help the character in the book. What may have started as just listening to a story turned into an opportunity for that child to notice that something wasn’t right, speak out with understanding, and present an idea for a solution.

This is one of many examples from my classroom, and I love sharing this story because it highlights how my begin to ECSEL training helps me to guide the children through situations where the outcomes stick with them. It showed the children how the act of understanding someone else’s point of view can completely shift a conversation and lay the groundwork for solving a problem. Going beyond an apology and really trying to help children understand how their actions can affect the feelings of others can have an incredible impact on how they will respond in the future.

When solving a problem between children, the end goal isn’t for everyone to be happy, like the outcome of my story above...but to be regulated enough to understand the feelings behind the problem, and find a compromise or solution where everyone feels heard. This is one of many ways that we can help strengthen kindness and perspective taking with the children in our care-- important skills they will carry with them throughout their lives. By taking the time to ensure there is an understanding of emotions to help children find a solution to a problem, we are helping to pave the way for empathy and understanding around diversity, racial inequality, social justice, advocating for others, and knowing when to step back to let others share their own experiences.

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