Lessons in empathy

The word empathy is receiving a lot of attention. Educators list empathy as a 21st Century skill that is essential to instill in children today.

Empathy can be defined as the ability to deeply connect with others by looking at the world through their eyes in order to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

In her recent book, “UnSelfie,” educator Michele Borba addresses the need to explicitly teach empathy to children. We are in what many view to be an empathy crisis in our society; people today, so digitally immersed, struggle to authentically connect with others.

In her studies, Borba came to identify nine traits or skills that empathetic children possess. They are as follows:


Empathetic children can recognize and put a name to emotions they feel inside of themselves and that they read in other people’s facial expressions and body language.


Empathetic children have a strong moral code — such as one of kindness, sharing, or equality — that they connect to their personal identify. I am a kind friend. I am a person who shares.


Empathetic children understand the physical, emotional and moralistic needs of others because they are able to imagine living in someone else shoes.


Empathetic children have this moral imagination because they have been exposed to a wide variety of literature, films, and pictures that explores the lives of people whose circumstances differ from their own.


Empathetic children have been taught to effectively regulate their own emotions when they run too high or too low and to problem-solve with others.


Empathetic children are guided to think critically about how to show kindness to others and are given opportunities to put these thoughts into action.


Empathetic children look for what they have in common with others, rather than what makes them different. They think “us” instead of “them.”


Empathetic children feel supported to speak out and stand up for others when they see something wrong.


Empathetic children believe their actions matter and they want to help make the world a better place.

The beautiful thing about Borba’s books is she emphasizes that empathy can be taught. Although some individuals are born with milder temperaments that seem prone to kindness, the skills of empathy are explicitly learned from others. As Borba explains, “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced and lived.”

Empathetic children have many advantages in life. For one, children who believe themselves to be of empathetic character — kind, helpful, generous — feel better about themselves. They have a positive self-image and stronger self-esteem.

Children who are empathetic can effectively read body language and social cues to interact with others. This makes them more popular with their peers and better adjusted socially. One can only imagine how this might transfer to later professional success in life — particularly in careers connected to entrepreneurship and human relations.

Empathetic children have more integrated brains. Psychology Today published an article entitled, “The Neuroscience of Empathy.” They explain there is a part of the cerebral cortex called the supramarginal gyrus that connects to empathy. When this region of the brain is stimulated, it develops and grows. The more areas of the brain that are well developed, the more integrated it becomes.

Finally, children who have been taught to think and act empathetically develop life-long emotional survival skills. When life hits them hard (and it hits all of us hard at one point or another), empathetic children have a set of tools they can rely on.

First, they have the language to express what they are feeling. Second, they have a support system already in place to help them get through a tough time. Third, they have learned healthy coping mechanisms to help calm their hearts and minds. Fourth, they understand that people struggle at different times in their lives and that pain, although uncomfortable, eventually will end. They have hopefully developed emotional resilience and grit so that unhealthy habits aren’t developed in an attempt to escape discomfort.

Empathy is defined by Borba as the belief that, at heart, we are all human. As humans, we share the same fears and concerns and deserve to be treated with dignity. It is important that we teach empathy to our children for their well-being and for the creation of a kinder, safer world.

Hyde has a masters in education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, Calif., and more than 10 years experience teaching elementary education. She works for Challenge to Change in Dubuque, teaching children social emotional regulation skills through the practices of yoga and mindfulness.

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