Developing Empathy in Young Learners

By Lynne Mueller, Head of School

For young children, development of empathy is a gradual process that really begins to stick when a child turn 6 or 7 years old.

I recently encountered this reality with my three year old neighbor, Maria. After staring at a fellow elevator rider, Maria said “Lynne, look how big the man’s nose is.” With a reddened face I had two options. One, I could scold her and say she was embarrassing me. Second, I could explain to her why what she said might have hurt the feelings of the person she was referring to. I chose option two knowing that providing Maria with a glimpse of empathetic ideas could help influence her later judgement and strengthen her emotional intelligence.

Prevalent early childhood research indicates that emotional health is paramount for academic achievement, psychological well-being, and one’s long term sense of success. At Vivvi, our curriculum from Infants to Pre-Kindergarten scaffolds skills that teach kindness, consideration, and the ability to understand the feelings of others. In our Infant program, bonds among babies are created as they learn to play together. By the time the children are in the threes and fours, they employ our Peace Table to resolve conflict. You can see more on age appropriate sequencing under our learning domains in the philosophy section of our parent website (

Parents can help their children develop empathy by using everyday moments. Some ideas include:

  • While reading to your child, ask your child to tell you what they think the characters in the book are feeling.

  • Try watching a television show with your child for a few minutes without sound to see if you and your child can figure out how the people on the screen are feeling.

  • When your child exhibits positive empathetic behavior, don’t forget to celebrate with a kind word or photo to memorialize the event. If you take a photo, think about placing it in a prominent place in your home as a visual reminder to your child of what empathy looks like.

At Vivvi, we believe in nurturing the whole child. Emotional development goes hand in hand with academics. Remember empathy skills take time to develop. Every child can learn what it means to be empathetic to others with the right kind of modeling.