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6 Ways To Help Kids Develop Empathy

In these days of easy access to information, how we manage our emotions and relate to people has become more important than ever. Some say that one’s emotional quotient (EQ) is more important than intelligence in today’s society.

Brain Stages’ 6-Part series will give you ways to help your kids understand what they feel as well as how to respond to others’ emotions. Most important, you’ll learn how to support them in developing communication and other social skills, so critical in our world.

Do your children seem thankful for the gifts they receive? Are your kids excited to give gifts to others—to you and to siblings, maybe aunts, uncles and cousins too?

Or do your kids give few or no gifts to others and seem disappointed after the presents are all opened with an air of “Is that all there is?”

Although my own children have grown up to be grateful, giving adults, our family had a couple of “Is that all there is?” holidays along the way. It took a while for my husband and me to figure out how to help them become appreciative and generous people.

It Starts With Empathy

The first step in developing such traits started with empathy—that is, showing our kids how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner, clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School points out “Children who are empathetic tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. Children and teenagers who have the greatest amount of skill at empathy are viewed as leaders by their peers. The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents.

You’ve likely begun teaching empathy already. When our toddlers see something out of the ordinary, they often mortify us by pointing it out.

“Hey, Mommy, look! A pirate!” a 3-year-old might say, seeing someone with a patch over one eye.

“Well, that patch is pretty cool, but I don’t think she’s a pirate,” we might respond, then look at the person and say, “Sorry. Too many cartoons, I think.”

(My friend, who wore an eye-patch after an operation, confided that she preferred to be acknowledged rather than ignored by parents whisking off their children in embarrassment.)

We might explain later (out of earshot of the person with the anomaly) that it’s not nice to point out things on people—a big nose, a limp, or any other physical difference—that it might hurt their feelings, and we don’t want to hurt people.

Once kids understand that other people have feelings too, they become kinder and more respectful to others. The more we model empathy, the more our children will pick up on it as they get older. Still, we must also help them imagine what others might be feeling to develop this important attribute.

6 Ways to Help Kids Develop Empathy

1. Teach your children about emotions. 

Once children begin to understand their own feelings, they can start to empathize with others.

  • Point out when your child is happy: “Look at you, all happy with that star on your math paper. I’m proud of you for sticking with it and figuring out those word problems.” 
  • Rather than getting angry when your child lashes out, use the opportunity to mention the emotion you notice. “You seem disappointed that you have to do your homework.” Or “You seem frustrated that you can’t talk to your friend until after dinner.” Acknowledging your child’s feelings will generally diffuse the upset and allow you to talk about whatever is bothering her more calmly.
  • Talk about your feelings. “I’m so excited to see this movie with you!” Or “I’m nervous about the presentation I have to give at work tomorrow. I have butterflies in my stomach!” Then tell your child about the experience at the end of the next day. That way, she’ll learn it’s okay to be scared before you do something as long as you don’t let fear stop you.

2. Ask how your child would feel. 

When your child begins to understand emotions, you can start to practice how to empathize with others. By kindergarten, kids’ brains are equipped to talk hypothetically to learn about empathy.

Use a real example, if you can, to help your child get an idea of what another person might be feeling to engender patience and understanding.

For instance, if your child scoffs about how his friend can’t catch a ball, you could ask how he would feel if someone teased about how he’s still working on learning to jump rope.

Then follow up with something like: “You’re working on learning to jump rope, and your friend is working on catching a ball. Anything worth doing is worth being lousy at it at first. Soon you guys will be good at those things.”

The point is to help your child identify with the other person’s circumstance. 

3. Volunteer to help at a local charity together.

Spending time handing out blankets, serving food at a homeless shelter, or providing any service to help others offers children an opportunity to look outside of themselves, and a glimpse of what it’s like not to be so fortunateYou can talk about why children might be wearing clothes that look worn out or don’t quite fit.

You have to be a little careful though. One year, my girls and I donated our long hair to Wigs for Kids, an organization that makes wigs for children who have had chemotherapy and are fighting cancer. Without meaning to, I made them feel obligated to cut their hair because they were with me at the salon when I had my own hair cut to donate. My second-grader, at the time, blamed me when people kept mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair.

If your time is tight, I’m a big believer in organizations such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Scout troops provided several opportunities for our children to volunteer to help other people. Those experiences helped them to understand how lucky they were to have a close family who cared about them, enough food to eat, and a comfortable place to live.

4. Counter a negative comment with positive one.

If your child points out something less than appealing about someone or makes a snarky comment about a friend, offer an alternative.

For example, in line at the grocery store, your child whispers to you that the woman in front of you doesn’t have much hair; she’s almost bald. You could counter that she’s wearing a nice dress, and she has a kind face. The embarrassing comment is already out, and the woman likely heard your child in such close quarters, so you might as well make the best of it.

Most people appreciate being acknowledged in a positive way, and sadly, many don’t receive compliments often. You might make that person’s day. You’ll also be showing your child to look for positive attributes in people rather than focusing on negative ones.

In the car on the way home, you can talk about why making a comment like that in the store could be hurtful. Ask how your child would feel if they were losing their hair and someone pointed it out in public (see #2).

5. Model empathy in disagreements you have with your child.

You may be able to diffuse an argument if you stop yourself before the conversation gets too heated. Acknowledge the emotion you think you’re seeing in your child, empathize with her, then ask a question or two to find the root of the problem.

Something like: “You seem really angry that I didn’t pick you up after school. I guess I would be upset if I thought someone was going to pick me up and they didn’t come to get me. Did you forget that I had a doctor’s appointment after work, or did something happen on the bus today?”

6. After an argument, guide kids to handle a problem better next time.

Anyone who has more than one child or has had friends over has witnessed conflicts between children. First, see if the kids can work it out without you intervening. If the argument ends, but you notice there are still hard feelings, sit with them and discuss the altercation.

Ask each person, in turn, to tell you their version of what happened, and instruct the other person not to interrupt. Then ask about their feelings. This is a great exercise for teaching children how to listen without thinking about whether going to say next.

Once everyone involved in the argument has had a chance to share, guide them in empathizing with each other— putting themselves in the other person’s place. Help them arrive at how they may be able to solve a problem in the future without hard feelings.

Research says gratefulness and generosity are the keys to happiness.

Enjoy the journey—it goes fast. 

PATRICIA WILKINSON – mother of two, taught grades kindergarten through sixth for 23 years, in both public and private schools. She earned a BA in recreation from California State University, Long Beach, and did graduate work at California State Universities, Los Angeles and Chico, to earn a Clear Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential and Language Development Specialist certificate from the State of California. Today, Trish facilitates life-changing workshops for parents and teachers. It’s amazing what can happen when years of creativity and practical experience merge with thousands of hours of brain research. She lives in Bend, Oregon, with her awesome husband, Chuck, and their rambunctious golden retriever, Alice. Visit her at http://thebrainstages.com

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SEL Can Aid in Academic Recovery

A recent editorial by SEL expert Sara Rimm-Kauffman, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, highlights SEL’s role in helping schools and students recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

Also, at a time like this, we can’t just think about academics, but also must consider a child’s social and emotional skills and well-being. It’s a good time to ask about our long-term goals for children and youth. In the 21st century, kids face an increasingly uncertain future. It’s not just about learning, but also about using new knowledge to work with others to address real-world problems in their communities and beyond.

Read the full article

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SEL Supports Academic Recovery After Pandemic

Maurice Elias of the EQuip Our Kids! speaker bureau was recently quoted regarding SEL’s support for academic recovery following the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elias directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University.

We need to prioritize schools and classrooms that are safe, caring, supportive, and inclusive if we are to optimize students’ academic progress. This is true under any conditions, but especially so as a consequence of a pandemic. We need urgency leavened with loving patience.”

Read the full article

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Kids and Mental Health

Dr. Reigna El-Yashruti of the EQuip Our Kids! speaker bureau was recently interviewed for the Motherhood Moment blog.

Dr. El-Yashruti is a clinical psychologist in the Boston area. In August 2020, shortly after the largest non-nuclear explosion destroyed a large portion of Beirut, Lebanon, Dr. El-Yashruti held a virtual speaking engagement with Unilever Levant S.A.L. to support employees through education about common post-traumatic reactions, tools to promote well-being, and resources that could provide therapeutic interventions.

It’s important to remember that emotions in and of themselves are not good or bad, they’re simply experiences that contain information. If you as a parent start to notice patterns that are distressing for your child/the family unit or don’t quite seem to match the situation’s intensity, that could be an indicator that seeking counsel from trained providers could be helpful.

Read the full interview

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Making the Voting Process a Family Affair

With mid-term elections just around the corner, temperatures are rising. And it has less to do with climate change than the sheer number of heated promises, dire warnings and shaded truths that candidates pass for facts.  It’s not the greatest climate for introducing kids to the importance of voting.  The good news is that there are plenty of online resources to help make that discussion meaningful and even fun.

What Does Voting Have to Do With Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

SEL and voting are related in a few ways.

One, voting is a way for you to say whether you support SEL in your local schools.

Two, part of Social-Emotional Learning is social awareness. Elections and voting heighten our social awareness around issues and priorities for our local, state, and national communities.

And three, voting and elections is a great way to engage with your kids, teach them a bit about the wider world, and learn what’s important to them.

Start by Boosting Your News Literary Skills

Kids are great sleuths.   They can sniff out news from a variety of sources.  Unfortunately, they may rely on websites that skewer the facts.  This is particularly true during the election season.  Parents need to boost their news literary skills so that they can explain the concept of bias to their kids.

If their kids are fortunate enough to have SEL curriculum in school, that job will be made easier.  

Find websites that are dedicated to sharing tips about critically analyzing news reports.  The News Literary Project’s  is dedicated to helping readers determine the credibility of news so that they can make informed election choices.  Their recent article about determining reliable voting information sources offers solid advice that can also be shared with kids.

Don’t Bombard Your Kids With Too Much Detail

It is easy to get into the weeds when explaining the election process to your kids.  At the risk of having their eyes gloss over within seconds, start with talking about such basic concepts as the importance of voting. And then, this being the mid-term elections, segue into talking about how election outcomes at the local and state level can have powerful consequences even when the office of the presidency is not at stake.

Make it Fun!

Who says that learning about elections can’t be fun? 

In fact, a quick visit to iCivics.org will quickly make doubters into believers.  Created as a teacher-led resource, this site is also a tremendous gift to parents who want to educate their kids about all-things-government.  Their Election Headquarters section contains guides created by kids for kids, such as their Student Power Elections that offers ways for kids not old enough to vote to also engage in the electoral process. Reinforce their news literacy skills by playing their NewsFeedDefender game.  Other games focus on running a county and the election day voting process.

Making the election season a family affair may not guarantee your candidates win.  But it will give your loved ones another way to stay civics-minded and connected.  

Patricia Kutza is a partner (with Connie Payne) in DGMS & Co. Their company offers books and workshops based on social and emotional learning principles to schools, labor workforce units and senior living communities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

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SEL and Traditional Values: Supporting All Families

Regardless of political or religious affiliations, all parents want their children to thrive, instead of suffer. 

When parents picture their children thriving, they envision qualities and family values like these:

  • Being responsible, ethical, honest, accountable and respectful of others. 
  • The ability to take on challenges with the confidence to reach their full potential.
  • The self-discipline to succeed independently even if hard work is required, then  contribute to their communities and maintain a strong country.
  • The willingness and capacity to pursue academic or creative success. 
  • The mental and emotional fortitude to cope with stress and adversity, leading to a long, productive, and healthy life.
  • The range of hard and soft skills to be in demand in the current workforce and play important roles in organizations or succeed in their own businesses.

For all our children to thrive, it’s time to teach them the skills that will help them so they avoid many of the painful circumstances that afflict so many lives

  • Depression and traumas
  • Drug abuse
  • Crime
  • Suicide
  • Violence, including domestic
  • Poverty

These conditions undermine families, communities, and ultimately our country. They require costly interventions that are often paid for by parents, relatives, tax payers, and charities.

In short, it’s better – and cheaper – to raise emotionally healthy and capable kids than to fix broken adults.

So, how do we do this?

Parents at home do the best they can to impart values and ways of being in life in a successful way. Why not have schools back you up by teaching all our kids the essential life skills to manage life’s challenges and thrive.  

In education jargon, teaching these skills goes by the clunky name of Social-Emotional Learning. But these are the traditional – and necessary – life skills for success that develop responsible, self-managing, and caring adults. 

Let’s be sure that all our schools support your desire that your children gain the skills they need to thrive and be their best selves. And that your children attend schools where all students are learning to be, and relate to each other from, their best selves.  

See videos of the results. 

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Keeping All Kids Safe and Well

Visualizing our children safe as they work and play is a quick way to calm our fears and anxieties about their wellbeing.  But it only provides temporary solace. More focused action is needed if we want to see sustained results. 

There’s good news for parents who want to take that action. A constellation of organizations are eager to lend their support by promoting access to those programs and services that can help keep their kids safe.

Building life skills

Not-for-profit organizations like Committee for Children and EQuip Our Kids! rely on the latest research from leading university and government sources to design programs that can help youth build personal and interpersonal life skills—their lifelines to a promising future.  Observing youth who use these skills offers compelling evidence that they do indeed make a difference.  Kids learn new ways to deal with problems, so they rely less on resorting to aggression and hyperactivity.  They also learn alternate ways to deal with anxiety and depression.

Resilience promotes readiness

One of the most important life lessons we have learned from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is that such skills like resilience matter. The challenges of dealing with this pandemic required us to be strong and flexible – the same critical mix of skills that kids will need in a post-pandemic era  to  make smarter decisions when faced with all the unexpected circumstances they will encounter as they grow to be adults. 

 Incorporating safety into family routines

Home-based routines can help build that resilience, reinforcing what children learn from SEL (social and emotional learning) curriculum. This is especially valuable for those kids who worry about the welfare of their family, so much so that their anxiety interferes with getting enough sleep.  EQuip Our Kids!’s resource, How Incorporating Safety into Bedtime Routine Can Help Ease Your Child’s Anxiety, offers parents helpful tips for alleviating their children’s anxiety, especially during that all-important period that precedes bed time.

EQuip Our Kids! staying on course

EQuip Our Kids!,  a national nonprofit campaign, continues to lend their support  to other campaigns, such as Committee for Children, that advocate teaching youth life skills.  They recognize that parents and businesses can be important partners in advocating for the adoption of SEL (Social and emotional learning) curriculum which this nonprofit aims to include in every preK – 12 classroom by 2030.

Patricia Kutza is a partner (with Connie Payne) in DGMS & Co. Their company offers books and workshops based on social and emotional learning principles to schools, labor workforce units and senior living communities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Parents: 6 Ways You Can Bring Social-Emotional Learning Into Your Home

Social-emotional learning is the practice of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building and responsible decision-making. When we practice and build these skills, we are better equipped to navigate stressors, anxiety and challenges. Parents need to build their own social and emotional skills so that they can share them with their kids.

6 Steps for Parents

Take care of yourself even when it feels like the last thing you can do right now.
Children are sensitive to the stresses of their caretakers. Children sense when we are worried or anxious. Build into your day a time for your own personal down time so you can understand what your needs might be.

If you find yourself experiencing stress and anxiety, try mindful breathing. This teaches us be present and focused and helps alleviate the worry and confusion. Breathing should be slow (about 5 breathes total). Start by breathing in through your nose while your belly rises and out through your mouth as your belly relaxes. When we take care of ourselves first, we are able to show up for our children.

Routines ground us and provide a sense of safety and security.
Design a daily routine for you and your child and stick to it.

Be present by being intentional when you are connecting with your child.
Set daily times for playing together, reading books, or just being together.

Kindness towards others helps us build an appreciation for our own lives.
It helps improve our physical and emotional mental health. Acts of service or helping others in
need provides this.

Practice attentive listening by modeling eye contact and body posture.
Ask questions in response to what you have heard. Validate your child’s feelings, fears and
concerns. For example: be mindful not to diminish your child’s feelings by saying, “Oh, don’t be scared.” Our job is to help our child accept and understand their feelings, develop self-compassionate and empathize with others.

Help your child identify, express and manage their emotions.
This helps children understand what they are feeling. Children need daily opportunities to practice this. For example, you can say, “I see your fists are clenched and you seem upset. Can you tell me what’s going on? What might help you calm down right now?”


Linda Glaser is the Director of Social & Emotional Education for the Community Circle LA Program and a member of the EQuip Our Kids! Speaker Bureau.

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Children, Parents and Managing Emotions

When children learn to manage their emotions in childhood, it leads to positive attitudes and behaviors later in life. Children who learn healthy ways to express and cope with their feelings are more likely
to:

  • Be empathic and supportive of others
  • Perform better in school and their career
  • Have more positive and stable relationships
  • Have good mental health and well-being
  • Develop resilience and coping skills
  • Feel more competent, capable and confident
  • Have a positive sense of self

Learning how to help your child identify, express and manage their emotions starts with helping your child express their feelings. Here’s how:

Cues – Sometimes feelings can be hard to identify. Tune into your child’s feelings by looking at their body language, listening to what they’re saying and observing their behavior. Figuring out what they feel and why, means you can help them identify, express and manage those feelings better.

Behind every behavior is a feeling – Try to understand the meaning and feeling behind your child’s behavior. You can help your child find other ways to express that feeling once you know what is driving the behavior.

Name the feeling – Help your child name their feelings by giving them a label. Naming feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them. It allows your child to develop an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about their feelings. Happy, sad, confused, lonely, frustrated, angry, embarrassed, scared, excited, etc.

Identify feelings in others – Provide lots of opportunities to identify feelings in others. You might ask your child to reflect on what someone else may be feeling. Cartoons or picture books are a great way to discuss feelings and this helps children learn how to recognize other people’s feelings.

Be a role model – Children learn about feelings and how to express them appropriately by watching others. Show and tell your child how you’re feeling about different situations and how you deal with those feelings.

Normalize feelings – Praise your child when they talk about their feelings or express them in an appropriate way. Not only does it show that feelings are normal and it’s ok to talk about them, it reinforces the behavior so they are likely to repeat it.

Listen to your child’s feelings – Stay present and resist the urge to make your child’s bad feelings go away. Support your child to identify and express their feelings so they are heard. When feelings are minimized or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways.

Linda Glaser is the Director of Social & Emotional Education for the Community Circle LA Program and a member of the EQuip Our Kids! Speaker Bureau.

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Seize the Moment to Talk About Social-Emotional Learning

Parents and businesses can be effective partners in promoting social and emotional learning (SEL) within their family, business and school environments. At home they can create opportunities by modeling its principles with their children.  At work businesses can work to align their policies with diversity benchmarks. 

But at school, where the opportunities may look more like challenges because teachers and administrators are often balancing competing  priorities, getting and keeping their attention to talk about SEL-based curriculum can feel like a fruitless attempt.

Break Your Message Into Short Call-For-Action Suggestions

To find a conversational opening, parents and businesses can borrow a common teacher technique:  Break their message into short call-for-action suggestions that teachers and administrators can act on without stretching their resources. 

For example, they can take cues from ten indicators listed in a recent study developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL]. These indicators, shown below, describe what a comprehensive SEL implementation looks like. Schools that don’t already offer comprehensive SEL probably won’t be able to implement everything that’s missing all at once.

Here we offer a simple call-for-action suggestion related to each indicator:

Indicator of Comprehensive SELCall to Action: Encourage Your Schools To…
1. Explicit SEL InstructionCelebrate cultural holidays
2. SEL integrated with academic instructionIncorporate cross-cultural music studies into lesson plans
3. Youth voice and engagementEngage students in a key-decision-making activity
4. Supportive school and classroom climatesEncourage inter-classroom activities
5. Focus on adult SELEncourage inter-staff activities
6. Supportive disciplineAssess whether current discipline policies are equally applied and restorative.
7. A continuum of integrated supportsEncourage SEL buy-in among staff at all levels
8. Authentic family partnershipsSuggest activities where parents can partner with school staff
9. Aligned community partnershipsInclude a community organization in a school SEL-oriented event
10. Systems for continuous improvementSuggest a process for measuring progress in SEL implementation

Appeal to Their Competitive Spirit

When encountering resistance, parents may want to try the time-tested technique of appealing to the school’s competitive spirit:  To aid their study, CASEL received survey responses from approximately 1,200 K–12 classroom teachers and 1,100 school principals.  Seventy-six percent of the principals and 53 percent of teachers nationally reported that their schools used a social and emotional learning (SEL) program or SEL curriculum materials in the 2021–2022 school year. 

There has never been a better time to join this growing movement.

If you want more ideas about how to talk with your schools about SEL, check out our guides for parents and for businesses.