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Raising Compassionate Children

Ways To Cultivate Empathy In Kids

Erika MacLeod from Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative had the opportunity to interview Bob Sornson, the founder of the Early Learning Foundation.


Q: Please share some of the work you have been involved with recently.

A: My work at The Early Learning Foundation focuses on early learning success. We work with schools, agencies and parent organizations to inform people about the skills and habits which must be well-established in the early years of life. By age five, for example, many aspects of personality are well established; by the end of third grade we can predict learning outcomes for most kids for the rest of their lives!

In any typical low-income community in the U.S., just 17 percent of students are proficient readers by the beginning of 4th grade, which data suggests means they’re unlikely to ever become successful readers or students. It’s a national tragedy and a crime to let so many poor kids become unsuccessful learners in the information age.


Q: What is one program that is improving learning for young people?

A: In a project in Simpson County, Mississippi, where one in five people live below the poverty line, we’ve begun to turn this trend around. Teachers in the county have committed to a goal of at least 90 percent proficiency or better for their students, and to accomplish this they have done a lot of work to change the way instruction is planned and delivered. Schools are narrowing the instructional framework, looking more carefully at the whole child, building a more positive culture, and using an assessment framework that systematically measures progress toward essential skills in the early years. Back in 2009, only 30 percent of 3rd graders in the pilot school were proficient readers, but by 2012 they had increased that to 82 percent.


Q: What role do you see empathy playing in early childhood development?

A: Patterns are developed early in the lives of children. In my view we must help kids feel safe and connected, and then nurture their ability to be calm, focused, persistent, and to delay gratification. With basic security and self-regulation in place, we can help kids develop the empathy that becomes the foundation of social-emotional skills for the rest of their lives.


Sornson also shared tips for educators and parents to help cultivate empathy in children:

  1. Start with safety and security. Fear interferes with the development of empathy. Learn to set limits in the home or classroom with respect and love.
  2. Regular family or classroom routines build a sense of predictable security for children. Well-established routines also help children practice self-regulation skills.
  3. Self-regulation skills are the foundation for empathy. By learning to calm themselves, regulate emotions, delay gratification, persevere, and stay focused on the right things, children develop the skills which allow them to look beyond themselves.
  4. Model empathy. Notice the lives of others. Talk about your experiences practicing empathy, and about the times you forgot to act with empathy.
  5. Tell stories that help kids see the world from the perspective of others.
  6. Read great children’s literature with your kids. Great books draw children into the lives of the characters and help them learn to see the world differently. “If you want your children to be intelligent,”Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
  7. Notice your children’s feelings. Talk about these feelings. Help children learn to use words to describe their inner experiences.
  8. Relationships matter. Help kids build relationships which inspire them to trust and care for others.

* * *

Bob Sornson is the author of many books and training materials for parents and educators, including “Stand in my Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy” and “Fanatically Formative.”

Contact Bob at his email.

See additional sources at: 8 Ways To Cultivate Empathy In Kids



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