When I think about school, I think immediately about academics-about what kids know, what they learn, how they acquire skills, and how they use them. School is all of those things, of course, but what I'm always reminding myself is that it's also a place where a ton of social and emotional learning take place. School is where our kids learn how to interact with peers and authority figures, where they develop their sense of self, and where they hopefully become good friends and citizens as well as just good students.
A preschooler who knows all his letters and numbers, for instance, might be a star in the classroom, but unless he also knows how to share, how to wait, and how to acknowledge that the world doesn't revolve around him, he probably won't have very many friends on the playground. With my preschooler, we're constantly working on things like manners and patience, but the one quality we stress above all others is empathy. If you can imagine how someone else feels in a particular situation, you're going to be a better person, it's as simple as that.
Here are some of the ways you can build a foundation for empathy:
- Ask your kid often how he feels. How does he feel when he's just dropped his ice cream? How does he feel when he won the board game? How does he feel when another kid took his toy? Children are great at showing emotions, but they don't always understand them, so that part's up to us. Teach your child to identify and acknowledge different emotions, and then validate him when they surface in real life. No shaming.
- Model emotions and empathy for your kids. Tell them how you're feeling during different moments, and talk about the best ways to express those emotions. Don't hide from your kids the fact that you're an actual human being with feelings.
- As you're reading books or watching shows with your kid, pause frequently to ask him how the characters are feeling in certain situations.
- When you're resolving a conflict, instead of using the language of "right" and "wrong," try to get both sides to understand each other's feelings. Work through those emotions to find a solution that makes everybody happy.
Once your preschooler has learned to identify different emotions, don't forget to talk about (and show him) how best to react to them. Make sure he knows that if he's sad or scared, it's okay to cry. Let him know that it's okay to be angry but he should make good choices about how to express than anger (e.g., talking out a problem instead of yelling or hitting). Let him know that it's okay to be happy and proud and excited too. A child who understands his own emotions and can identify them in others is going to make a really great kid to have on the playground, in the classroom, and at home.
Are your kids good at expressing their emotions? Are they good at responding to others with empathy?