Unlike such attributes as intelligence and physical attractiveness, the ability to be empathetic is not genetically determined, and children need to be taught this important trait. While children learn empathy largely through the example of their parents, there are some fun, enlightening activities that can enhance a child's empathy for others.
Like any other skill a child can develop, be it learning a musical instrument or developing proficiency at a sport, empathy is something that requires constant practice in order to ensure these skills continue to develop and do not atrophy. The seeds of empathy can be planted early in a child's life via empathetic behaviour demonstrated by parents, and a child's demonstrations of empathy must be reinforced continually as the child grows from infancy through to adolescence.
Name That Mood: Feelings Flashcards
For young children, the first step in the development of empathy is the recognition of facial expressions and body language. One way to help young children develop empathy is to create a set of feelings flashcards with pictures (possibly cut from magazines) of people demonstrating different emotions such as "happy," "sad" or "mad." Children can then be asked to "name that mood" by guessing what a person is feeling by observing his facial expression.
End the Story
A teacher can arrange students into small groups and have them read the short paragraph-long story "The Shy Girl" (which can be found on the Education World website, in the Resources section). The story is incomplete, and after each group has read the story together, ideas should be discussed regarding how they would like the story to end. Ask a volunteer from each group to read her group's ending to the assigned story. Students can then vote for their favourite ending, and discuss why they chose the endings they did.
The Talking Stick
For children, one of the most difficult parts of empathy is remaining open to points of view they may not agree with. Native American tribes traditionally use a talking stick as a way to facilitate communication in meetings, with whoever holds the stick allowed to speak while everyone else listens respectfully. When another person is given the stick, he can then present his opinion, until everyone has had a turn to speak. In a classroom setting, students can use the talking stick during a group discussion, forcing them to listen to and hopefully respect the viewpoints of others.