I know how you feel or…
Recognising and thoughtfully responding to the feelings of others.
The contribution that empathy makes to self-regulation is as the prime motivator for regulated behaviour. It is because we can see and feel in ourselves how other people feel and connect through that to care about them that we manage our behaviour. The ability to empathise lies at the heart of our ability to relate to others.
It is empathy that provides imaginative play with power and magic in children’s lives – and the better a child can empathise the more rewarding play will be. At the same time, play is full of opportunities for children to deepen their empathic skills.
These opportunities begin in very early play. When Daddy says ‘poor teddy is tired’ the child is being invited to empathise with teddy, and help problem solve a solution for teddy. A good solution can only be arrived at through empathising thoroughly with teddy – his fur feels scratchy so he can’t go to sleep even though he is tired... A good solution matters to the child so much only because empathy tells him that how teddy feels is important!
Group learning in the school setting requires both empathy and the more advanced skill of decentering. Older children who have mature play skills use empathy in reading and responding to social cues – and empathy lies at the heart of ‘decentering’, which is the ability to focus on meeting group needs rather than our own. Group imaginative play (like a successful community) only works when people are able to prioritise group needs ahead of their individual needs – or find ways to achieve both in a cooperative way.
The adult involved in such play can help children take it to a higher level through asking questions that prompt a greater ranger of empathic solutions – do we have to kill the bad guys? We’ve noticed that a quick rule of thumb for detecting higher empathy in children is to watch them in imaginative play with a younger child. Patience and inclusiveness with that younger child during imaginative play is a real marker of empathy.
Mature play starts between four and five. If a five or six year old isn’t into this kind of play, their self-regulation skills aren’t developed enough for formal learning.