Compassion and Empathy in Toddlers - Gems to be Found

The toddlers in our daycare room are each special and unique. However, they are typical in the sense that they are in an egocentric stage of development, viewing the world from their own perspective.  They are learning to regulate and control their emotions and big feelings.  While it is very common for them to grab a toy from another child they are also beginning to show concern for others.

Is it possible for them to show empathy and compassion at this age?

The other day I set up a sensory bin of cloud dough.  Silky smooth and scented with lavender, it was inviting for the toddlers to sink their hands into.  Just below the surface of the cloud dough shiny gems lay hidden for them to discover.  As they moved their hands gathering clumps of dough they occasionally found some of the gems.  They had to look carefully.  A challenge, for them, that was rewarding.

 In the same way, I realize, finding compassion and empathy in a group of toddlers is like looking for gems in a bin of cloud dough.  You have to search carefully but they can be found.  

One time little H noticed his friend crying and offered his special blanket, his most precious possession, as comfort.  Or, when G found the same blanket lying on the floor and kindly took it over to H, knowing it was his and that it was very important to him.  One day, outside, a little girl was balancing on a wooden ramp and then fell, biting her tongue.  She was crying and I came along side to comfort her and so did a little friend who gently patted her arm and chanted, “you’re okay, you’re okay”.

These are small gestures, but gems that have been found.  Empathy and compassion are emerging in these very young children.

Another day I witnessed this interaction between two little girls.

S came to me with her arms loaded full with four dolls.  F was right behind her.  F was looking at me and indicated by pointing to the doll with yellow hair that she would like to have it.  Her language is still developing and so I facilitated their interaction by Sportscasting.  I kept my tone neutral and verbalized what I saw.

"F, I can see that you would like the doll with the yellow hair.  S has all the dolls in her arms.

F, you are pointing to the doll with the yellow hair because you want a turn.

S is saying no.”

F looks disappointed.  I say to her, acknowledging her feelings, "You still want the doll with the yellow hair. "

She points to the doll again and nods yes.  “You want the doll.  You are telling S you want the doll.”

S moves away, ignoring her friend’s request. 

Soon however, she returns, and hands me a doll, and then passes a doll to an educator seated near us and as well passes a doll to F.  

S smiles.  I say to her, "You gave us each a doll.”  F smiles too.  

A treasure found, a seed of compassion ready for growth.

Sportscasting is a technique that I am learning to use with our toddlers after reading Janet Lansbury's blog, Elevating Childcare.  This method is based on the teaching and philosophy of Magda Gerber, called RIE, Resources for Infant Educarers. At the heart, this philosophy promotes respect for the child.   I like to use Sportscasting, as it supports both children; the child who is more dominant and potentially aggressive and the more passive child.  It gives both of them trust that they will be kept safe and confidence that they will be given the freedom, time, and support to express their feelings and thoughts.

In the scenerio I described, S was not "forced" to share and F had the opportunity to ask for what she wanted.  Her feelings were also acknowledged.  Both girls were treated fairly and respectfully.  I think because S was not being forced, she was able to show compassion to her friend and share the doll on her own.  I wonder if I had resorted to my own adult sense of justice and made her give up a doll before she was ready, if we would have seen the same calm and generous result.

Yes, we have busy, chaotic moments in our day with twelve toddlers, but as I observe and wait I see that everyday the toddlers mature, everyday their socialization becomes more competent.  

Everyday, in our class we find gems of compassion and empathy that makes each day so worthwhile. 

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