Training & Consultation in Early Childhood Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports
Begin your response to any adult-child interaction with an Empathy Statement. This is one practical thing which parents, teachers, and service providers can put into practice immediately, something that doesn’t take away from anything else you are doing, something that can help acknowledge children’s big feelings and strong emotions and develop cooperation.
Empathy is the identification with, and understanding of, another’s feelings and situation. An empathetic response or Empathy Statement involves attaching emotional language and feeling statements to your interactions. An empathy statement helps you to make a connection, essentially saying “I understand what it’s like to be you in this moment” or “I can see what you need.” Empathy Statements can be a reflection of what you think the child needs (“I can see you really want to…”), also known at the function of the behavior; or an observation of the child’s emotional state (“That was really frustrating” or “It looks like you’re having some big feelings”). Some children may be wary of adults approaching during stressful situations, perhaps thinking they are in trouble or about to be punished. By beginning with an empathy statement, you now present as a helper, a teammate, and this helps you make a connection and proceed to support the child in meeting his/her needs.
We don’t necessarily speak to adults the same way we talk to kids: ”I can see that you really want me to stop saying that I can see what I think you need.” However, if you pause before reacting and think about what may be behind what that person is doing or saying, that can guide you toward how to respond, how to interact, how to behave. Then you are able to approach the situation from a position of empathy, make a connection, and foster cooperation. The following Response Formula shows how this can empathy statements can be used to begin the problem solving process.
Here’s a handout about parents as “emotion coaches.” Although it is meant to be used to foster emotional literacy (an important goal), the examples in the box to the right are great examples of empathy statements. So this handout can be used to practice labeling children’s feelings.
And here’s an exercise used to practice statements for labeling feelings. The way to use this is for one person to read a statement out loud, and for the other person to make an empathetic statement labeling the other person’s feelings. Then you switch roles for the next statement, and take turns. This could be done by you with a parent or teacher, or at a teacher meeting or staffing.