One of the major developmental tasks of preschoolers is to develop empathy; this project researches and designs curriculum in order better understand and cultivate empathy at a young and critical age.
Toddlers are often described as "grabby" and unable to share. But they can also be caring and helpful, and able to respond to the needs of others. One of the major developmental tasks of preschoolers is to develop empathy (the ability to understand and share in what others are feeling), sharing and cooperation, and other social skills they will need as they mature. Empathy is a building block for other kinds of "prosocial behavior"- that is, helping, sharing and comforting - and one of the cornerstones of later social competence. Children who are more empathic tend to develop better friendships and to get along better with other children, with less fighting and more sharing.
The Empathy Project had two components, research and curriculum development.
RESEARCH ON EMPATHY
As part of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, we have been learning more about empathy here at the Massachusetts site. When the children were two years old, 108 of the Massachusetts children took part in a study of the ways that empathy develops in very young children.
We found that toddlers' empathy can be observed in their facial expressions in reaction to a teddy-bear's "accident" (staged by an adult). But toddlers also respond by trying to understand the teddy-bear's upset in other ways, including acting out the teddy-bear's accident, and "trying on" the event and the emotions of the teddy-bear.
Toddlers also respond by trying to help or comfort the teddy-bear. Toddlers who already knew more about themselves--their names, their feelings--were more likely to react with empathy to teddy's "upset." But families are also important. Toddlers who had experienced more sensitive parenting in their early years were more likely to react with empathy. Our next question is whether toddlers who get an early start on developing empathy develop social skills more quickly as they move through the preschool years and enter elementary school, or are their experiences in preschool and elementary school more important?