Ego to Empathy: A Developmental Journey

By Tom Limbert, Head Teacher

Arriving at school, 3-year-old Adam rushes out to the sand area, only to find that a younger child is playing with his favorite truck. He snatches the toy from the clenched hands of the now-
crying child.
Karin, age 2, sees a friend in a cart and joyfully shoves the cart forward. The friend is startled and enraged.
Very young children act on impulse, not insight. Although the will to play comes naturally at this age, empathy and social give-and-take do not. The youngest preschoolers, propelled entirely by inner drives, are in fact oblivious to the perspectives of others.
Watching hundreds of children at play, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) devised a theory of development explaining how they perceive the world differently at different stages and showing why, to a young child, “unproductive” social behaviors may make
perfect sense. Children between 2 and 4 are beginning what Piaget called the
pre-operational stage, focused on motor skills and objects—things they can touch and see. Pondering other children’s feelings and reactions is very difficult, said Piaget, because they haven’t yet mastered the logical thinking needed to appreciate someone else’s point of view. More time will be needed before they can grasp that others have ideas different from theirs, let alone the fact that others’ perspectives are as valid as their own.
The journey from egocentricity to empathy is important in cognitive as well as social development, Piaget noted. As children spend time under the warm guidance of adults in a carefully supervised, play-based environment, they acquire the kind of knowledge that helps them to consider their peers and to respect other members of their community.
Teachers at Bing thus view social conflicts as teachable moments. They observe play closely, trying to anticipate conflicts and debates. Then, rather than focus on what anyone is doing wrong, they help children unravel the origins of the clash and resolve it in a thoughtful way.
For instance, a teacher observing the tussle over the truck might say to the two children, “Adam, I can see that you want the same truck as she does. You can ask her for a turn by saying, ‘Can I have a turn?’” The teacher might then explain
to the other child that she can choose
to respond with either “Yes” or “When I’m finished.”
With Karin, the teacher might point out that the friend did not know he was suddenly going to get pushed and might not have wanted to be pushed at all. The teacher might also point out to the friend that Karin just wanted to play together, rather than to startle or upset him.
Once children begin to understand that other people have separate ideas, teachers can help them to communicate about conflict with constructive vocabulary and vocal tone, and to devise solutions of their own. (See We Can Solve This! on page 14.)
It takes a lot of practice and repeated experience, and sometimes many, many reminders, for young children to grow into social beings and learn to be part of the community. Nurturing this process takes an adult who’s skilled, attentive
and above all, gentle. As developmental specialist Elinor Fitch Griffin wrote in her 1982 classic, Island of Childhood, “The aim is to teach children a way to resolve conflict…not to discover who is in the right or wrong or to make other
judgments.”

Arriving at school, 3-year-old Adam rushes out to the sand area, only to find that a younger child is playing with his favorite truck. He snatches the toy from the clenched hands of the now-crying child.Karin, age 2, sees a friend in a cart and joyfully shoves the cart forward. The friend is startled and enraged.

Very young children act on impulse, not insight. Although the will to play comes naturally at this age, empathy and social give-and-take do not. The youngest preschoolers, propelled entirely by inner drives, are in fact oblivious to the perspectives of others.

Watching hundreds of children at play, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) devised a theory of development explaining how they perceive the world differently at different stages and showing why, to a young child, “unproductive” social behaviors may make perfect sense. Children between 2 and 4 are beginning what Piaget called the pre-operational stage, focused on motor skills and objects—things they can touch and see. Pondering other children’s feelings and reactions is very difficult, said Piaget, because they haven’t yet mastered the logical thinking needed to appreciate someone else’s point of view. More time will be needed before they can grasp that others have ideas different from theirs, let alone the fact that others’ perspectives are as valid as their own.

The journey from egocentricity to empathy is important in cognitive as well as social development, Piaget noted. As children spend time under the warm guidance of adults in a carefully supervised, play-based environment, they acquire the kind of knowledge that helps them to consider their peers and to respect other members of their community.

Teachers at Bing thus view social conflicts as teachable moments. They observe play closely, trying to anticipate conflicts and debates. Then, rather than focus on what anyone is doing wrong, they help children unravel the origins of the clash and resolve it in a thoughtful way.

For instance, a teacher observing the tussle over the truck might say to the two children, “Adam, I can see that you want the same truck as she does. You can ask her for a turn by saying, ‘Can I have a turn?’” The teacher might then explain to the other child that she can choose to respond with either “Yes” or “When I’m finished.”

With Karin, the teacher might point out that the friend did not know he was suddenly going to get pushed and might not have wanted to be pushed at all. The teacher might also point out to the friend that Karin just wanted to play together, rather than to startle or upset him.

Once children begin to understand that other people have separate ideas, teachers can help them to communicate about conflict with constructive vocabulary and vocal tone, and to devise solutions of their own. (See We Can Solve This! on page 14.)

It takes a lot of practice and repeated experience, and sometimes many, many reminders, for young children to grow into social beings and learn to be part of the community. Nurturing this process takes an adult who’s skilled, attentive and above all, gentle. As developmental specialist Elinor Fitch Griffin wrote in her 1982 classic, Island of Childhood, “The aim is to teach children a way to resolve conflict…not to discover who is in the right or wrong or to make other judgments.”