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Fostering Empathy – more important than ever.

Updated: Apr 6


In Ireland, the last couple of weeks (never mind the last couple of years) have been extremely turbulent to say the least. The nation was shocked and appalled at the senseless murder of a young teacher in her prime in broad daylight, a tragic occurrence which shone a spotlight on a range of societal and gender issues. Shortly after that, practically all restrictions which had been in place due to the coronavirus pandemic were lifted in a swift and sudden move by the Government. Both of these things were felt by everyone in Irish society like the ripping of a plaster from a red raw wound and both resulted in a collective experience of fear, hesitancy and shock to differing extents.


As I considered these incidents and listened to various news and radio shows discussing what could be done to tackle issues in society which were considered as mitigating factors, one word came to mind. That word was empathy. I firmly believe that if we encourage the development of empathy as a disposition in children, from the early years stage and as a common thread right through their educational lives, that real difference can be made. When we foster empathy as a disposition in children, we are also supporting them to develop tolerance, understanding and compassion towards others. However, it is not enough to say that we should do this, we must actually do it in an authentic and meaningful way. When I consider how we do that, another word (or two) comes to mind – role-modelling.


It is widely understood and accepted that young children learn through the observation of those within their environment. We have read about the impact of social learning through the educational theories of Vygotsky and Bronfenbrenner who both highlight the significance of culture and community in children’s learning experiences. If children are exposed to a culture of empathy, respect and inclusion then they will mirror those dispositions in their social interactions. However, we must keep in mind that the reverse is also true.


At this important juncture in our social and cultural lives, when we are venturing out again without the safety net of a plethora of protective measures, we must be mindful that others may be hesitant and fearful. We must role model empathy and understanding and give others the time and space to transition back into “normal life” again at their own pace. Similarly, we must role model empathy and respect in relation to gender issues to make progress and tackle the associated issues which have come to the fore so tragically of late.


As ECEC practitioners, we can reflect on our environment and how we approach gender issues in the materials and resources we provide. Out with the pink and blue gender stereotypes, the environment and all of the resources within it should be open, inclusive, accessible and representative. Reflect upon the language we use in our interactions with both our peers and the children, model the behaviour and the dispositions we wish to instil and equip the next generation with empathy and compassion for all those around them. To look further into ways to develop empathy in children, check out the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter here: c9e90d89d94b41d3bf00201c98b2ef6a.pdf (assets.gov.ie)


For further information on developing empathy in young children here are a couple of online resources:

How to Teach Empathy Through Play | Bright Horizons®

How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy • ZERO TO THREE



About the Author: Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. Paula is also one of the creators of an ECE community of practice based on Twitter: ECE Quality Ireland (@ECEQualityIRL) / Twitter Contact Paula: LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator.

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