Defining empathy and sympathy

Empathy is the ability to recognise the emotions of other people as conveyed by their words, tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language and to connect with them in a shared perspective. For example, if a friend or family member is upset and in tears, we may feel tearful too, showing that we acknowledge the person’s sadness and relate to it through our own empathetic response.

Feeling sympathy for someone is a more detached and cognitive response where we recognise and care about the feelings of others and also support them without becoming so emotionally involved.

Modelling a sympathetic response

As parents, teachers, or other caregivers, we should demonstrate sympathy towards children when they express strong emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration – even when this expression takes the form of negative behaviours such as lashing out. While preventing children from hurting themselves or others, we may also ease a challenging situation by acknowledging their feelings, for example, by saying ‘I know you feel angry right now…’ In this way, we become positive role models for children through our own responses, letting them know their feelings are recognised and respected. Over time, the development of mutual trust between adults and children paves the way for further discussion, helping children develop reasoning skills and find ways to manage their feelings, instead of being overwhelmed by them. The development of self-esteem, self-confidence and emotional resilience gives children a secure base from which they can begin to empathise with other people and in turn, show sympathy and support.

Targeted activities

We can also help children develop empathy through varied practical activities, such as the use of stories and role play.

Picture books

Choose well-illustrated picture books that present engaging characters and storylines to capture the attention and excite the imagination. Read the story with enthusiasm and use your facial expressions and tone of voice to suggest the emotions felt by the story characters. Let children have time to peruse the pictures before you turn over each page, particularly when the characters’ emotions are being described and are clearly illustrated. Once you have finished reading the book, you could briefly discuss with the children some aspects of the story, such as the characters’ emotional triggers and emotional responses at particular moments in the story. You might then ask the children if they have ever felt this way. While young children may be aware of common words that describe feelings, such as ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’, you can enhance their vocabulary development using words that describe more diverse and nuanced feelings such as ‘disappointed’, ‘anxious’ and ‘embarrassed’.

Puppet play

Introducing a puppet to young children is almost guaranteed to grab their attention! For this activity, you could also use a soft toy such as a teddy. Describe the emotions of the puppet or toy to the children, for example, say: ‘Teddy feels so excited today, he can hardly sit still!’ Ask the children to consider why teddy is feeling this way and let them offer their ideas. You could also have the children make their own puppets, such as hand puppets or finger puppets, using odd socks, felt or other craft materials. While they are busy, you can encourage them to think not only about naming their creation, but about their character’s particular traits and preferences. For example, is the puppet quite shy, or keen to meet new people? What games does the puppet like to play? What makes the puppet feel happy/sad/frightened?

At the vet’s

The care and concern we show not only for other people, but for animals, such as our pets, indicates the extent to which we can think beyond our own selfish or immediate needs and towards a wider perspective.

Encourage the children to talk about their own pets and discuss how we look after animals, such as by taking a dog for a walk, or cleaning out a rabbit hutch. Ask the children if any of their pets have been ill or injured, or have needed to visit a vet, and talk a little about a vet’s job and what it entails.

Create a role play area for the children based on your discussions with them and on the space and resources you have available. You could use soft toy animals or animal puppets as the ‘patients’ and children can take turns to role play the veterinary surgeons and their assistants. By joining in with the children’s play, perhaps by modelling the responses of a caring and concerned pet owner, you can help children develop empathetic awareness and foster their ability to adopt a caring, sympathetic attitude.


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