Habits of Mind: Listening and Empathy

Feb 21, 2013 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Early Literacy

The third Habit of Mind is listening to others with understanding and empathy. Some psychologists believe that the ability to listen to another person, understand their point of view, and empathize with them is one of the highest forms of intelligence. This is a VERY complex skill that adults still work to improve daily, but it can be broken into 2 distinct parts that we begin to teach in childhood:

  1. Listening for understanding
  2. Using understanding of the idea to empathize with the speaker

Preschoolers actually spend much more of the day talking about (or more aptly hearing about) listening than we do at any other age. Teachers and parents frequently remind their children to ‘turn your listening ears on’ and ‘put a bubble in your mouth.’  Therefore, children learn at an early age that listening involves being quiet. But what else is required for active listening? Listening includes non-verbal clues in the form of body language, so we can talk to our children about what our bodies are doing while we’re listening: making facial expressions, making hand gestures, giving a nod of understanding, and making eye contact.  Active listening also includes finding out the answers to questions and gathering information (more to come on this in a future post on Habit of Mind #5: Metacognition). But as we listen, we can begin to ask, “How does this person feel?” or “What does he mean when he says ______?”

One way you can help your child improve his ability to listen well is to play games that require attentive listening. Games like Simon Says  or Telephone teach children to listen for details. Music and rhythm activities also teach listening skills. Try clapping a beat, and ask your child to repeat it. Increase the difficulty and length of the rhythm, depending on your child’s ability. Songs that have phrases to repeat or directions for action encourage good listening skills as well. Try singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and vary the actions at the end. Add actions that your child has been working on mastering, such as stand on one foot, skip, or draw circles in the air.

Another way to teach listening is to model effective listening skills yourself. Be attentive to your child when they are telling you about their day at school. Maintain eye contact and give non-verbal clues that you are following what is being stated. Nod your head, give affirmations, such as “uh-hmm,” and face your child directly when listening. After your child has finished, repeat your understanding of what he/she said. Once you have modeled this behavior for a while, you can begin asking your child to follow up your conversations with and understanding of what was said. Listening intently and a clear understanding of ideas pave the road for empathy.

Around the age of 2 or 3, children are able to differentiate themselves from others. As a result, they begin to see their needs as separate from the needs of others. And this is where the foundation for empathy begins. Preschoolers can start to practice empathetic responses to simple daily examples, such as “Mommy just stubbed her toe. I bet it hurts!” or “Daddy’s favorite team just won the basketball game. He must feel excited!” Parents can further this development by using a variety of words to describe emotions, so that children have a wide range of words to choose from.  Later, try asking children to predict how people feel in certain situations. For example, “Sarah lost her favorite toy. How do you think she is feeling?”

Books are the perfect tool for practicing empathy in various circumstances, both familiar and unfamiliar. The following list also includes examples of characters who listen well, or don’t listen at all, and the repercussions for those choices. Thankfully, our children can learn from both examples.

Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim BridgesRuby's Wish cover

Listen, Buddy by Helen Lester

The Cloud Spinner by Michael Catchpool

Jamaica’s Blue Marker by Juanita Havill

The Pirate of Kindergarten by George Ella Lyon

The Art of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth by Patricia C. McKissack

Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers

No Jumping on the Bed! By Tedd Arnold

No, David! By David Shannon

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • Please give me more information on Friends with Feelings: Puppet Talking with Children. I wanted to reach out to Kendall Hinote to get information on how puppets can help children in managing their feelings.

    • I’ve forwarded your comment to Kendall so she can get in touch. Thanks!

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