Strategies for Building Emotional Regulation and Empathy in Young Children

Emotional regulation and empathy are two of the most important social-emotional skills for young children to develop.

By Anne E. Mead, Ed. D.

Emotional regulation and empathy are two of the most important social-emotional skills for young children to develop.  

  1. Show them what emotions look like. Using photos of facial expressions, directly teach children what emotions look like. Set up a mirror and ask children to imitate the facial expressions they see.Ask your child why a person might feel like that and what would make them feel better. 
  2. Children need to know more than basic words like happy, sad, and mad tolabel their emotions Focus on teaching specific words; frustrated, disappointed, and proud. Look for teachable moments. Be on the lookout for moments when young children are displaying different emotions, and work with them to help label the emotion they’re feeling.  
  3. Listen nonjudgmentally to children and acknowledge the validity of their feelings.Put up a colorful feelings chart that children can identify the feelings. Encourage them to identify when their emotions change. 
  4. Seek out books about feelings. Use children’s literature to teach kids a wider range of emotion vocabulary and talk about scenariosin which children might feel different emotions: excited, gloomy, angry, proud, surprised, jealous, or anxious. Encourage discussion about how the characters in the story might be feeling and why. Books such as When Sophie Gets Angry—Very, Very Angry (Bang, 2004) shows appropriate ways to deal with feelings.  
  5. Use simple arts and crafts to makedolls out of popsicle sticks and add faces that express different feelings. Have children point to or hold up the appropriate dolls to identify how a character is feeling when you’re reading abook. 
  6. Role playwith your child totake the perspective of another child or a character in a book you’re reading (a great way to boost empathy). It’s a way to assist children in identifying the times when they may feel angry or upset.  
  7. Cultivate empathy during conflicts. While you’re overseeing conflict resolution discussions between children, build empathy skills by encouraging children to label how a peer might be feeling.
  8. Choose games that require control.Practicing impulse control during play, incorporating games that help them develop this skill. Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light are two good examples to show children how to manage impulses. 
  9. Show children how you keep calm during frustrating or disappointing experiences.Make sure you describe why you were frustrated and what strategy you’re using to calm down. You might say something like: “I’m so disappointed it’s raining today, and we can’t go outside! I’m going to take some deep breaths and think about the fun things we can do inside instead.”  
  10. Model and practice deep breathing to help children manage emotions like anger and anxiety. Encourage children to take deep belly breaths and pretend they are blowing out birthday candles when they exhale. 

Children who develop empathy and emotional regulation at a young age will be better prepared for the rigors of school— and on their way to becoming compassionate and considerate citizens.  

Resource information taken from Brooks Publishing  

Anne E. Mead, Ed. D., is the administrator for the Early Childhood Education and Extended Learning Programs of the Danbury Public Schools. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact her at 203-830-6508 or meadan@danbury.k12.