Education, Health, Parenting, Special Needs, Stages

Building a Foundation of Empathy to Foster Inclusion

Of all the goals that parents have for their children, a well-developed sense of empathy is high on the list. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling; a trait that is often tied to the health of interpersonal relationships and the ability to work effectively on teams.

While we are born with natural empathetic tendencies, all children benefit from gentle coaching and encouragement in this area, particularly as they are entering school settings for the first time, having their first encounters with others from diverse backgrounds, or even learning to adapt to siblings in their household. At the Academy of the Sacred Heart, faculty and staff focus on educating “the whole child,” with the goal of instilling in each student a sense of love and caring for others. This philosophy is evident in the school’s five goals of faith, academics, social awareness, community, and personal growth. For Kayla Allain, an alumna of the school who is now a nationally certified counselor and a provisionally licensed professional counselor, teaching empathy is a foundational concept and core focus of her current role as the school’s Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion.

“In my role at Sacred Heart, I work to instill the value of empathy, to educate through a diverse lens, and to foster an inclusive environment. I serve on the school’s Open Hearts & Open Minds Council, moderate the school’s Diversity Clubs and Affinity Group, and am a resource for all students, faculty and staff. As an alumna of the school, I’m so grateful to be back in my old hallways of my campus, doing such important and necessary work, and I’m passionate about helping parents find ways to promote diversity, empathy, and inclusion in their own home.”


At a young age, children are taught how to identify their own feelings and emotions. To begin building empathy and understanding, it is important that we also identify others’ feelings and emotions in various situations. Sharing stories, exploring how classmates and friends may feel in different contexts, and doing “check-ins” with how every member of the family feels that day are all good ways to begin building empathy.


As we begin storytelling with children, it is important to make conscious choices of reading materials. By making these conscious decisions, it helps to ensure that there is representation of different backgrounds and cultures during story time. By exposing children to people and stories that differ from their own, it helps them to build their understanding of others. 

Examples include:
a. Drawn Together by Minh Lê
b. The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil
c. Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
d. Baby Goes to Market by Atinuke
e. Oona by Kelly DiPucchio

Just as it is important to have representation in story time, it is as important to expose children to various cultures through other channels, such as making sure that there is variety in the media that consume, in art they see, and in their environment (try going to a new festival in the city or trying a culturally different restaurant as a family!).


“I like to use the ‘Floor to Ceiling’ analogy as an exercise with kids to help them understand the concepts of empathy and respect,” says Ms. Allain. Start off by asking your child to name the lowest and highest points in the room (the floor and the ceiling). Explain that at the lowest and least point (the floor), we should always strive to have respect for others, even if sometimes we don’t understand where that person is coming from or share their view. At the highest point (the ceiling), we should strive to have empathy for others, event if sometimes we don’t understand where that person is coming from or share their view. At the highest point (the ceiling), we should strive to have empathy for other, to put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand what they are feeling. This is a great way for all age groups to build their empathy.


Lastly, teaching children to respect others’ experiences is key. In kid-friendly terms, this means that while they may not completely understand someone’s experience, that does not make that person’s experiences any less real or important. It is important for all of us to realize that others’ life experiences and stories are just as important as our own.

Ms. Allain adds, “Though I’m very proud to be a part of teaching empathy and inclusion as concepts in school, it is important to remember that children are shaped by the entirety of their environment. There are so many ways that these lessons and values can be taught, modeled and reinforced by families to support their child’s natural sense of empathy and social emotional development.”

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