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5 Steps To Building True Empathy in Infants and Toddlers

Dear Parent and/or provider,

Building empathy in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers is never easy but always worth the effort!

One of the most important things to realize is that they watch us constantly and understand much more than we think they do. Even before they can speak.

After 43 years of teaching infants toddlers and preschoolers, I know that teaching empathy to children is never an easy job. It takes time, skills, and patience. More than most people possess.

But you're not most people. If you're reading this, you probably do have more of an understanding of what it takes. So keep reading, this is about to get good!


Listen to them from day one. Talk and sing to them from the beginning, well before you think they can understand. Watch them as carefully as you can and know that they're watching you, too. Learn from them as they learn from you.


Learn to use problem-solving, instead of blame or punishment when things go wrong. Admit your own mistakes, so they can learn to admit their own as they grow.


Help them learn to see others in a positive, non-biased light, and avoid lumping people into categories based on things you don't yet know about them. Take the time to learn about others by asking the right questions and listening to their answers.


Learn to speak their language. I can't tell you how much this helps. When you need to get them to listen to you, phrase things in a positive, verb-first manner. Tell them exactly what to do, placing the verb at the beginning of a short, clear sentence to be sure they hear it correctly.

If it's a request, say please at the end of your sentence, not the beginning. If it's something they need to do unequivocably, you could drop the please and just look at them until they comply. Especially if you've asked them nicely already and they ignored you.


If they try to change to subject instead of answering your question, just repeat the question until they understand they need to answer to move on. Move slowly towards them if you need to.

Even a toddler deserves to know where they stand without any murkiness in the water especially if you've asked once with a please already and they acted like they didn't hear.

My method for this is to tell a child who's not listening or looking at me that I'll have to take them into another room to talk about it. That usually gets their attention and is a small enough consequence for you to follow through on.


Teach children to use non-violent communication instead of bullying by using it yourself. If you're not sure how to do this, a good place to start is to read about non-violent communication or NVC by Marshall Rosenberg.

Non-violent communication means making yourself clear without using threats of violence, anger, or actual violence to make your point.

This is not an easy thing to do and it is a process that will continue to evolve over a lifespan.

I have some tips on the best ways to phase things to help kids listen and you can get them for free by clicking on the Magic Words bookcover.

Thank you so much for reading this! I hope it helped you in some small way or at least got you to smile. You have more influence than you know.

Do you want more reassuring guidance about providing reassuring guidance to the very young? I organized a Parent Resource Page as well as a Provider Resource Page and you can check them out.

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY!  She studied early childhood education at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2010. She has presented at state and national early childhood conferences. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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