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How To Develop and Nurture Empathy In Early Childhood

Most good people believe that we need more empathy in the world. But how many really know how to make that happen? What would help create the most positive change? And at what price?

There are many interesting ideas floating around and most of them contain at least a hint of truth.

We could build more jails or psychiatric hospitals, ban violent video games, teach problem-solving to kids in middle school, or anti-bullying to elementary kids.

Am I getting any warmer?

How about teaching anti-violence in the first few years? Is that even possible?

The Danes, who've been consistently voted the happiest people in the world, already know what works to teach emotions. They have a program called Step By Step and it teaches toddlers to identify emotions by looking at pictures of faces and talking about feelings. Identifying emotions is at the root of building empathy.

Do you think most people in the world realize that lack of empathy leads to violence and crime? Or that the crucial brain connections for non-violent communication form early on?

If you agree that violence reduction is possible through early childhood care and education, congratulations! You are an elite caregiver or at least a supporter.

All good caregivers and educators know about connections, relationships, and love.

I wonder how many of us know about the most recent brain research that says our approach to learning is created in the first few years. And that approach affects our ability to learn throughout our lifespans. Take a look at these recent findings from Harvard.

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

These findings fly in the face of the logic that allows early childhood teachers with more experience and education to teach the 4-K classes and the teachers who don't yet have a degree to teach infants.

It also flies in the face of the logic that early childhood teachers are paid about half of what kindergarten teachers make. And that's barely enough to live on as a single person. How sad is that?

The connections for emotional skills develop early. Earlier than we ever knew before now. One of the most promising areas of current research is in the area of attention and how it develops in the brain. This research, of course, focuses on infants. (Loyola 2022)

Just to be clear, this is definitely not about teaching cognitive skills such as traditional pre-reading and counting to infants and toddlers. That only interferes with development when done too early. (Neuman, Susan B, 2000)

It's about doing the things that promote the brain connections that allow for attention, focus, caring, communication and trust.

It's about giving our youngest the best. And it's also about letting them PLAY!

A lot. Because that is how they learn.

Click the word "play" above for a definition

And, of course, it's about supporting those caregivers who support our youngest because, well.....because it only makes sense to do so.

Sadly, the implications of the research previously discussed haven't yet reached the general population or the parents who need it most. (Gramling 2015, Pica 2022) That's why well-meaning but misguided lawmakers are promoting pre-k but not funding earlier childhood care and education or parental leave. So what should elite caregivers like us, who know the truth about early learning, do? Here's what I believe.

Stay in the field and demand more. More respect, more money, and more perks. And support parents in your programs. Stay interested in learning as a process. Do this for yourselves and for the children you care for.

Violence prevention is a bi-partisan issue and one that concerns both early childhood professionals and parents. Let's realize that we're on the same side. The side that stands up for the importance of early childhood and knows how to best nurture the growing minds of our youngest children. (Greenspan 2000)


bonus: According to brain research, the best ways to develop the brain in the earliest years are positive attention, example, and repetition.

Here's a link to a little rhyme I made up that sums up the most important things you can teach young children in the first few years of life.

Here's another great freebie:

What to do when a child hits. These simple and clear ideas are tied to complex brain research. Plus, any idea I share has been tested and proven to be effective in "The Empathy Lab" for over 40+ years. Feel free to share my graphics with others. Nanci

Take a look at my articles here and sign up for our community where you can support and celebrate early childhood parents and providers. You'll get a free slideshow from me when you do!

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 ed 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 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks!, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood education.


Anne., Bailey, Becky A., Ph.D., Bailey, Rebecca. I Love You Rituals: Fun Activities for Parents and Children. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000.

Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Susan A. Gelman. Navigating the Social World What Infants, Children, and Other Species Can Teach Us. Oxford University Press, 2014.

“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017,

Gramling, Michael. Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Greenspan, Stanley I., and Nancy Breslau Lewis. Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Perseus Pub., 2000.

Jones, Elizabeth, and John Nimmo. Emergent Curriculum. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1994.

Lee, Regina, et al. “Effects of an Unstructured Free Play and Mindfulness Intervention on Wellbeing in Kindergarten Students.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 15, 2020, p. 5382.,

Loyola University, Infant and Early Childhood Coognuitio Lab,

Neuman, Susan B. Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. National Association of Young Children, 2000.

Pica, Rae. What If We Taught the Way Children Learn?: More Straight Talk about Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2021.


Stone, Sandra J., and Gail Lindsey. “Reviews of Research: Brain Research and Implications for Early Childhood Education.” Childhood Education, vol. 75, no. 2, 1998, pp. 97–100.,

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