Exploring the 2023 Publication by WestEd for the California Department of Social Services (CDSS): Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Social-Emotional Growth and Socialization, Third Edition, Part 2
From Early Empathy to Acts of Kindness
Presenters: Jennifer Marcella-Burdett and Tatiana Hill-Maini
Welcome everyone. We’re so glad you’re here with us this evening, and we’re going to explore a new chapter from the Guide for Social Emotional Growth and Development, which was updated this year and is available to all of you online. And then for purchase, if you would rather have a print copy, it’ll be available late summer. And so, we will share with everyone who’s here this evening when that is available. Tonight’s chapter that we’re going to be looking at is, “From Empathy to Acts of Kindness.” And we have two research associates here from WestEd who are going to be the presenters.
First, I’m going to share about Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett. She’s a senior research associate at WestEd. In her role, she collaborates with the National Center on Early Childhood Development where she leads the development of resources that support Head Start programs in implementing curriculum and teaching practices that lead to optimal child development. She’s also the primary author for the chapter we’re going to be exploring together this evening.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini is a research associate at WestEd with content area expertise in social emotional development of children from ethnic and language minority families. She also evaluates systems of support that support families from diverse backgrounds, and she’s striving for equity for all children. So, with that, I’m going to turn it over to the two presenters. Thank you so much.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
Thanks so much Elizabeth. So, before we dive into the content of this session, in the spirit of empathy, we wanted to just do a brief emotional check-in. And we’re gonna do it through a waterfall chat. So, take about a minute to think of a word or pick an emoji that describes how you’re feeling right now in this moment. I know we’ve got you on a Thursday evening, but don’t put it in the chat yet. So, just take a minute to think, and then I’m gonna count us down and we’ll put all of our emotion words and feelings in the chat together. So, I’ll just give you one minute to think about how you’re feeling this evening. Oh, I see some star eyes popping up. I know there’s a lot of options.
Oh, I’m seeing some popping up, but give it like one, a few more seconds, ’cause I wanna see everyone’s waterfall in the chat at once. So, just take a few more seconds before you press enter. All right, so, I’m seeing some pop into the chat, but if you haven’t entered how you’re feeling this evening, enter you’re feeling into the chat or your emoji at the count of three. So, one, two, three, go. All right. And I’m seeing a lot of tired. I’m seeing some happy, I’m seeing a yawning emoji. I know we’re getting you at the end of this week. Some neutral, vibrant, some shining stars, some cool sunglasses. I hope you’re feeling in that summer mode. Lots of tired faces. Well, I hope that we have an engaging set of content to share with you, and I just really appreciate all of you for taking the time to join us this evening. We’re really excited to share about this chapter with you.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
Thank you, Tatiana. So, hopefully what will help wake us up… Today we are going to begin to learn about the early development of empathy, especially for infants and toddlers. And then we’ll go on to explore some ways that caregivers could support the development of empathy. And before we get going on our session for the day, why do we have such an intense focus on empathy? So, it might sound a little cheesy, but I really do think that empathy has the power to change the world. If any of you, of course all of you have experienced empathy, and we know that empathy between individuals can have a real deep impact on either one of those individuals, the relationship between those two people, and I think on a greater scale, empathy can really lead to societal and collective compassion. And we’re gonna get to see some examples of that throughout our time together today.
So, to start waking us up and getting us into this content, we want to do a collaborative word cloud together. And so, we are going to go ahead and post a link in the chat that hopefully you’re able to click on. And what you’re going to do when you click on that link is you’re gonna see a question, what is a word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear the word empathy? And altogether we’re gonna see what our collective understanding of empathy is, kind of our starting point for our time together today. And Tatiana is gonna pull that up on the screen for us so we can kind of see what ideas come to mind when we hear the word empathy. This is great. And if for some reason you can’t access that link, please feel free to pop your word into the chat as well.
This is great. So, we’re seeing compassion really coming through quite large in the middle. Understanding also coming through quite large. Caring, feelings. These are great. We’re touching on all of the main aspects of empathy here in our word cloud together. Okay, we’ll give it about another minute ’cause I see the words are still coming in. This is great. Okay, the words are kind of slowing down now. So, I love seeing this in the middle, this compassion, that definitely relates to this idea that empathy really can lead to these compassionate acts between individuals. We see kindness, connected, same feelings, being kind to one another. I love to see this focus both on feelings and perspectives and perspective taking because empathy is not just one of these things, but it’s all of these things combined.
So, this is a great start. Wonderful, thank you. And we can share this word cloud with you all afterwards as well. So, let me pull the slides back up. Okay, so as Elizabeth mentioned, we’re introducing some content from the revised third edition to the PITC Infant Toddler Caregiving Guide, the one that is focused on the Social Emotional Growth and Socialization. Peter Mangione and I edited, co-edited this guide, and it maintains some of the classic PITC content and chapters, but there are also a few new chapters or chapters that are significantly revised. So, the content for our session today is drawn from one of the new chapters on empathy, which was co-authored by myself and a colleague, Catherine Tsao.
And this chapter focuses on these topics on this screen about why is empathy important, what is empathy and how this develops across the infant and toddler years, as well as how infant and toddler caregivers can support children’s development in early empathy. And this guide, as Elizabeth mentioned, will be released in the late summer in both English and Spanish. So, this content will give you a preview today, and then hopefully you’re able to access the full guide later this year. So, when we start to talk about empathy, especially in early care and education, it really starts with the caregiver. And so, as caregivers of infants and toddlers, it’s part of our role to first notice an infant’s emotions and respond to them. This really helps set the foundation for infants and toddlers to understand their own emotions and eventually be able to notice and respond to the emotional experiences of others around them.
And we can think about when caregivers are experiencing empathy, and as some of you put in the word cloud, either sharing in the feelings of a young child or taking the perspective of a young child, this can help them provide care that is more sensitive and responsive, which then helps build those secure attachment relationships which we know are so foundational to infants’ and toddlers’ development in all areas. And there’s also research showing that secure attachment relationships then contribute to a child’s ability to develop empathy and respond pro-socially as they get older. And now we’ll start to talk a little bit more about what does empathy development look like in young children, and what better way to do that than to show a video clip. So, I’m gonna go ahead and show a clip where we see a young infant crying and then we see a toddler here who’s nearby. So, let’s see what unfolds.
Yeah, it’s all right, Oh my goodness, shhhhh. Ohhh, you’re not happy. You’re not happy. You’re not happy, right? It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad, it’s not that bad. Ooh, look! Look what Elijah got for you. Wow.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
Okay so, what do we notice in the clip? So, since I was just talking a little bit about caregivers, first we hear the caregiver really narrating or describing the baby’s feelings, and we see her providing that close physical comfort, holding her and bouncing her gently. But what we also wanna zoom in on is the toddler in this clip. So, we don’t see the beginning of the interaction, but he’s holding a toy. So, I imagine he was playing with this toy before this interaction started, and he stopped what he was doing, and he noticed this baby crying. He’s looking at her, he moves his whole body towards her and around her to really see that she’s experiencing some feelings here. And then as he has likely observed this in the past or maybe experienced it himself, he brought her a stuffed animal for comfort, really showing some concern for her in wanting to comfort her.
And so, empathy development in young children is so important because this ability to share in emotional experiences of others, it really contributes to the child’s development of healthy close relationships with their family members, with their caregivers, and with other children as well. So, we’ll spend a few minutes just unpacking what does empathy mean, and then we’ll go into an activity where we can unpack this a little bit further. So, this is one definition of empathy, and it’s a lot of words but we’re gonna break it down piece by piece, and then we’ll explore it a little more deeply as we continue. So, empathy is made up of a set of processes. These are actual neural processes in our brain. And we’re gonna go through what these, there’s three sets of processes that make up empathy, and we’re gonna go over those on the next slide.
But these processes really allow us to attend to or notice the feelings or emotions of those around us to understand and identify what those emotions are, and eventually attune to, just meaning you’re able to respond either by feeling or doing something in response to those feelings. But this definition, it first says feelings, but it also mentions the bodies and minds of others. So, what typically comes to mind for me is really feeling the same thing as someone else, but we are noticing the feelings. It may also be the bodies, how we actually show our emotions physically, as well as the minds. And a couple of participants talked about that perspective taking or putting that perspective in our word cloud, so the minds of others as well. And this can be through directly observing or even imagining the emotional states of others.
And so, sometimes when we think about empathy it gets boiled down to oh, it’s just helping behaviors or kids caring about each other. But this definition starts to show us that it’s really a complex set of skills, but really that provides a lot of opportunities for us as infant and toddler caregivers to support children’s development in a range of ways. So, those neural processes that I was referencing on the previous slide, there are three of them and we’ll just go through them one by one and try to break them down. So, the first aspect of empathy is experience sharing or affective empathy. And this is really referring to the ability to recognize and share in another’s emotional experiences. So, feeling what someone else is feeling.
And the second aspect of empathy is mentalizing or cognitive empathy. And this connects to, as I was mentioning, the perspective taking that some of you put on the word cloud, and it also includes theory of mind when children recognize that others have thoughts that may be different than their own. And lastly, pro-social concern is really just the motivation or the willingness of somebody to want to improve the experience of another person. And really empathy is made up of these three neural processes. It’s not just one of these things, but it really is made up of all of these different related processes. And then just to put it I think in more simple terms, we really just wanted to convey that empathy does include several related skills. And understanding how empathy is made up of multiple skills I do think helps us understand the range of ways that caregivers can support its development.
So, as infant and toddler caregivers, it’s part of our role to really help children become aware of and provide the space for them to understand their own emotions. And with infants especially, we’re supporting their abilities to soothe themselves and begin to regulate their own emotions. And through this, we are helping infants and toddlers be able to identify the emotions of others and really notice them. I think about in early childhood settings, whether that’s a classroom or a family childcare home, really ourselves expressing emotions appropriately and also compassionately noticing when children are experiencing emotions. So, not in a way that is going to make them feel ashamed or stand out, but really, oh gosh, I’m wondering why so-and-so is feeling sad. I noticed their face looks concerned. So, just this compassionate noticing modeling for young children that others around us have different emotional experiences.
And then as children get older in the preschool years especially, that’s really when these cognitive aspects really blossom, being able to understand and consider that others have similar or different perspectives than themselves. And then finally, we do get to the helping behaviors, and we can help model and suggest ways of appropriate helping behaviors for infants and toddlers.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
So, when thinking about you know, how to support and foster development of empathy in our children, it’s important to emphasize that all humans are born with the capacity to develop empathy, and we all can grow our empathy over time. So, that means that you as caregivers can develop and practice strategies both to show empathy to children and foster empathy in children. Next slide. So, what really influences the development of empathy? So, there are both individual factors as you can see on the left, and environmental factors that may influence both how we show empathy to others and also influences the type of supports and strategies that we might need for building empathetic relationships. So, as Jennifer shared, there are several kind of underlying skills that are needed for empathy.
And empathy is also related to these other aspects of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and language development. But when we look at these environmental factors on the right, so culture, meaning like the cultural values that you hold or the cultural attitudes that you or your family holds, this all as well as socialization, so how we decide and choose to raise our children, all of these impact how distress, empathy, and pro-social behaviors are expressed and interpreted. And also, when in thinking about these environmental factors, it’s important to think about the context of stress or trauma. So, in these contexts a child might be activated, and they might express stress related emotions and behaviors, and that can be part of a trauma response.
And so, we know that everyone experiences situations in which it can be either easier or harder to experience empathy. So, it’s important to check in with ourselves, you know, when we’re feeling stressed or tired, and also, identify what factors might be impacting our own capacity for showing empathy in the moment. Next slide. So, what I’m going to do now is share a vignette of a situation in which you’ll need to clue into some of these contextual factors and consider how to show empathy in an interaction with this child in the vignette whose name is Tawny. So, first I’ll read through the vignette, and then we are going to go into breakout rooms and discuss, you know, some of the emotions, behaviors we’re noticing, and the potential influence of the contextual factors.
So, Tawny is a 30-month-old toddler who’s just started at a new childcare center. Her family recently relocated to a new city and frequently moves around based on the season. When other children approach her or try to use the toys she’s using, Tawny often bites and hits. Transitions are also stressful for Tawny, taking longer to go down for nap time or sit down for mealtime. She often responds to caregivers by avoiding and resisting help or comfort, ignoring prompting and requests. Today when preparing for mealtime, you notice that Tawny’s brows are furrowed, and she’s thrown her toy car against the wall. So, now we’re going to send you all into breakout rooms, and you’ll still be able to see the vignette, and then you’ll be able to discuss as small groups these questions of the emotions and behaviors you notice, what contextual factors relate to those emotions, and what are some ways you might experience or show empathy in interactions with this child and their family. And we’ll also be putting those questions into the chat.
I hope you got a little bit of a chance to reflect on this vignette and kind of break down some of these emotions, behaviors, and contextual factors. So, we’ll do just a quick debrief in the chat, but if anyone would like to enter into the chat that answer to the first question. So, what emotions and behaviors were you noticing in Tawny? I see someone saying no trust, no bond, fight, does not respond to care. Stressed and reluctant to have trust. Definitely that frustration. And then what contextual factors would you relate to those emotions? Lack of secure attachment. Hmmm, I saw someone say that big person is just going to leave me. Seasonal moves. Definitely, so you know, it seems like Tawny’s experiencing a lot of kind of change and instability outside of school.
New peers, yes that might be something she’s experiencing in care. No consistency; moves a lot. Constant moving does not allow a child to fully process. And yeah, that key point of like not knowing what to expect. So, then what did you discuss as some ways that you might experience or show empathy in interactions with this child knowing that they’re going through that instability and stress? Validate her emotions. Yes, I’m really gonna try to like identify those emotions for her. Notice her and how she is feeling. Wondering with her, labeling feelings, that’s great. Being present and consistent. Yes, so like providing that consistency and stability in the care environment. Show compassion, acknowledge her existence, build relationship with child and parents. Yes, I can help to get you know, some of those, more of those context clues of what’s really going on, and also, what might be those things that are activating and stressing her.
Acknowledge and comfort. Let her open the circle of communication, trusting relations. Yes, these are all great things that I think that you can use in this situation. And one of the things we thought about in creating this vignette was that you know, sometimes when you’re just seeing the behaviors it can be hard to understand and sometimes children can get labeled a certain way as just like, you know, this child is a bad kid or they’re showing challenging behaviors. But what we really wanna do in showing empathy is kind of asking more of those questions and looking beyond to figure out what’s really going on and what supports do they need from me in that situation. So, thank you all so much for taking the time to talk about this and share about this vignette. And now I think I’ll pass it back to Jennifer.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
Yes, I got distracted in the chat reading responses.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
I know, so many good responses.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
So, we’ll spend a few minutes just highlighting the developmental progression of empathy, zooming in on the infant and toddler years, and then we’ll go more into some caregiving strategies to support this development. So, with young infants, which we see here on the left-hand side, they’re really showing early awareness of others’ feelings. And we see this in their reactions to emotional expressions. So, I’m sure most of you have observed or experienced when a baby starts to cry and then another baby starts to cry, and you have a chorus of babies crying. But really that’s the earliest foundations of empathy where they’re reacting to the emotions in their environment. But on the positive side, I know we all have experienced as well when we’re smiling and laughing and when that social smile emerges and a baby smiles back at us.
But these are some examples that we see in our youngest infants in terms of their abilities to respond to and react to emotions that they are surrounded by. And then mobile infants, we see them start to attend to and show concern for others’ emotions. And sometimes as they’re responding to others’ emotions, it is with the support of their caregivers. And so, a good example of this would be the video that we saw earlier from the Infant and Toddler Foundations where he is a mobile infant and he is definitely responding to the feelings of the young girl who was crying, but he even just on his own took that initiative to show some concern and share the stuffed animal with her to comfort her. And then with older infants, they’re starting to have a greater understanding for the reason for somebody else potentially being in distress, or it can also be a positive emotion that they’re understanding a reason for.
And older infants have greater abilities to try and comfort others with their words or actions, still in these infant and toddler years, still often with the support or suggestion from caregivers. And then as we move into the preschool years, preschoolers can express verbal and facial concern and interest in another’s distress. And this is when those cognitive empathy skills, the perspective taking, and the theory of mind is really taking off. And a little story just from, it actually, from the photo on the first slide, there’s a photo of me with a young girl from when I was an intern caregiver in college, and I have a nice little anecdote, kind of crosses over this older infant into preschool years.
She was about two and a half approaching three, but we were playing together in this infant classroom, and she had an accident. And so, she started crying, she was very upset because she had an accident, and she started crying, “Oh no, oh no, Dora’s going to be so sad.” And so, as an intern caregiver, I kind of paused from the immediate need to clean up the accident and just sat with her and paused with her. She was experiencing this intense emotion, wanted to give her that space to express what she was feeling. I was also curious who is Dora and why was she so upset about Dora? And so when I asked her about Dora, she said, “Dora the Explorer.” And so, come to find out she was wearing Dora the Explorer underwear and she was sad that she accidentally would have made Dora sad.
And so, I think that’s also a great example of when a child has that ability. She was approaching the preschool age period, and so she could imagine the emotional state of somebody else, and that caused in her this very authentic emotional experience that she was sad that she would’ve upset Dora. So, I just wanted to share that example. And now we’ll go on to talk a little bit about caregiving strategies to support children’s empathy development.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
So what, well actually, a lot of you already mentioned some great strategies in responding to the vignette. But what are some other kind of key strategies for supporting empathy in children? Well, caregivers can build warm and responsive relationships, and some of the ways that they can do this are consistently noticing infants’ cues and responding to their needs. Also showing warmth and affection to really build that relationship. And caregivers can do that by smiling, laughing, and really responding empathically and trying to match, you know, the range, and respond to the range of a child’s feelings. Caregivers can also work to create an emotionally safe environment. So, that might mean that they are modeling empathy for children’s emotions, and that can look like soothing young infants.
But also, I think this was mentioned earlier in the chat, they can acknowledge and validate children’s emotions. So, some of the ways you can do this are also sharing, you can be a model by sharing the feelings that you’re experiencing, and you can model strategies for both how to appropriately express a range of emotions and how you might manage those emotions. Also, you can foster emotion rich vocabulary. So, as caregivers notice infants’ emotions, you can provide labels and descriptions for those emotions, and you can do that using language that really invites the child to take an active role in determining what they’re feeling. So, an example of that is asking an infant or a toddler, “Are you feeling sad,” or “I wonder if you’re feeling frustrated because I see that your eyebrows are all scrunched up.”
We can also discuss emotional experiences, and this can be done through reading stories and asking questions about the characters and focusing on those feelings and emotional experiences and really creating opportunities to engage children in conversations about feelings and emotions. And lastly, we can communicate needs and teach children how to communicate about needs. So, this can be done by clearly communicating a need to an older infant or a toddler. And so, you can either communicate your own needs, so one example would be saying something like, to the child, “I would like some help wiping the snack table so I have more time to play with you.” Or you can communicate the needs of another child. So, saying something like, “Sonya looks so sleepy, can you bring her blanket over so she can go down for her nap?”
So, in this way you can also share possible ways in which the child can then help the peer, and this will help them to really practice those pro-social behaviors and have healthy interactions with other children. So, I know that we’ve just shared a lot of information with you including going through all these strategies. So, we wanted to pause and ask if you had any questions. So, feel free at this point to put some questions in the chat if there’s anything that you wanted us to clarify. Not seeing any questions in the chat yet. Hopefully that’s a good sign. Okay, I saw a question. “Are you noticing more need for this?” And Jennifer, of course, I invite you to chime in, but you know, it’s interesting ’cause I work in content development and also evaluation, and we’ve gotten the chance to talk to other teachers and caregivers.
I also work in like preschool and early childhood around the state, and we’ve definitely been hearing a lot of conversations of just after COVID-19, like a lot of children like needing that emotional support, or maybe they haven’t interacted with other children before, and so they really need the tools to kind of read emotions in other children and invite healthy social interactions, learn how to like invite other children to play. So, I definitely think, well, we need to show empathy to those children, but also giving children empathy tools is really key right now.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
Yeah, I would definitely also defer to all of you who are here with us today as you’re working directly with children and families. We did this training last month in person with two different groups, and so many directors and family childcare providers were coming up to me at the end just really emphasizing how important this topic is in this current climate that we are in, as Tatiana mentioned, after the COVID-19 pandemic. But also just, there are a lot of big issues facing our society and just how important these skills are to really foster from such a young age. I’m seeing, I’m not great at following the chat, but I do see, “Are puppets a good way to show empathy?” And yes, I love to see the colleagues responding to each other, but yes, either book reading, puppets are another way.
So, we can experience empathy authentically and in interactions with one another, but it’s also, with young children, they can relate to characters and stories or puppet to model and show examples. And it’s also sometimes a way with older children to help them see it a different way when it’s a little bit outside of themselves. So, I think both can be useful in different contexts.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
I saw a great question of how can we support young toddlers with autism to develop their social emotional growth? And this is definitely something that I’ve been thinking about and working on the preschool learning foundations. And I think the key here is that children have all kinds of ways of communicating and sharing their emotions. And so, for a child with autism, you might wanna give them tools to not just kind of verbally communicate about their emotions. Maybe they could draw what they’re feeling or draw what they feel that another child is feeling. Also, you might wanna tune into whether a child is sensitive to a lot of like sensory stimulation. So, are they feeling anxious or stressed because there’s a lot of noise or activity in the room? And also, like, helping other kids to tune into that and having something like a cozy corner where kids can go, or you know, two kids can go together, sit on the little couch and read their books.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
And then one last question that I noticed about talking with families about this, especially with the range of different parenting and values, and I think approaching families with empathy and inquiry and curiosity and really wanting to first learn from families. What are the ways that they express emotions culturally or other contextual reasons? I’m really trying to have an understanding, learning from families, and then going from there and trying to find some common ground. While certain values may differ, kindness typically is a shared ground. So, having that open communication, building that relationship with families to open that door to be able to talk about ways that everyone is comfortable with emotions being expressed and supported in a range of context. I think I’ll take us to our next slide. Thank you for these questions. These are great.
Dr. Tatiana Hill-Maini:
In order to really reflect on what you’ve learned today and use it for your future planning, we’ve provided a handout that should be available to all of you where you can really reflect on something you learned about empathy today, on strategies you might wanna try in practicing empathy, and also to really plan how you might incorporate those strategies in activities throughout the day. And we just are showing on the slide what it looks like. So, hopefully you can take some of your own time after this to fill that out. But thank you all so much for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure. Even just seeing your responses in the chat. I feel like we got to connect.
Dr. Jennifer Marcella-Burdett:
Agree, thank you all for the participation on this Thursday evening, especially when I know some of us were tired. Thank you.