Gratitude, sympathy, sharing: helping children practice prosocial skills at home

December 15, 2020

By Ann Bailey, PhD, Director, CEED

Ann Bailey

Years ago, my mom bought a sign at an art fair that is made out of game tiles and yardsticks. The sign says, “There is always, always, always something to be thankful for.” I have been thinking about that sign often these days, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a mostly negative impact on many families’ holiday plans. Many of us will be missing out on things we look forward to at this time of year, especially visits with family and friends. Annual traditions–special meals and treats, gift giving, decorating our homes–may look very different, or they may not happen at all. For me, during what seems likely to be a less-than-ideal holiday season, it feels even more important to focus on behaviors such as gratitude, sympathy, and empathy.

The author's mom's sign uses board game tiles to spell out the message "There is always, always, always something to be thankful for"
This art fair find has stood the test of time

It might be surprising to use the word “behaviors” to describe gratitude, sympathy, and empathy. We tend to think about these as traits that a person is born with, or perhaps as states of mind that happen spontaneously. In early childhood education literature, however, gratitude, empathy, sympathy, and other behaviors are defined as “prosocial skills.”

In their book The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children, Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Mussen define prosocial skills as “voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals.” Prosocial skills include taking turns, sharing, and group entry (a child’s ability to ask to join a group of peers). These are all skills that we easily recognize as learned behaviors. Prosocial skills also include empathy, sympathy, and kindness. In the early childhood field, we consider these to be something that we need to learn, rather than something we are born knowing how to do.

Prosocial skills are also known as “friendship skills,” because they help us get along with one another. Research demonstrates that young children who show greater prosocial skills are more likely to have positive social interactions as well as a more positive view of themselves. They are also less likely to engage in aggressive behaviors. Researchers have also found that these behaviors tend to be fairly stable over time. In other words, once a child has learned and practiced prosocial skills, they should be able to use them successfully over a lifetime.

In a 2018 article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Tara Fahmie and Kevin Luczynski suggest that prosocial skills thrive in environments where both adults and children promote and reinforce them. But how can parents and caregivers create those environments and foster those prosocial skills when preschool and playdates may not be an option, when school is virtual, and when opportunities to visit with family and friends are few to nonexistent?

It’s true that interacting with their peers is an excellent way for children to practice friendship skills. It’s also true that the pandemic has affected the amount of time many children spend with people their own age. But there are ways for parents and caregivers to step in and help children learn prosocial behaviors. In her book Skillstreaming in Early Childhood: A Guide for Teaching Prosocial Skills, Ellen McGinnis describes a four-part approach: modeling, role-playing, performance feedback, and generalization.

Model appropriate behaviors

When you’re playing with a child, demonstrate the behaviors you want the child to use, such as group entry, sharing, and problem solving. Work on group entry by simply asking your child if you can play with them before jumping in. Work on sharing by telling the child, “I’d like to play with the toy you have. Will you share it with me?” Be sure to respect their answer. If they say no, you could suggest that you take a turn with the toy for five minutes and then give it back. Or you could demonstrate problem solving by finding another toy and proposing a trade.

For children who are working on developing an emotional vocabulary, try labeling emotions: “It’s exciting to do something fun together!” or “I feel badly that he is crying. I wonder how I could help him.”

Role-play appropriate behaviors

Let’s say you want to work on developing sympathy. You might try playing the role of the child while your child plays the role of the caregiver or teacher. You can pretend to be upset and ask your child how they, as the caregiver or teacher, would respond to you. If they don’t have the emotional vocabulary yet, give them the appropriate words by suggesting that they say, “I can see you’re upset. Can I help you?” or “I get upset sometimes, too. What can we do about it?” You might also try involving dolls or stuffed animals in role playing. For example, you might pretend that a toy is showing kindness to another toy and then point out that kind act to your child.

Give performance feedback

Have you heard that old parenting saying, “Catch them being good”? The third step in McGinnis’ teaching approach reminds me of that saying. Children need feedback to learn appropriate behaviors. Try to notice throughout the day when children show kindness and empathy or try problem solving. Then point it out: “Thank you for helping your sister put the toys away!” “I saw that you were frustrated opening your snack, and I liked how you asked for help.” You can catch grown-ups being good, too! You might, for example, point out that a driver stopped to let you cross the street and label that as an act of kindness.

What if you observe some not-so-good behavior? Let’s say your children are arguing. Rather than swooping in to solve the problem and stop the arguing, you could try asking the children how they might solve the problem. Children often offer up creative responses to problem solving!

Generalize

Help young children make the connection that if a prosocial skill works at home, then it should also work at school or child care. Children who haven’t had the opportunity to practice these behaviors outside their homes for many months may need extra support in this area. Providing specific instructions and labeling the skills (“taking turns,” “showing empathy,” “problem solving,” and so on) will help children understand that these skills are generalizable. In other words, they can be used anywhere that young children typically spend their time: at child care, school, a place of worship, the library, the playground, and so on. Even if they don’t have an immediate opportunity to try out their skills in the wider world, you can help them imagine doing so.

Using our imaginations is actually a great way to flex our prosocial muscles. There rarely seems to be a lack of problem-solving opportunities where young children are involved, but inventing a pseudo-problem is another way to teach them about things like sharing and kindness. A classic example is asking children to imagine one apple and several people around a table. How would the children make sure everyone gets some of the apple? They might talk about cutting the apple up into enough portions so that everyone gets some, having each person take a bite until it’s gone, or trying to find more apples.

From an adult vantage point, the prosocial approach in a given scenario might seem obvious, almost instinctive. For children, however, navigating social interactions takes repeated rehearsals. Eventually, prosocial behaviors can become habits.

The same can be said of gratitude, and that’s the prosocial habit that I am working to adopt as 2020 comes to an end. In these waning days of a difficult year, I’m making a concerted effort to focus on the people, places, and things for which I am grateful. Of course, on some days, this is easier than on others. That is a reality that we can express to children as well. A colleague shared with me a wonderful way that she found to encourage her children to show gratitude. Before Thanksgiving, she made a paper turkey, and at the end of each day, she asked her young children to share what they were grateful for that day. Then she wrote their answers on a feather and added it to the turkey. Now that Thanksgiving has passed, an alternative might be to write children’s answers on strips of paper and make a paper chain.

I take solace in the words of author Amy Collette, who said, “Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.” I hope this holiday season provides you with opportunities to light that fire of joy and share it with those around you.

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