I used to think of empathy as an ability to accurately detect what some-one else is feeling. This is still an important aspect of empathy, and help-ful for parenting and teaching, however life and learning have led me to a broader understanding. Empathy is the ability to understand someone elseís motivations behind their behaviors while simultaneously understanding your own and keeping the two separate. Easy to say, challenging to do.
My hope is that by reading this, practicing suggestions that interest you, and reflecting on your efforts, youíll get better at empathy yourself and get better at encouraging empathy in children.
Emotional expression is one chord in the symphony of human behavior. If we stop at emotions it limits this uniquely human ability. Therefore I encourage you to listen to the entire song. Weíll start with self-understanding as a foundation for learning how to first model self-management, then encourage empathy in children.
As a warm up exercise, picture your brain as a two story house. The ground floor is your limbic system. Itís where the day to day functions like heartbeat, breathing, flow of physical sensations and emotions hap-pen. The second floor is your cortex. Itís where language, reasoning and conscious thinking happen.
When your house brain is working at its best itís a balanced activity, a harmony between the limbic and cortex floors. Now hereís a short activity to enhance this harmony in yourself. It includes sensations, feelings, images and thoughts to activate and integrate your entire brain. If acronyms help you remember, use SIFT. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes.
First for sensations, think about how your feet feel. Are your socks and shoes on or off? Are your feet warm, cold or just right? How does the pressure of the floor feel against the bottoms of your feet?
Second for images, think about something youíve seen recently that stands out. Picture it in your mind. What details can you remember? What colors or shapes or other elements of the image come to mind?
Third for feelings, consider your emotional state right now. Are you in your comfort zone? Stressed or anxious? Curious about where this article is go-ing? What emotions can you detect and name within yourself?
Fourth, for thoughts what is a recurring thought or theme thatís been on your mind recently? Is it something that happened or something thatís going to happen? Or is it both? Why is it important for you?
Thatís it, youíre done. Congratulations. Putting this practice into action starts with yourself. After youíve practiced a few times think about what questions or comments you already use with children that use sensations, images, feelings or thoughts to help them find their own harmony. What else would you like to try while youíre interacting with a child?
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