A core component of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the development of empathy through respectful caring relationships with people and environments . In recent years SEL has been incorporated into the early childhood curriculum in numerous countries, including Australia. The Australian Government’s Belonging, Being and Becoming in the early years’ framework contains five core learning outcomes that speak of SEL development in preschool children, namely that, ‘children have a strong sense of identity, children are connected with, and contribute to their world, children have a strong sense of wellbeing, children are confident learners, and children are effective communicators .
A core component of the generic SEL programs and focused educational experiences has been empathy. In simplest terms, empathy is the ability to understand and feel for another person and then to respond to, . It is about being able to walk in another person’s shoes, being able to see and feel the world from the other’s perspective rather than relying exclusively on one’s own experience. It is about perspective-taking and developing sympathy and compassion. Thus, building empathic capacity in young children is about teaching them the ability to take another person’s perspective, to visualize their inner world, and to reflect on their thoughts and feelings. Consequently, empathy forms an important part of social and emotional development in children and underpins the development of important social skills. Empathy fosters social interactions, self-regulation, and prosocial behaviors.
One SEL Program titled COPE-Resilience has been implemented extensively over the years at the Early Learning Centre (ELC) at the University of Melbourne. It consists of a flexible format for introducing a series of activities that focus on Caring for Others (C); Open communication (O); Polite/Respectful behaviors (P); Empathise/Sharing behaviors (E); and a Review (R). The program incorporates coping skills and utilises these skills to teach empathy and prosocial skills to children aged four to eight years of age. The topics are taught through discussion and activities and are designed to be implemented in the classroom or in small groups,. Whilst some teachers have been running the program, others have been teaching the skills as part of their general SEL curriculum as they integrated components into their regular teaching. Additionally, the aims of the COPE-R program, particularly those relating to empathy, have been incorporated into various specific educational projects, three of which are outlined below as exemplars of how good citizenship can be achieved through providing opportunities and experiences in the social-emotional domain, particularly for the development of empathy in the early childhood setting and in the communities that children live in.
The first project, named Friends on the Farm, was a funded community arts project that was designed to support the ideas of social inclusion and citizenship through participation. The rationale for the project was based on the idea that participation in a creative arts program between diverse groups would pave the way for the recognition of differences, similarities, and diversity; the establishment of new forms of ‘talk’ that incorporates inclusive language and action; relationship building that is authentic and meaningful for all participants.
The project facilitated by Centre staff, teachers, and artists was undertaken over six months with a group of 20 four-to-five year-old ELC children and 15 adults with varying physical and intellectual disabilities meeting once a week for two hours in their community at an inner-city Children’s Farm. Friends on Farm provided participants with opportunities for learning, development, and growth through explorations in visual art, music, and performing arts, and it achieved the added benefit of bringing people of mixed abilities together to participate in a community activity.
The second program, brought four-to-five year-old ELC children together with the elderly in a neighborhood residential setting as a means of combating the growing social challenge of ageism. The Intergenerational program (IG) runs from four weeks to a year and includes activities such as narrative and storytelling, historical /cultural reminiscing, show and tell, shared reading, fine arts and literacy, games, and gardening. Reciprocal visits and tours such as residents taking the children on a tour of their environment and the children taking the neighbors on a tour of their environment are important features of the program. At the end of each visit, the children participated in a reflective drawing-telling. They were asked to draw something they remembered from their experience. One of the IG program’s benefits is the positive impact on children’s perceptions of older adults and the aging process. Research on nonfamilial IG programs in the Asia Pacific communities shows it can reduce age stereotyping and increase the wellbeing of both youth and older adults. Furthermore, children who engage in IG programs are more positive about older people when they have frequent and regular contact with them.
The third program focused on environmental education, known as Learning in Nature (LNP),. Environmental Education is a key priority in the Australian curriculum,. The LNP utilized the local natural environment (Yarra River, Abbotsford Convent, Collingwood Children’s Farm, Dights Falls) to design the physical program and to set the weekly learning intentions and objectives. On-site greening infrastructure design and construction was also used as teaching and learning content for the participation in focused observations of and discussions on the landscape including identification of the features of the river, flora and fauna, and geological formations. To record photographically interesting features of the natural environment and learning experience outcomes, iPads were used (by the children and teachers). The program stimulated deep and abstract thinking, creative use of language, critical thinking, problem-solving, and personal agency. Importantly, it was possible to demonstrate children’s capacity to connect with the natural world and to show care and concern for the environment.
Whether it is purpose-designed SEL programs, elements incorporated into everyday activities in the early learning setting, or more targeted approaches, early childhood settings offer unique opportunities to develop critical components of SEL such as empathy and caring. Building connections with community groups such as the elderly and the disabled, along with a focus on care and concern for the environment, provides unique learning opportunities to build empathy and wellbeing in early childhood. Thus, through SEL, the foundation for citizenship can be laid at the outset of the educational experience.