Background Information

More and more teachers in preschool through 4th-grade classrooms are needing to address challenging behaviors in their students. Children are not born with social and emotional skills. They learn them through experience, watching others, and even direct instruction. Helping young students understand, foster and express the concepts of awareness of self and others through teaching self-regulation, kindness, and empathy, can help to curb socially unacceptable actions and increase positive self-esteem and interaction with others.

“Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems—crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few.” (Bruce D. Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, 2010). Empathy is a work in progress throughout our lifespan. It is important for the development of healthy social relationships and character traits such as caring and kindness.

Empathy means a child:
• Understands that she is a distinct person from those around her and that other people may have different feelings and perspectives than her own.
• Can recognize feelings in herself and others and be able to name them.
• Can regulate her own emotional responses.
• Can put herself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how someone might feel.
• Can imagine what kind of action or response might help a person feel better.


• Developing empathy is crucial for bonding with others and for building close and meaningful relationships. (Jolliffe, D., & Farrington, D. P., 2006).
• Children with strong social and emotional skills tend to be happier, show greater motivation to learn, have a more positive attitude toward school, eagerly participate in class activities, and demonstrate higher academic performance than less mentally healthy peers. (Hyson 2004; Kostelnik et al. 2015)
• Children who exhibit social and emotional difficulties tend to have trouble following directions and participating in learning activities. Compared with healthier peers, they may be more likely to suffer rejection by classmates, have low self-esteem, do poorly in school, and be suspended. (Hyson 2004; Kostelnik et al. 2015).
• Having higher social-emotional skills in kindergarten is related to important outcomes at age 25 (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). Outcomes include:
▪ Educational success, such as completing a college degree;
▪ An increased likelihood of being employed;
▪ Less likely to be involved in criminal activity;
▪ The ability to persist when faced with challenging tasks, to effectively seek help when they need it, and to be thoughtful in their actions.

Best Practices and Implications for Professional Practice

Consistent, developmental characteristics during this early growth period impact how children learn. This should inform instructional practices of how activities and strategies are presented. Best practices for PreK to 4th grade include the following environmental elements:
• A positive relationship-based learning environment.
• Developmentally-appropriate learning experiences that accommodate rapidly developing brains.
• A language-rich environment where teachers utilize broad vocabulary and reflective questions.
• Opportunities to practice skills of appropriate interactions with adults and peers and conflict resolution; the building blocks for executive functioning (EF) skills.
• Parents and caregivers involvement and engagement.
• Highly qualified educators with strong knowledge of early childhood development.

Classroom activities in preschool through 4th grade environments will be reflective of the emotional struggles or situational events occurring in the lives of each student. Teachers should identify and take advantage of opportunities presented on any given day and be prepared to adjust activities and instruction to incorporate ideas about empathy and understanding into each lesson (i.e., utilize teachable moments throughout the day, as they arise).

Instructional Practices can include ways to:

• Model how to value feelings through honoring young children’s feelings and thoughts.
• Show warmth and empathy towards students.
• Connect feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. For example, when talking about feelings, connect behaviors with the feelings so children understand cause and effect. (“Isabel is very sad that she did not get her turn on the swings. How can we help her feel better?”)
• Build a “climate” of empathy. Put a focus on working together to build a “climate” that encourages children to be empathic and understanding with their family and friends.
• Encourage “Acts of Kindness” by documenting student’s interactions showing empathy, caring, and understanding. Highlight those incidents by posting pictures around the room, writing down conversations and sharing positive interactions with caregivers.

Suggested Resources

Safe2Help IL Website Resources:

• Kids resources- Caring and Sharing Videos

Other Resources:

Sesame Street in Communities: K in for Kindness Video and activities which show there are many ways to be kind and caring and that kindness counts every day.
Second Step: A Violence-Prevention Curriculum. Preschool-Kindergarten (Ages 4-6). Teacher's Guide Committee for Children, Seattle, WA. "Second Step" for preschoolers and kindergartners is a curriculum kit designed to reduce impulsive and aggressive behavior in young children and to increase their levels of social competence by teaching skills in empathy, impulse control, and anger management. The kit, which is part of a series that includes curricula for grades 1-3, 4-5, and 6-8, can be integrated into early childhood programs and is a companion to the "Talking About Touching Early Childhood Kit," a personal safety curriculum.
A Mindfulness-based Curriculum for Preschoolers We now know that emotional intelligence — what we call EQ — is a greater predictor of life success than IQ, yet there’s little research on how children can actually learn social and emotional skills that will build resilience and well-being in their lives into adulthood. Our Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and many other research labs, are discovering what kind of activities promote well-being.
Programs and Practices to Prevent School Violence and Improve School Safety Maintaining a safe and supportive learning environment is important for students’ well-being and quality of education. Schools and communities seek the most effective strategies to ensure the safety of students and staff. This literature review discusses the evidence on various school safety practices and programs. Though schools have been quick to implement strategies such as hiring police officers and installing metal detectors, research shows that schools may benefit more from investing in support staff, such as nurses and counselors, and by relying on rehabilitative practices (e.g., social skills training) as opposed to punitive discipline (e.g., suspension and expulsion).
U.S. Department of Education Bullying Prevention When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior, they send the message that it is not acceptable. Research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time. Parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help kids prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment, and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.
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Embedding Bullying Prevention in Core Curriculum A Teacher’s Guide K-12 This curriculum guide provides information on the following: • Why include bullying prevention in the core curriculum? • What bullying prevention messages are important to emphasize? • How do these messages fit into the core curriculum? More information is available on the Massachusetts Department of Education website at:
Center on PBIS Bullying Prevention Bullying is frequently noted as an example of disrespectful and aggressive behavior. The majority of bullying and harmful behavior happens in order to get attention, praise, or social status from by-standers, peers, or even the victim. An effective social culture has a formal process for limiting the social rewards available for bullying, and harmful behavior. We call this bullying prevention.
9 Tips for Teaching Kindness in the Classroom from Although there’s no denying that teachers have various demands to tend to, devoting ample time to nurturing the classroom culture through teaching kindness is exactly what allows us to be successful in other areas.

Sample Classroom Strategies

IL SEL Standards:

  • Goal 1: Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
  • Goal 2: Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
  • Goal 3: Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.


These activities can be used to address the Illinois SEL Standards.

• PreK – Kindergarten
• Understanding Feelings and Emotions (Incorporate in Circle Time or Story time):
a. How do I feel? Identify emotions based on physical or situational cues.
b. Same thing, different feeling. Recognize that people can feel different ways about the same thing (i.e., I cry when my dad drops me off at school; Lucy is happy when she comes to school.)
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c. Changing feelings. Understand why I can be scared to talk to adults, but excited to talk to my friends. Or, Ben wanted to play with me yesterday, but he is playing with someone else today.
d. Listening to each other. Demonstrate how listening and taking turns talking can show caring.
e. Caring Actions. Model and practice skills and actions that that tell others you care.

Take home material: Create an “Emotion Collage” by cutting pictures from magazines or drawing faces showing different feelings or emotions.

• 1st – 2nd Grade Activities
a. Set classroom expectations and norms together for how students want to be treated by each other.
b. Read stories about being kindness and discuss character behaviors and actions.
c. Model kindness verbally and non-verbally.
d. complete a T-Chart for what kindness looks like and doesn’t look like.

• 3rd – 4th Grade Activities
a. Learning comes from experience and practice
b. Have students identify individuals in the school and/or community who demonstrate kindness.
c. Identify, practice, and discuss Acts of Kindness that students have given or received.
d. Discuss kind behaviors demonstrated by characters in stories. Rewrite stories reflecting all characters being kind. How will it change the flow of the story? Does it change the ending?