The present study examined affective and cognitive empathy in preschool children. Seventeen children, ages three to five years, were given The Young Children’s Empathy Measure to determine their understanding of empathy. Participants were then read a children’s story and given the empathy measure again, to see if they expressed more empathy after hearing about a sympathetic protagonist. A second baseline score was obtained one week after the story was administered. On measures of cognitive anger, mean scores increased significantly after the story was heard.
Other scores increased after hearing the story, indicating a trend that storytelling is an effective method of increasing expressions of empathy. Affective empathy is defined as being able to know about and understand another person’s feelings without having experienced the same situation (Feshbach, 1975). Children as young as three years of age have been shown to exhibit appropriate empathy toward others and to demonstrate correct understanding of others’ emotions (Gove & Keating, 1979; Poresky, 1990).
Although young children can correctly express empathy toward others, empathic abilities do appear to increase as one grows older and is able to view the world in a less egocentric manner (Piaget, 1966). Numerous studies have illustrated a strong positive correlation between age and ability to empathize. Children between five and six years of age show many more appropriate responses on empathy measures than children closer to three years of age (Gove & Keating, 1979; Poresky, 1990). This trend is not exclusive to the earliest years of development.
Bryant (1982) administered a pencil and paper empathy scale to first, fourth, and seventh graders and found that seventh graders were more empathetic than the other two groups. Olweus and Endresen (1998) conducted a two-year longitudinal study of 13 to 16 year olds and found a steady increase in empathy as they aged. Higher levels of empathy in children have also been correlated with the development of many positive behaviors at all ages. Seja and Russ (1999) discovered a strong correlation between high levels of fantasy play and empathy in first and second graders.
This trend indicates that being able to vicariously understand the emotions of others is related to creativity and imagination. The ability to empathize is also correlated with increased prosocial behavior and emotional expressiveness and insight (Roberts & Strayer, 1996). Empathy also appears to increase a child’s comfort level and openness around other people, and decreases the physical distance they place between themselves and others (Strayer & Roberts, 1997).
Creativity, imagination, prosocial behavior, emotional expressiveness and insight, and increased personal openness are certainly positive behaviors to encourage in young children, as is empathy itself. Kalliopuska and Tiitinen (1991) developed two programs for nurturing empathy in six and seven year old children over a 4 month period. One program emphasized empathic development through music, combined with physical activity and art. The students learned songs about caring for animals and friendship.
The other activities included songs and active games, sculpting clay images of classmates and reflecting their emotions, and playing games about consoling others. In the second program, empathy was developed using drama and stories. Children played the roles of teachers and students enacting an animal’s first day at school. Students also used puppets to act out stories about making friends, and later discussed the stories and the emotions of their characters.
Both programs were highly effective in teaching empathy; the children in the test groups showed significant increases in empathy and prosociability after the 4-month program relative to children in the control group. In the condition emphasizing stories and drama, children showed an even greater increase in these behaviors. These results indicate that empathy can be consciously taught, and that utilizing drama and stories, where children can take on and see and hear the role of another, is a very effective method of teaching empathic behavior.
There is further evidence to indicate that the use of stories is an effective way of teaching empathy to young children. Kagan and Knudson (1982) conducted a study in which five to seven year olds were played tapes of adults involved in happy, angry, anxious, and sad interactions. The same participants were also told stories about children experiencing the same four emotions. Children showed significantly higher levels of affective empathy toward the children in stories than the adults on tape.
This lends further support to the idea that children respond more empathetically to characters in stories than in other media. The results also suggest that children are more empathetic to other children than toward adults, possibly because it is easier to identify with the feelings of a peer whose emotions they are more likely to share. Children also showed more empathy toward protagonists who experienced misfortune than they did toward those in more everyday circumstances (Strayer & Roberts, 1997).
The purpose of the present study was to measure levels of empathy in preschool-aged children when storytelling was incorporated, and to compare these levels to empathy exhibited when storytelling was not used. Where previous research used stories as an integral part of empathy measures, in the current study storytelling was not directly involved in the empathy measure. Because most young children are simply read stories and not consciously taught empathy along with them, this seemed a more realistic model for testing the effectiveness of storytelling on a child’s affective empathy.
Based on previous research, it was hypothesized that children would exhibit higher levels of empathy after hearing a story with a sympathetic, school-aged protagonist than when simply asked questions from an empathy measure. Method Participants Participants were 17 children between three and five years of age (12 boys and 5 girls, mean age 4 years, 5 months). Participants were obtained through a preschool affiliated with Earlham College, a local community center, and through contacting faculty, staff, and community members by word of mouth.
All parents and guardians were told all details of the study in a letter in advance, and all children participated with their parent’s knowledge and written consent. Parents were provided with the results at the conclusion of the experiment. Materials Participants were read a picture book, Hooway for Wodney Wat, (Lester, 1999). The children were also given the Young Children’s Empathy Measure (Appendix A), developed by Robert Poresky (1990). The Young Children’s Empathy Measure (YCEM) consisted of four verbally presented vignettes, each designed to elicit one of four emotions: sadness, fear, anger and happiness.
The children were then asked two questions after each vignette. “How does the child feel? ” was used to measure each child’s cognitive perspective, and “How do you feel about this? ” was used to measure each child’s affective perspective. Procedure The children were each visited individually three times by the experimenter. Visits were conducted either in the child’s preschool or home, and the same location was used in each session. In the first session, the YCEM was administered and answers were recorded, to establish a baseline empathy score for each child.
The second session took place on a different day, and the experimenter read the story to the child. Immediately afterward, the YCEM was administered a second time, and a second score was recorded. The story was not discussed in relation to the YCEM. The third session took place 1 week after the second, to assess whether there would be any long-term effects of the story on empathy. The story was not mentioned by the experimenter, and the YCEM was administered a third time, and a third score was recorded.