Help Little Ones Explore Emotions in an Unfair Time | First Steps

Librarians can promote empathy during virtual story times by modeling open-ended questions, providing parent tips, and encouraging dramatic play.

Empathy helps children build positive relationships with the world around them and provides skills to process feelings. That’s especially important in a time of restricted social interactions that causes feelings of panic and anxiety, even in young children. Research shows that empathy is often innate and is demonstrated by infants as young as six months. But empathy can also be taught, imparting ways to connect with our emotions and understand another’s perspective.

Before the pandemic, we could bring empathy into library story times by modeling open-ended questions, providing parent tips, and encouraging dramatic play. While the pandemic has disrupted interactions, librarians can still be intentional about adding empathy to their work. 

Help label feelings. A first step of empathy development is the ability to name one’s feelings, whether positive or negative. Little ones experiencing strong emotions about this unfair time may not know how to express that in words. Caregivers may want to spin everything positively, but they should know that it’s okay and normal for children to feel negative emotions.

At Grand Rapids Public Library we created a web and Instagram resource called “Today I Feel...” focusing on emotional literacy. The aim is to help caregivers and children explore their emotions around the pandemic. The post highlights a picture of an emotion, such as love or anger, and offers a tip for how adults and children can process this emotion. We shared a related reading recommendation, like The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial, 2018), and an activity, like “draw a love note and mail it to a loved one together.”

The Seeds of Empathy is a fascinating program offered in many childcare programs and preschools. It helps children label emotions and recognize empathy in others. Preschoolers observe infants and parents together and, with the help of trained guides, study the baby’s development, label the baby’s feelings, and talk about their own and others’ feelings.


Provide teachable moments through books . Encourage caretakers to talk about book characters with children so they can reflect on the feelings expressed. For example, Every Little Thing by Bob Marley, adapted by Cedella Marley (Chronicle, 2012), shows a boy sitting on a swing, feeling left out until another child asks him to play with the group. We Disagree by Bethanie Deeney Murguia (Beach Lane, 2020) introduces kids to finding commonalities among ­divergent ideas. And in Hooray for Hat! by Brian Won (HMH, 2014), children can identify with the emotions of the animals and discuss what to say and do when friends have “grumpy” days. After sharing a book, share a parent tip: “Ask your child how the characters are feeling in the story. This promotes language development and encourages empathy.”

Create programming connections. Virtual programming is the new reality, challenging librarians to make “emotional connections through a screen,” as one Michigan youth services librarian quipped. In Grand Rapids, we altered prerecorded videos to add Mr. Rogers–like pauses for kids to share their thoughts and feelings.

During virtual story times, librarians can nurture connections with parents and caregivers. Encourage empathy-building activities at home such as creating a feelings collage or watching a video on mute and playing “Guess that Emotion.” Dramatic play of everyday situations or favorite stories forces everyone to walk in another’s shoes. Encourage parents to discuss different ways a story or situation could have been handled: “How do you think the Little Red Hen felt when no one would help her? What would you have done in that situation?”

Finally, during virtual story time, consider partnering with a colleague, or even a puppet, to model empathetic conversations. The partner can express an emotion while you demonstrate empathy. Use this emotion as a theme and encourage children to draw, play, or act out the emotion together with their grown-up.

Jessica Anne Bratt is the community engagement coordinator at the Grand Rapids (MI) Public Library.

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