Preschool kids get a head start on learning empathy.



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Posted on August 16, 2011 at 6:53 AM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 16 at 6:53 AM

"Let's sit down and make an oval," sang the enthusiastic group of preschooolers. 

It's an age when the kids need to learn how to behave in a group, to line up, and to share. But these preschoolers were going beyond those lessons, in a locally developed program called Second Step.

"How do you feel?" asked their teacher, Daren Chamberlin.

"I feel mad. You're mad? What's going on? I feel happy," called out a second student.

Circle time starts with an exercise in identifying emotions.

"What's after we name our feelings?" Chamberlin asked.

"Take belly breaths," replied one preschooler, telling what they had practiced to control their emotions.

"Emotions even for us as adults can be really overwhelming. When they feel like they can name it and you know the ways to calm down, helps them manage those feelings," explained Chamberlin.

Story books the children read reinforce the curriculum.

"It's Ok To Be Different", by Todd Parr topped the reading list on this day.

At Denise Louie Education Center that's an important message for the children to hear. Most are from immigrant and refugee families. Kindergarten will be an adjustment. And acceptance skills will be as crucial for them as math, reading, and language skills according to Executive Director Janice Deguchi.

"Getting along, so social emotional skills, recognizing and being able to name my feelings, and then being able to have empathy for your other peers in your classroom," all skills they'll need Deguchi said.
"Everybody is different. See all the pictures? Everybody is different," explained one of the youngsters as she pointed out photos displayed on the walls.

The Second Step approach contains 27 lessons. Its effectiveness has been studied in elementary school children. Kids who went through the program had better coping, and cooperation skills, and less agression.

Teacher Daren Chamberlin said since the kids in his preschool class started the curriculum he's seen fewer outbursts and tantrums.

"There's a lot of instances where things just never have the opportunity to escalate  because the kids have these skills themselves," Chamberlin said.

The skills kids learned were demonstrated in the center's lunchroom.

"Brian get your milk and pass to your friend," said a staff person as the children helped each other share a meal. 

It's a program that's helping them be better prepared for their next big step, into kindergarten.

"It's going to be easier for children to transition to be more successful, to enjoy school to look forward to school, instead of it being a traumatic thing where they're behind,and they have to catch up," Deguchi said.

The Second Step program was first developed in Seattle. It has since come into use in several other countries.