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Helping Children Develop Empathy and a Sense of Justice


In this video, renowned educator and author Vivian Paley explains the importance of supporting the development of children's empathy and sense of justice from their earliest days. She developed a pedagogy she called "doing stories," in which children would dictate and then act out stories from their own play, and she found that children would consistently act from a deep sense of compassion and fairness. She believed that early childhood was the ideal time to start helping children "learn to care about every other person’s feelings, beliefs and welfare."  (More information below)

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  • Renowned educator, author, and MacArthur Fellow Vivian Paley believed there is no more important education than a social justice education. She wrote that "children can learn to care about every other person’s feelings, beliefs and welfare." Over her long career as a Kindergarten teacher and author, she observed that young children have a keen sense of fairness and empathy, making early childhood the ideal time to engage in social justice pedagogy. Paley believed children went to Kindergarten knowing three things: stories, how to play, and a sense of fairness. She tapped into this knowledge by developing pedagogy that she called "doing stories." By asking children to dictate and then act out the stories they were originally doing in play, Paley found that children would consistently and pervasively act from a deep sense of empathy and justice. As children worked together, she found they would center (or re-center) their stories on equity and fairness. As an active observer of children "doing stories," Paley was able to highlight and support the decisions children made, helping to heighten their self-awareness and awareness of others. In this way, her work demonstrates how educators can and must teach young children on the complexities and importance of social justice and anti-racism. Early childhood is, in fact, the ideal time to teach these concepts.

    The CECE interviewed Vivian Paley in Chicago in 2010 about "doing stories" for a video series on oral language development, written by Dr. Theresa Bouley. This video was created in 2021 from unused portions of that interview.

    Vivian Paley passed away in 2019, but her legacy lives on.

    *Paley quote is from Starting Small: Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early Grades, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1997 (page v).

  • Helping Children Develop Empathy and a Sense of Justice

    Download a printable transcript in English or Spanish
    This video has captions. You can turn them on by clicking the CC icon at the bottom of the video.

    Vivian Paley (over music):
    We’ve got to spend time, day by day, hour by hour, in the first experiences of school, with helping children learn how to act nice to each other, valuing kind behavior above all other kinds of behavior.

    Helping Children Develop Empathy and a Sense of Justice

    With Vivian Gussin Paley, Early Childhood Expert

    Vivian Paley:
    The teacher sets the example, who is able to say, “I’m sorry, boys and girls. What was the situation there that had us so angry, and let’s see if we can figure out a better way of doing it.”

    Teacher: So why don’t you say, “Can I please use them when you’re finished?”
    Child: Can I please use them when you’re finished?
    Teacher: Okay, good.

    Vivian Paley:
    There’s just been an altercation in which someone has been made to cry miserably. But you can’t put the child in a timeout chair. All you’re demonstrating then is meanness. All you’re demonstrating then is isolation, that the only way to handle our relationships with each other is to isolate someone, to put him outside the social sphere. But that’s not what you want to do.

    Telling a Story to Help Children Empathize

    Vivian Paley: You just say, “Oh, that reminds me. When my brother was little, the children used to tease him so much because he couldn’t climb the slide, and he would cry and cry. I’ll be happy to know that our children wouldn’t have made my brother unhappy.” Something like that, and everybody recognizes, even two- and three-year-olds, “Yes, I want to be the child who helps.”

    Child: Cece, how you got these off?
    Child 2: I’ll show you. You get it like this.

    Vivian Paley:
    Collect the stories, and retell them every day. “That reminds me of when Johnny saw that no one was letting Julia play in the sand, and he went and took her hand and said, “Here, you can play over here.” Little things like that [are] worth—well, priceless. We must tell those stories from preschool on, so that when children get to third grade, to second grade, and there’s no teacher around, they may say, “That’s wrong. You can’t do that; you’re making him cry.” Or, “That’s wrong; you’re making me cry.”


    Vivian Paley: Nothing is more important any more than using all of the natural narrative skills we have to begin our study of social justice, kindness, and respect for each other, as soon as children come together in social groups.

    © 2021 Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University
    May be reprinted for educational purposes.

    1. Why is it important to nurture empathy in a preschool setting?
    2. What does "social justice" mean in a preschool classroom?
    3. What behaviors have you seen in young children that provide evidence of their natural kindness and understanding of fairness? How can you use those behaviors as an opportunity to engage in social justice education?
    4. When you observe children engaged in play, what stories do you see they are playing? What opportunities do you see where you could point out children's choices and behaviors that demonstrate fairness or empathy?
    5. How might you use children's books, puppets, or other tools and props to engage children in discussions on fairness and kindness?
  • Producer and Script: Julia DeLapp
    Content Consultation: Dr. Theresa Bouley
    Editor: Ken Measimer
    Videographers: Zach Mehrbach, Sean Leser, Ken Measimer

    The Center wishes to thank the following Connecticut centers and families who made this video possible:

    • Child and Family Development Resource Center, Willimantic
    • Cooperative Educational Services School Readiness Program, Trumbull
    • Darcey School, Cheshire
    • Early Childhood Laboratory School at Housatonic Community College, Bridgeport
    • North Windham Elementary School, Windham
    • Plainfield Head Start, Plainfield
    • Sea School Preschool at Mystic Aquarium, Mystic
    • Windham Early Head Start, Columbia
    • Women's League Child Development Center, Hartford