Building Empathy and Prosocial Behaviors with Children’s Literature

Educators have a powerful tool at their disposal for helping children develop important prosocial behaviors. Prosocial behaviors are those that help us get along in the world with others.  They are the behaviors and skills we use to successfully collaborate with others and contribute to our communities.

Fortunately, children’s literature is full of examples of characters engaging in behaviors that would be considered both prosocial and antisocial. This means there are thousands of opportunities to engage children in conversations about the choices that characters make, the soundness of those decisions, and how outcomes could be altered of different decisions had been made.  These conversations can become just as ingrained in children’s minds as the stories themselves.

Here are a few tips to follow when planning to use literature as a teaching tool:

  • Pre-read the selected book or story. Determine where in the story you want to stop and ask a question about a character’s choices or behaviors. Decide which questions you will ask ahead of time.
  • Plan for stopping points. Recognize that these important conversations will extend the length of time that children are expected to sit and listen. As you know, this can be difficult for some children, which is why best practice recommends limiting it. It is perfectly fine to read only half of a book at a time. Make an intentional decision to read a story to a particular point, engage children in conversation, and then tell the children that you will come back to the story later in the day to find out how the story ends.
  • Interject prosocial vocabulary into your reading of stories from an early age. If you read part of the story where a character helps another character, stop and say, “It was very helpful of Kaya to stop what she was doing to clean up the kitchen for her mother.  Earlier today, I noticed Davina being helpful when Marcus was cleaning up the block area all by himself. I think it is great that we have such helpful friends in our class.”
  • Introduce books and stories from a variety of ethnic and cultural traditions. Not only will this help children feel represented in the classroom, but it will also introduce different cultural norms and expectations for children to consider.
  • Create activities that allow children to re-write the ending of the story, based on prosocial behaviors that they would choose. Children may be interested in illustrating their chosen ending or acting out the new ending for the group.
  • Refer back to characters of books when children are struggling with interactions with their peers. Say, “This situation reminds me of what happened to Jack in the story we read the other day. Let’s think about how the characters solved that problem and see if we can try that option.”

Tell us how you use literature to introduce prosocial behaviors to young children.