In today’s selfie-filled culture, which seems to celebrate “Me first,” it’s become more important than ever to incorporate empathy—the capacity to relate to and understand others—into pediatric therapy sessions. Empathy is critical because it gives children a solid foundation for building positive relationships at school and at home. Empathic children tend to do better in school and social situations, and empathy promotes good mental health. The following picture books can be helpful aids for sparking and developing empathy in young children.
Recommended for grades one through three; 40 pages.
This book—the second of three in the “Zen” series, written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth—is a meditation on compassion and friendship that explores our relationships with each other. In this book, an ever-tranquil panda, Stillwater, introduces his three friends, Michael, Karl, and Addy, to the elderly Miss Whitaker. The children have thus far thought of her as a crabby old lady, but as she helps Michael prepare for a spelling bee, the individuals come to a better understanding of each other.
How to incorporate in a therapy session: Therapists could use “Zen Ties” as a springboard for helping children acknowledge, name, and explore the feelings they have toward others and imagine themselves in the shoes of the “other,” ultimately promoting tolerance and acceptance.
Recommended for kindergarten through grade three; 40 pages.
Written by Maribeth Boelts and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, this book addresses the topic of poverty and the importance of putting others’ needs ahead of our own wants. In the story, Jeremy wants the latest pair of trendy shoes. All his friends have them, but his grandmother can’t afford to buy him a pair. Jeremy finds a pair at a thrift store and buys them, even though they are too small. When a friend at school needs them more than Jeremy does, he gives them to him. Jeremy really wants to keep them for himself. But in the end, he does the right thing. Jeremy feels embarrassed about the shoes he does have, and that feeling doesn’t disappear, making the act of kindness even more powerful.
How to incorporate in a therapy session: Therapists could use “Those Shoes” as the basis to discuss topics such as teasing and bullying, embarrassment, and sharing, and how a child has felt or would feel in situations similar to those in the book.
Recommended for preschool through grade two; 32 pages.
This debut picture book, written and illustrated by Jess Hong, is a tribute to the qualities that make us different from one another. The book starts off by asking the question, “What is lovely?” The simple answers let young readers know that “lovely” comes in many forms. What sets this book apart is its colorful and striking illustrations. Young readers will see all kinds of different, lovely people: a little girl with eyes of two different colors, a child wearing braces, a person in a wheelchair, someone wearing a prosthetic leg, and more.
How to incorporate in a therapy session: “Lovely” could be useful for therapeutically addressing issues involving social interaction, such as teasing or bullying, and for exploring perceptions of difference in oneself and others. It could also serve as a platform for the exploration of self-worth and self-esteem.
Recommended for kindergarten through third grade; 32 pages.
In this book, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B Lewis, new girl Maya finds herself alone at school. Her obvious poverty sets her apart, and the other children reject her overtures. Another girl, Chloe, narrates the action and the way the other children reject Maya, including her own admission, “She’s not my friend.” One day, their teacher drops a stone into a bowl of water to demonstrate how powerful the ripples from a single act of kindness can be. “Even small things count,” she says. Chloe decides that the next day she will be kind to Maya. But Maya never returns to school, and Chloe doesn’t get her chance. This book could so easily sink into the depressing and didactic, but Woodson’s beautiful text elevates the story into a moving reminder to show kindness every chance we get.
How to incorporate in a therapy session: “Each Kindness” offers an opportunity to discuss how children treat each other, including issues such as ostracization and bullying, and how it feels to give and receive kindness.
Recommended for preschool through grade two; 32 pages.
Written by Michael Leannah and illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris, “Most People” delivers the message that most people are kind and that even people who do bad things are essentially good. In this book, young readers follow two families from sunrise to sunset as they interact with various other people in their community. Along the way, they see people doing both good and bad things. The book explains with simple reasoning that people who do bad things can change — “There is a seed of goodness inside [each person] waiting to sprout.” The author’s note acknowledges that while children need to be careful of strangers, they also need to know that most people are good, kind, and helpful.
How to incorporate in a therapy session: The book’s depiction of people doing “bad things” provides an opportunity for therapists to discuss with children what kind of response might help a person feel better when they’ve been mistreated. Therapists can gently remind children how such treatment might feel and what they can say or do to help.
Do YOU have a favorite picture book for teaching empathy in your therapy sessions? Please share in the comments below!
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