Observing a group of mixed-age early elementary school students at play during recess, I quickly noted a pattern of behavior. The oldest kids took charge with confidence, telling the others what to play and where to line up to form teams. Captains rotated between the same four kids and the same two kids were chosen last each time. The other kids didn’t question this; they followed the script.

During a break, I chatted with two of the leaders. They were proud of their leadership abilities, as they should be. It isn’t easy to get twenty kids of different ages to work together to arrange a game and understand the rules within a short time period. When we talked about the possibility of choosing younger captains and making sure the kids who are often chosen last are also chosen first, a light went on for them.

After thoughtful discussion and brainstorming, they figured out new ways to get everyone working together and passing on their leadership skills to the younger kids. By taking time to think about how their motivations and choices affected the other kids, they were able to think compassionately and promote empathy within the group. Empathy is when we can imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and then respond in a caring manner. And compassion is empathy in action — caring about others, treating them with kindness and wanting to help people in need.

Friendship skills evolve over time, and kids work on different skill sets at different ages. Preschool and early elementary children work on conversation starters, joining groups at play and sharing and taking turns. Older elementary kids learn to resolve conflict, assert themselves and slide in and out of groups. It’s normal through the course of friendships to experience ups and downs, successes and mistakes. These are all great opportunities for your kids to learn as they grow. Kids need guidance when they accidentally make mistakes that hurt others. You can help them develop empathy by pointing out how others could feel.

All kids develop at their own pace. To help kids learn to include others, it helps to take a proactive and positive approach to developing their social skills. Follow these five steps to help your kids become includers:

Focus on emotions.
Learning how to label a wide variety of emotions is the first step toward helping kids understand how they feel and what triggers them to feel that way. You can teach this by using feelings words (happy, sad, curious, disappointed) when you describe your own day, talking about the mind/body connection (“my stomach hurts when I feel worried”), playing with the Daniel Tiger Grr-iffic Feelings app and making an emotions check-in part of your morning and evening routine.

When kids are better able to identify, process and regulate their own emotions, they also learn to read the feelings in the room and tap into empathy when they’re with their peers.

Be an includer.
Kids always learn more from watching than from lectures. When parents make efforts to include others and help others, kids do the same. You don’t have to throw parties or host neighborhood gatherings every week to teach your kids to include others. Modeling how to include others is as easy as inviting other kids to join a game of tag at the park or inviting a neighbor to join you on a walk.

When parents show kids that including others helps lift the spirits of others and decreases loneliness, kids learn to look for the lonely and take steps to help them feel included.

Avoid snap judgments.
Bullying is considered a pattern of unwanted, aggressive behavior that includes a power imbalance and intent to harm another child either physically or emotionally. While teasing or physical aggression (pushing, grabbing) might feel like bullying in the moment, it might very well be an example of underdeveloped social skills or lack of frustration tolerance. When parents are quick to label other kids as “bullies” or “mean,” their kids learn to judge and exclude.

When parents are able to remain calm and help their kids process these upsetting moments using empathy and compassion, kids learn to think beyond the behavior and empathize with others.

Teach inclusive language.
For some kids, finding playmates is as simple as standing near a group and saying, “Can I play?” For many kids, however, joining groups at play isn’t so easy. Sliding in and out of groups is a fairly advanced social skill, and young children don’t necessarily know how to get involved in a group that’s already formed.

Teach your children to scan the room or recess yard for kids who might be left out and include them by seeking them out with friendly invitations:

  • Do you want to sit with us for lunch?
  • Do you like kickball? You can join our team!
  • Do you want to play tag with us?
  • We always need extra players.
  • Are you looking for a game to play? Play with us!

While these might sound like simple statements, until children get into the habit of including others, they tend to assume that other kids will join in if they want to. When you use inclusive language at home — “Would you like to go for a walk with me?” — your kids learn to do the same with their peers.

Encourage acts of kindness.
Kids get a lot of corrective feedback when they make mistakes, but they don’t always get positive feedback for acts of kindness and compassion. Notice the kind things your kids do, like Daniel Tiger, at home, at school and in the community. Tell them how proud you are when they make sure the same child isn’t always picked last or include other kids during a day at the park.

When kids learn to empathize with others and show compassion for their peers, being an “includer” becomes automatic. They learn to look for the lonely and consider how kids on the outside of the group might feel, and this motivates them to be the positive change who invites others into the fold.