Positive emotions and behaviors are contagious

Foster kindness, compassion and empathy early on in children and school-age children.

As parents, teachers, child care providers, coaches or youth volunteers, you may have noticed that meanness and bullying behaviors seem contagious. When there is a culture of acceptance for meanness, cruelty or other forms of negative peer behaviors, it can seem overwhelming. However, the good news is research proves positive emotions and behaviors are also contagious.

Recent research has discovered that humans have millions of mirror neurons that cause us to mimic each other’s behaviors, emotions and facial expressions. Mirror neurons are why we tend to smile when someone smiles at us, or why we wince when we see someone get hurt. These neurons are also why children’s attitudes and behaviors are so contagious.

According to Bullying Myths and Facts, making intensive efforts to encourage empathy and other social skills in children can have immediate and long-lasting results: 57 percent of the time, bullying stops in less than 10 seconds when peers intervene on behalf of the child who is being bullied.

When positive emotions are encouraged early on, they have an enormous impact on the future of a child socially, emotionally and academically. Adults can promote positive social and emotional health early on by fostering kindness, compassion and empathy. Talking about these emotions and behaviors on an everyday basis is important, but modeling them is critical. Your positive behavior is contagious as well.

Infants need caring adults to respond to their emotions with genuine kindness and empathy. They need to know someone deeply cares for their well-being before they can learn to become compassionate and empathetic. When you use words to describe their emotions, you are modeling pro-social behaviors of empathy. Show them how to be gentle, kind and loving. You might say, “Our friend Owen looks sad. He is crying. I’ll go get his blanket. It might make him feel better.”

Toddler years are often referred to as the “terrible two’s.” In fact, during this developmental stage, researchers have observed many instances where toddlers display empathy and kindness to adults and peers, such as bringing a blanket to a crying child or helping an adult pick up something they dropped. Children this age show delight in being with children their age. They affectionately hug friends, play games, use humor to cheer up peers and seem to like to be near each other. Adults can provide time for toddlers to have positive play interactions with each other indoors and outdoors to nurture early friendships.

Preschool is a great time to practice social skills of kindness and empathy. Observe and comment on children’s peer play. Talk to them about how to be a good friend. Set up times when they can practice friendship skills during everyday tasks such as setting up snack, putting away toys. Encourage behaviors such as complementing, comforting, being honest, including others in play and helping a friend in need.

School-age children can benefit from improving social skills such as reading and understanding non-verbal cues and coming up with solutions to conflicts. Adults can help by promoting an atmosphere of empathy and kindness. Be a model of respect and kindness to all children and other adults around you. Recognize and point out when children are doing the right thing. Comment on pro-social behaviors such as being kind, respectful, caring and accepting of each other. Notice when they listen to each other, take turns, get along, stay calm and accept responsibility for their own behavior. Teach them to notice each other using these behaviors. Challenge them to be kindness detectives outside of school. Have them keep a log anytime they witness kindness, respect or acceptance in their home, neighborhood, in the news, movies, television or commercials.

Adults can have a tremendous impact on nurturing positive emotions and behaviors in children. Kind and compassionate words are important; however our actions really do speak louder than our words. We all have mirror neurons, so be a mirror for kindness, compassion and empathy and watch how fast it spreads.

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