Once children experience the joy of friendships, they are motivated to work at keeping them. As stated previously, this gives a reason for trying to understand another child’s viewpoint in a conflict.

The ability to see things from another’s viewpoint, perspective-taking, is essential to social competence. Without this ability, youngsters remain self-centered and unable to relate to the interests, needs, and rights of others. Until children can take into consideration the viewpoint of another person, they cannot make progress in reasoning about fairness. When they can only see their own views, their idea of justice consists of that which they desire for themselves. Obviously, this perception will not endear them to playmates.

There is considerable difference of opinion about how early children are able to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings. Examples of empathy from toddlers are often used to dispute Piaget’s research findings that perspective taking does not emerge until around age 6 (e.g., Lillard & Curenton, 1999). Although frequently discussed together, empathy is not the same thing as perspective taking. We agree that certain forms of empathy appear early, such as sympathizing with another child who is sad. However, true perspective taking, the ability to take another person’s view into consideration even when it conflicts with your own, is another matter. A 3-year-old who gives a cookie to a hungry child when there are plenty of cookies is not likely to do so when there is only one cookie, especially if that 3-year-old wants the cookie for himself or herself. Though very young children have been observed sharing and helping others (Eisenberg, 1992), it is not clear that these are demonstrations of true perspective-taking. Positive social behaviors may be motivated from other sources.

Despite differences in the research literature, there is agreement that awareness develops gradually from an egocentric perspective to the ability to respond to and even predict how others will feel (Hyson, 2004). Anyone working with young children is aware of their egocentricity (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). According to Selman (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000; Selman, 1980), with experience and guidance, people move through five levels of perspective taking as follows: Level 0, not recognizing that others have feelings or ideas different from your own, is common during preschool. During the primary grades, most children operate at level 1. At this point, young children realize that others have their own feelings, but can’t consider someone else’s feelings while thinking about their own. Our observation shows that this is particularly true when their own feelings are in opposition to the other person’s. As they move into upper elementary school, level 2 thinking is more common. This brings the ability to consider another person’s views as well as their own. Levels 3 and 4 bring increasing decentering and the ability to coordinate mutual perspectives. However, these generally do not emerge until adolescence and adulthood. Theory of mind research points out the role of maturation as children develop understanding of their own and others’ thinking (Flavell & Hartman, 2004).

This information about children’s thinking should help you to be more accepting of how they behave. You will respond differently when you realize that young children probably aren’t being mean when they disregard another child’s feelings; they’re just being young. This information about levels of intellectual development also offers essential guidance for helping children move to higher levels. The message is not to just accept the child’s lack of perspective-taking, but to aim your teaching one level higher than what the child is doing (DeVries, Hildebrandt, & Zan, 2000).

Working with young children, you will often see situations like the following:

Jessie is working on a drawing, using the only yellow marker at the table. Jack reaches over and grabs the marker out of Jessie’s hand. He seems somewhat startled when Jessie yells at him and tries to grab the marker back. Soon the two are in a tug-of-war, with both sides claiming they need the marker.

Dennis stops the struggle and calms the children with his gentle presence. He works at getting each child to explain his or her feelings, trying to get them to use the “I messages” he consistently models. Then Dennis shows Jack where he can get another yellow marker.

When Jack grabbed Jessie’s marker, he demonstrated that his perspective taking was at level 0. He took the marker simply because he wanted it, with no thought about Jamie. Therefore, Dennis aimed at helping Jack realize that Jessie has wishes and feelings, too. It probably wouldn’t be worthwhile trying to teach higher-level cooperative negotiation to Jack because it would be too far above his level of understanding.

Children can make better than normal progress through these levels of understanding with the support of understanding teachers (DeVries & Zan, 2006). And, as Vygotsky (1962/1934) reminds us, children can perform at higher levels with assistance than they can alone. Vygotsky’s writings about the zone of proximal development and scaffolding refer to how adults help children to do things, and thus teach them to perform independently. Puppets, role playing, and storybooks may also provide assistance to children as they learn to think about the feelings of others. In Jamaicas Blue Marker (Havill, 1995), Jamaica comes to understand why Russell was acting mean; this type of story may help your young students think about how others feel.

The ability to understand and empathize with others is crucial to adult society as well as children’s interactions. “Children are less likely to behave aggressively toward someone if they can put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine that person’s thoughts and feelings” (Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, & Hendrix, 1995, p. 145). This statement seems equally true for adults.