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Cultures of compassion in early childhood education

Lasse Lipponen Jaakko Hilppö Antti Rajala

Unpleasant experiences, like hurting oneself, missing parents, or being excluded from play, are evident parts of early childhood education (ECE). Although we cannot (and sometimes should not) totally prevent such situations from occurring, we – children and adults – can decide how we respond to them: do we avoid unpleasant experiences, or do we try to alleviate others’ distress? In other words, do we act with compassion?

The importance of compassion in ECE settings is both timely and timeless. Compassion is a moral response to suffering and pain, which are always evident in human life and relations, as noted already by such classical authors as Aristotle and Rousseau. As a modern civic capacity, compassion can help to counter polarisation and foster human response to suffering in an interconnected world. These arguments are reflected in the shifts in early childhood education policies towards increased recognition of the importance of compassion. For example, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has characterised compassion as an essential global competence.

In general terms, we can think of compassion being composed of three elements (see also Kanov et al 2004).

  1. Observing and noticing another person’s unpleasant experience.
  2. Having other-regarding empathic concern.
  3. Acting to alleviate suffering or pain by, for example, helping; including; caring/comforting; sharing; and protecting others from harm and injustice.

Different research traditions have their own ways of conceptualising compassion. From a psychological perspective, one could understand compassion as an emotion, or as a skill or trait. A practice perspective highlights how compassion is constructed, emerges, and evolves in social interaction in particular cultural contexts. From a practice perspective, how compassion is enacted in practice is not a steadfast rule, but essentially involves situational deliberation regarding the best course of action. Such deliberation takes into consideration aspects such as organisational and cultural norms, available resources, and circumstances that cause suffering (Lipponen 2018). While both perspectives illuminate important aspects of compassion, neither fully addresses why or how institutions, like kindergartens, could make their practices more conducive to compassion.

‘We propose a new approach – cultures of compassion – to examine and understand compassion in early childhood education.’

To address this limitation, we propose a new approach, cultures of compassion, to examine and understand compassion in early childhood education (Lipponen et al 2018). Our approach elaborates and develops the aforementioned practice perspective with ideas from the work of Urie and Frosts (2014) on the ‘politics of compassion’, as well as cultural historical activity theory (Engeström 1987). Urie and Frost’s work directs us to ask whether acts of compassion are directed only towards individuals, or can also address the conditions and structures that cause unpleasant experiences or even suffering. Cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) compels us to see that the causes of individual and collective suffering are historical by nature, and acting against them requires understanding of the historical development of these institutions and their practices. While these institutions and practices are shaped over long periods of time, CHAT emphasises that they are not immutable – rather, they can be transformed through collective effort. At the heart of our cultures of compassion approach is an argument for transforming and expanding existing institutional or organisational practices and structures to foster compassion.

Ultimately, our focus on cultures of compassion highlights the fact that compassion can be seen, and should be studied, as a tool for social transformation. From our perspective, compassion can be a driver of innovation and social change that can call researches, policymakers, practitioners, parents and children alike to take action and create a more inclusive and just early childhood education for everybody. How does it call out to you?

We thank the Academy of Finland for funding our research project, ‘Constituting Cultures of Compassion in Early Childhood Education’ (project no. 299191). See


Engeström Y (1987) Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research, Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit

Lipponen L, Rajala A and Hilppö J (2018) ‘Compassion and Emotional Worlds in Early Childhood Education’, Early Childhood Education and Change in Diverse Cultural Contexts, Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge

Lipponen L (2018) ‘Constituting Cultures of Compassion in Early Childhood Educational Settings’, in Garvis S & Ødegaard E E (eds) Nordic Dialogues on Children and Families, Abingdon: Routledge

Kanov J M, Maitlis S, Worline M C, Dutton J E, Frost P J and Lilius J M (2004) ‘Compassion in organizational life’, American Behavioral Scientist 47: 808–827

Ure M and Frost M (eds) (2014) The Politics of Compassion, New York: Routledge