Examining links between affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and peer relationships at the transition to school

Publication Name

Social Development


The current study aimed to (i) examine associations across features of affective and cognitive empathy, and (ii) explore their independent role for children's peer relationships at the transition to school. Affective empathy was measured using both observations of children's facial affect during an empathy-eliciting event and dispositional affective empathy to peer distress via teacher report. Cognitive empathy was measured using an index of children's proclivity to engage in perspective taking when witnessing the distress of another. Children's theory of mind was also assessed given close links with cognitive empathy. Participants were 114 Australian children (Mage = 67 months, SD = 5 months) assessed across two sessions during their first year of formal schooling. Findings showed that features of children's affective and cognitive empathy were unrelated, but both showed independent associations with children's positive peer relationships (assessed via peer-reported social preference and teacher-rated peer social maturity). The current study provides support for the delineation between features of affective and cognitive empathy in early school-age children, and the importance of understanding both affective and cognitive empathy for children's peer relationships at the transition to school. These findings have implications how we understand both the nature of empathy in childhood and the role it plays in supporting children's positive peer relationships.

Open Access Status

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Funding Number


Funding Sponsor

Australian Research Council



Link to publisher version (DOI)