Wednesday 24 January 2018

Empathy revolution... children can learn how to cultivate empathy

Brené Brown: 'Empathy fuels connection'
Brené Brown: 'Empathy fuels connection'

What's the most important skill that children can take away from their formative education? Reading? Writing? Arithmetic? According to many forward-thinking educators, the answer is a little more abstract. They believe that empathy is the skill that most positively impacts children's lives, as well as the world around them. What's more, they believe that empathy, like reading, writing and arithmetic, can be taught - or at least facilitated.

Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs, is perhaps the biggest advocate of this school of thought. Its Start Empathy initiative provides educators with a toolkit that promotes empathy in the classroom. It also recognises 'Changemaker Schools' - schools that "prioritise empathy, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and change-making". There are 12 such schools in Ireland - four of them 'DEIS Band 1'.

Another Ashoka-backed initiative, Roots of Empathy, brings a local parent and infant into a classroom scenario every three weeks. The students observe the baby's development and label the baby's feelings. This programme is designed to help children become more competent at understanding the feelings of others - and thus their own - and it has been proven to reduce levels of aggression and bullying among school children. As initiatives go, it certainly beats a 'Stop Bullying' poster.

Nurturing empathy is one of the key components of positive child-rearing outlined in The Danish Way of Parenting - What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids.

According to the authors, Danish children learn about empathy as early as preschool with a mandatory programme called Step by Step. The children are shown pictures of other children evincing a range of different emotions and are then asked to put into words what the person in the picture is feeling.

Like the Ashoka initiatives, this programme increases a child's emotional literacy, in turn making them more likely to master empathy and grow up to be tolerant, inclusive adults.

There are many more ways that parents and teachers can help children cultivate empathy, but first it's important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Brené Brown puts it best: "Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection."

Empathy occurs when we step into somebody's shoes and inhabit their world view. It is when we resonate with another person completely, if only for a brief moment.

Perspective-taking is one of the best ways to foster empathy in children. Questions like, "How would you feel if... ?" will encourage them to consider another person's point of view.

Fiction is another great tool for perspective-taking. Ask them to discuss the character's perspective and underlying motives. Studies show that people who read fiction are more attuned to the emotions of others, while school literary curriculums that discuss the perspectives of others are linked to less conflict in the classroom and improved academic achievement. If you're a parent or teacher, The Empathy Library ( is worth checking out.

Active listening is another empathy-building tool that children can learn from an early age. The late Stephen Covey preferred to call it 'empathic listening'.

"When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand," he wrote. "I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It's an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person's frame of reference."

Older children can be taught not to form their responses or rush to conclusions as another person is speaking. Active listening can also be taught to children as a game of sorts. If siblings are squabbling, encourage them to sit back to back before they get to say their piece. This will help them hear nuances and subtleties in the other person's voice that they may not discern face-to-face.

Another game that facilitates empathy involves getting children to mimic the facial expressions of a person to imagine how they feel. Mimicry helps us experience the emotion that we are trying to portray, so this game is especially helpful when trying to get a child to understand how they might have hurt another child's feelings.

Our day-to-day behaviour also makes a difference. Introducing children to charity from an early age cultivates empathy. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships: "Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion." 'Mind-minded parenting' - that is parents who treat their children as individuals with their own minds - is also associated with a higher level of emotional literacy.

A number of studies in the US suggest that empathy is in sharp decline among students, with researchers linking the phenomenon to the narcissism epidemic, social media and shrinking family size (it is thought that multiple siblings helps a child master empathy).

Kudos to those who are working hard to address it.

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