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Tales of beleaguered beasts won’t nurture the skill of empathy, say researchers, but practising mindfulness just might
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Learning to share and to care are some of the hardest lessons young children encounter, yet we don’t have national tests to check that they happen. Nevertheless, teachers persist in helping children to help others and to work towards more harmonious and sociable relationships in school. So what works best in helping children in these areas?
The Max Planck Institute in the US has been exploring the issue of empathy for years. Their research shows that while most of us are born with the capacity to empathise, that ability tends to be limited to those most like us. We are all, to an extent, tribal, and have to learn to bring others into our tribe in order to extend our empathy to them.
They’ve found, however, that empathy can be practised, learned and extended, and that certain activities help – for example, mindfulness and meditation (Singer 2013). When we are stressed and experiencing negative emotions ourselves, we are less likely to extend empathy to others.
For children and adults, taking part in mindfulness and meditation activities increased empathy – lowering our own stress levels and feeling positive allows us to find the capacity to care more for others. This could partly be to do with the fact that, as neuroscientists have discovered, we mirror the emotions of those we are empathising with.
We literally feel their pain at both an emotional and physical level. If we are already overloaded with our own pain, this is made more difficult. It’s one of the reasons why we need to be careful not to label damaged or unhappy children as uncaring, and why creating safe and emotionally positive learning environments is vital.
What about stories? For years, many of us have used them to teach children how to see another’s point of view. Often these stories use anthropomorphism – animals and even objects imbued with human feelings and attributes – in order to build empathy.
But a recent study (Larson et al, 2017) found these stories have little impact on children’s pro-social behaviours unless the characters are human. (The study did not examine whether the children reading the anthropomorphised stories became kinder to animals!) It would seem that seeing situations from human points of view in stories and discussing their dilemmas and experiences can help children to become more empathetic.
In a study intended to explore the impact of music on IQ, Schellenberg (2004) stumbled across an interesting finding in a group of children taking drama instead (intended as a control).
He found that the drama group improved their social skills by 72%. Why might this be? Drama places children in the shoes of others in a much more verbal and physical way than simply reading a story.
The words and actions of a character are enacted in such a way that the brain responds in an emotional way (in a similar way to the research that shows when you practise a smile, your brain responds and you feel happier).
Enacting emotions that others are feeling seems to have a positive impact on our ability to understand them. So make sure your children have lots of opportunities to take on the roles of people and characters with different views and experiences to their own – it’s the pivoting of perspective that allows the change to take place.
Keep in mind that empathy is only a step on the road to compassion. In itself, it is not compassion, just understanding. As Paul Bloom points out in his book Against Empathy, it is perfectly possible to understand how someone else feels and to sit back and do nothing – or worse, turn their pain to your own advantage.
Empathy alone does not make for a better world; compassionate action does. So how do we take children on to that level of engagement with compassion? Discussing and enacting solutions is an important element of this process.
Taking action to put something right is much more vital than a simple apology or recognition of wrongdoing. In our classrooms we can do so much to take empathy into compassionate action: acts of charity; making decisions that will help characters in stories – even changing the direction of the plot; taking on roles of people who can effect change and enacting those changes; discussing alternatives, mediating and negotiating; putting things right… All these actions can build on empathy to create compassionate engagement.
Debra Kidd has worked in education for over 20 years and has delivered CPD nationally and internationally. Find her at debrakidd.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @debrakidd.
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