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Sunday, 18 October 2015

Can Empathy Be Taught

Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Modern civilization places great importance on filling the human brain with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human heart with compassion.Compassion is not religious, it is human. It is not a luxury, it is essential for our emotional and mental stability and for human peace and survival.

- Dalai Lama

Up until the last few years, I've always categorized "empathy, compassion, positive thinking, confidence, grit, and self-control" as personality traits. Personality traits are, by definition, habitual patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. When we think  of personality traits, we think of something innate, something that is hardwired in our genes.

However, in the last few years, I've started to think of these kinds of traits as "skills" that can be taught, learned, and practiced, in much the same way as academic skills. Given all the research on neuroplasticity, on cognitive behavioral therapy, and on value education, I think that parents and educators have a significant role to play in explicitly and deliberately teaching our young children these skills and helping them develop them as much as possible.

Now I'm not completely naive: I do know that our genes matter; in fact, they matter a lot. And I do know that our kids are born more or less predisposed to certain traits or skills. But that's true with math and reading, with spatial skills and artistic talent, and that has never stopped us from formally and deliberately educating our children in those realms. While a child who is born with a naturally volatile and impatient personality may find it harder to learn and master self-control, he can certainly be taught to improve in this realm, just as a child who is dyslexic can be taught to read.

So, if empathy, compassion, positivity, confidence, grit, and self-control can be deliberately taught, the natural question that arises is how? How do we teach these qualities in schools and at homes? Here are some interesting articles on experiments with value education: here's one from the NY Times, here's another from the NY Times with specific tips for parents, and here's an interesting one on the link between literary fiction and empathy.

And here are some recommendations culled from the research:

1. Make empathy and other character education a priority and think carefully about how to teach these skills as deliberately as possible. This, I think, is the key. It's about the mindset of parents and educators. When we start to value character education in the same way that we value academic education, then we'll devote time and energy to it.

2. Have conversations where you talk about these skills and what they entail. Explicit conversations and discussions are important.

3. Use stories -- oral stories, picture books, chapter books and adult literature are wonderful ways to get children to take on other perspectives, to consider someone else's feelings, to think about the importance of certain skills like confidence or positive thinking or empathy. Books like Wonder and To Kill A Mockingbird are perfect for teaching empathy.

4. Give children tools to help them monitor and control their own emotions: breathing exercises, simple self-soothing techniques like walk away for a moment or visualize something more positive, and help them understand what it means to be mindful. Research from positive psychology suggests that kids should focus on being grateful for what they have each day -- either by keeping a gratitude journal or even by just acknowledging all that they have to be grateful for at some point in the day.

4. Discuss the ideas of neuro-plasticity and a growth mindset with kids, so that they know that any skills -- whether we're talking about reading skills or empathy skills -- can be learnt and practiced. This will help kids deliberately practice these skills.

5. Seize those teaching moments when a child asks you a question or behaves in a certain way to teach the child these skills.

6. And most important, and perhaps most difficult, we adults need to model these skills for our children as much as we can. Perhaps we need to work on mastering them just as much as our children do.

While some schools in the US are experimenting with specific classes designed to teach skills such as empathy or positive thinking, I think that this approach might feel contrived to kids. I prefer these skills being integrated into all subjects at school and becoming part of the culture of the school and the home. Kids can learn empathy by reading and discussing literature in English class,  they can learn persistence and grit by struggling through a Math problem in math class, they can build empathy and confidence by competing (and perhaps losing) on the playing field, and they can build their sense of self by taking a healthy risk such as trying out for a play or a team.  I think the goal is not to separate these skills from the work that kids engage in everyday at school and at home but to make these important skills a part of this work as seamlessly as possible.

1 comment:

  1. I see that Empathy is strong aspect in learning and it builds a relative viewpoint in assessing what you've learned and how it can be applied in various scenarios.