SEL Myth #1: Kids need to be taught to empathize.

Empathy is innate.

(At least) 3 Myths about Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Part 1 ~ Children need to be taught  to empathize.  (Of course empathy is an essential human trait, but there are at least 2 reasons why it is just plain WRONG to think that children need to be taught to empathize:

Empathy is innate.
Empathy is hard-wired into us.

 

Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the automatic and natural born ability to sense other people’s emotions – how other people feel – and to actually, to some degree ‘mirror’ the same feeling as another person.  In other words, if I see that you’re sad, then I get a little bit of sad feeling inside of me.  If I see that you’re happy and excited, then a little bit of your happiness and excitement gets mirrored inside of me.  It just happens automatically… not because of any choices I’ve made.   I just feel a  little bit of what you feel.   I just mirror a  little bit of the emotion that you’re feeling.        

Empathy, also according to researchers, has another side to it: perspective taking… that natural-born ability to imagine other people’s experiences and probable reactions through the lens of their experiences, rather than our own . based on what they’re thinking and feeling (not necessarily what we’re thinking and feeling.)   

OF course, we’ve all heard about some Studies suggesting that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing… but there is also some research showing that the opportunity to develop children’s empathy does not need to be limited to typically developing children. If you’re interested in that, please let us know.

The main point we want to make right now:  The #1 Reason it is just plain wrong to think that children need to be taught empathy is because it’s built right into them.  It’s born right into all of us.   Empathy is hard-wired into the architecture of our brains.  For real.   

EMPATHY is hard-wired into our brains.
EMPATHY is hard-wired into our brains.

So, we don’t need to teach empathy … instead … we need to provide multiple and consistent opportunities to exercise it … to build up the neuronal connections that activate empathy. 

Reason #2 … that we do NOT need to teach empathy:

Well, since empathy is actually a natural-born response, hard-wired into us, like laughter, which is also a natural response, it cannot – in truth – be taught.     But, like laughter, it can be evoked.  It can be sparked.  It can be drawn out.   It can be enlivened.   

Empathy, like laughter, cannot be taught, but it can be enlivened, activated, evoked.
Empathy, like laughter, cannot be taught, but it can be enlivened, activated, evoked.

How?  Well, there are soooo many ways, actually …. certain movies can be incredibly effective at drawing out emotional responses.  An age-appropriate movie about animals is one way to begin with some kids.    Or perhaps just showing pictures of kids who are the same age as your students, in various situations, will provide enough opportunity to get kids observing, responding to, and identifying other people’s emotions.  There may be some students who are not fluent at identifying others’ emotions, but sitting in a group discussion with peers who ARE more fluent in relating to and identifying other people’s feelings , imagining other people’s experiences and probable reactions …  will bring the others along, slowly and steadily … (if we take the long view on developing this essential human trait) 

… because we’ve all noticed … by 4 years of age, kids are fascinated by other kids… sometimes even more than they’re interested in what we want them to learn …    which can work to everyone’s benefit.. which is the next MYTH we’re going to bust about the challenges of creating meaningful, and long-lasting social emotional learning in your classroom.    So, please do subscribe … because this is important information, designed to make your teaching easier and much more rewarding.

Empathy is a natural-born respose.
Empathy can (and ideally does) mirror happy, positive and constructive emotions, too.

Feeling More ‘Visible’ = Feeling More Valued

Consistent quality (not quantity) of attention matters.
Consistent quality (not quantity) of attention matters.
We all need to analyze the quality of our attention on children.

We consistently observe that children love attention, but have we ever analyzed what’s underneath that obvious fact?  Since the answer is in this brief article’s title, I’ll say no more on that. I will, though, emphasize the need to analyze the quality of our attention on children.

When our attention is complete and undivided, how do we imagine the impact will be on children’s feelings of being valued?  If the answer to that question doesn’t come straightaway, can you reference your own childhood, and the quality of attention you received, to gain insight? 

For uncountable reasons, attention on others cannot always be pure and undivided, but moments (yes, just moments) – every day – can and do have deeply nourishing impact … especially when those moments have nothing to do with situations that require corrections which, unfortunately, are the most common times our attention is undivided. Let’s see if we can stretch our pure and undivided attention ‘windows’ to include neutral, happy and constructive moments.

A few more important elements: words aren’t necessary. In fact, they’re sometimes a distraction, with their labeling and ‘boxing’ effects.  Just be consistent and uncomplicated, then notice the effects over time.

Surprisingly Successful Approach for Students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning: Blank Slate Theory vs. Innate Human Potential
Teach Smarter, Not Harder, to Increase Students’ Social Emotional Learning

Socrates and John Locke are influential philosophers separated by 2,000 years. They are also separated by very different assessments of inborn human capabilities.

When educators want to succeed at students’ mastery of numbers and the alphabet, Locke’s “Blank Slate Theory” is completely relevant and valid. But Locke’s perspective that young children lack humane instincts, valid insights, reasoning abilities, and collaborative problem solving skills evaporates when held against experience-based research and current brain science.

It’s more than obvious to anyone who lives or works with very young children, that each is born with personal likes and dislikes. Research at major universities confirms the fact that children also come into the world with the very skills and capacities necessary for successfully navigating the social-emotional challenges presented by their own personal likes and dislikes.

The theory of mind that young children acquire in preschool years provides conceptual foundation for metacognitive skills required in school.
Research shows that shared-thinking experiences create better learners. Metacognitive skills are initially developed during preschool years.

Research also shows that by age 4 – under the right circumstances – children are (1) willing and able to communicate ideas and feelings, (2) listen to peers’ ideas and feelings. They are also more than willing and able (3) to adapt what they discover about peers’ ideas and feelings to improve their own responses / interactions, for everyone’s benefit, including their own, rather than just their own benefit – without repetitive interventions from adults. 

Perspective-Taking Skill Shapes Social Emotional Success

Perspective-taking in visual form.

We’ve all got our own perspective. Each has some degree of  validity, but perhaps not the whole picture. Perspective-taking, which includes but is not limited to empathy, is the #1 skill with the greatest potential to shape the most broadly beneficial outcomes in business, politics, and religions; in other words, perspective-taking is the most significant foundation of any successful interaction. Enabling and empowering 4 and 5 year olds to connect with, and exercise, their natural born perspective-taking skills results in measurable social emotional learning and development. Established tools like play and team sports create the interactions that help young children see the world from others’ perspective and provides spontaneous opportunities to exercise and apply their ‘hard-wired’ perspective-taking skills.

Facilitated, intentional shared-thinking opportunities provide educators with an easy-to-implement format for teaching smarter, not harder by expanding beyond the happenstance of play and sports to accelerate and coalesce  social emotional learning.

The Kids’ Own Wisdom Approach

So how do educators provide young students with the numerous advantages of perspective-taking without adding excess preparation and work to their days? 

In the next 7 blog posts about Social Emotional Learning we will describe:
  1. Why facilitation is educators’ easiest and most successful approach to developing students’ social emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
  2. Three benefits of developing learners’ self-awareness and self-trust.
  3. Brain science of self-regulation for learners’ accountability and agency.
  4. How to build belonging in the classroom, which includes both shy and challenging children.
  5. Why the communication that happens without words, is as powerful as words, and why young children need to share this understanding.
  6. How to create SEL opportunities that release neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, emotions, attention and focus.
  7. The school readiness benefits of consistently exercising young children’s critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills.

Problem Solving is a Requirement for Children’s Real Learning!

Problem solving = real learning.
Problem solving. Discovery. Expressing ideas. Exploring. Constructing knowledge.

Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”

Why?

BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.

What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
Empathy cannot be forced or taught, but it can be evoked.
Does making kids share make them generous?

SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters:  Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?

ANSWER: We enable children to discover their own solutions by asking them the kinds of questions that get them thinking, together, in fresh ways (with fresh perspectives) about old familiar problems.

If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar.  Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing.   (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)

The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.” 

Sharing isn't always possible
Sharing isn’t always possible, but understanding each other is a big help.
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
Communication is key to problem solving for children.
Collaboration is an essential problem solving tool.

 

Empathy and Self Control: Connected in the Brain

Self control=empathy for future self.

Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.

Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.

Can Empathy be Taught?

From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.

Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:

A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises.  Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning

Enlivening empathy - naturally.
Babies brought into classrooms are wordlessly enlivening young students’ empathy with the ROOTS OF EMPATHY program.
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy

A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching:  Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.

The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.

“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”

Healing Species develops empathy in students.
HEALING SPECIES is a highly effective school program that brings dogs into classrooms to facilitate the development of empathy in young students.

Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions,  under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities. 

Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves?  Fascinating times, to be sure.

Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection

An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.

Long term consequences

Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.

Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

Source: Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self – The Atlantic

Perspective Taking is a 21st Century Skill

Taking different perspectives keeps minds open.

It’s inevitable: people see things differently… even when they’re standing close and looking at the same situation or event. Different perspectives can cause a lot of problems, or they can improve situations. Totally depends on everyone’s perspective taking abilities.

Why are there individual perspectives?

Basically all our experiences – situations, events, what other people say and do – are up for interpretation. Interpretation is based on lots of known, and a variety of unknown, elements: past experiences, culture, faith, family values, personal preferences and previous associations to name a few. Differences don’t need to imply right or wrong … they’re just different. Period.  Even little kids “get that,” when they’re given the chance.

Provide students with multiple opportunities to exercise their own hard-wired curiosity about other peoples’ perspectives – with zero pressure for them to agree. Chances are pretty good that those kids will be inclined to open-mindedly consider others’ thoughts and feelings before arriving at their own final conclusions.

Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.

What would the world be like without different perspectives?

For starters, life would be monumentally BORING. Creativity would be non-existent. But look at the bright side: there wouldn’t be any disagreements.  Zzzzzzzzzz!!!

Is there a way to have the best of both? Of course there is. Bring together groups of peers to objectively discuss situations and challenges familiar to everyone in the group. It really helps to show a picture of the scenario you choose to have the kids discuss. Be prepared with a list of 10-20 questions that respect kids’ intelligence in order to facilitate the most successful perspective-taking exercises.

Questions that communicate respect for kids’ intelligence and problem solving abilities are: √ Open-ended.  √ Unpredictable, but relevant.   Here’s a full example for trying out with your 5-7 year old students.  (Read through all of the questions ahead of time, so you can maintain the discussion’s momentum.)

Check out these additional resources for supporting your success at increasing the perspective taking skills of all grade levels.

Keys to Enriching EVERY Student’s Experience in Inclusive Schools

Building belonging increases empathy and enriches every student's experience.

Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is a worthwhile challenge on so many levels, for so many reasons. By creating ‘peer group’ discussions around topics to which all students can relate, belonging grows and community is spontaneously built. Talk about enriching!

When discussions are facilitated around well-designed lists of open-ended and wide-ranging questions, much can be learned by all participants, including the facilitators.  Just 10-15 minutes of this type of exercise, a couple of times each week, can reveal surprising layers of insight from all participants. All.

Building belonging …

Ultimately, these experiences build ‘belonging,’ in the most natural and un-forced sense. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in each other, and we’re all ‘wired’ for empathy. (And we are working with the following definition of empathythe psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

EMPATHY, if it is to grow, has some very definite requirements:

√ It can't be taught.    √ It can't be forced.   √ It's born right in us, so it just needs to be exercised.

The natural instinct to empathize is most available when there is zero pressure to do so. Peer group discussions can create those enriching opportunities. (No lectures required. In fact, lectures during these discussions, turn out to be counter-productive.)

Benefits for students without disabilities include:
  • Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
  • Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
  • Respect for all people
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
Benefits for students with disabilities include:
  • Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
  • Increased inclusion in future environments
  • Higher expectations for themselves

Benefits for facilitators:

Take the long view when measuring WIN-WIN-WIN Gains

When peer group discussions are designed around real-life topics common to all students’ experiences, triple-wins really can be achieved. Just remember to take the long view, in terms of measuring progress. The first time you go to the gym you don’t expect to look in the mirror and see a difference. Right?  In fact, there’s no exact time when you can predict when you’ll see improvements, but you know that if you continue to workout on a regular basis, positive results are inevitable.

Same with the process of building belonging by facilitating regularly scheduled peer group discussions. If you continue to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts around topics that are personally relevant, commonalities, shared values, and empathy will grow. It’s a beautiful inevitability.