Empathy and Self Control: Connected in the Brain

Empathy requires going beyond immediate self interest. Self-control is essentially empathy for one’s 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

Students Living With Adversity

Educators with behaviorally challenging students must double-down on cultivating relationships that those students feel they can trust. But, according to Dr. Ross Greene, “whether a child is behaviorally challenging or not…collaboration is the key to improved relationships, better communication, and solving problems.”

How can one teacher accomplish this with a room full of wildly diverse kids?  One way is to provide regularly scheduled peer group discussions around topics and challenges important to all the kids in the class. Kids are naturally interested in what their peers think and care about, (whether or not they’d ever openly admit it) so they’re inclined to listen to each other’s answers IF the questions used to move the discussions along are neither leading nor overly simple.

Familiar challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances

When all the kids in the peer group discussion are listening to each other, you can be listening for clues about each child’s values and personal challenges. Surprisingly, when peer discussions are objective – in other words, focused on pictures that keep familiar and relevant challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances, kids are much, much more likely to reveal their honest thoughts, feelings and insights. Those are the times when you can learn so much that will help you gain deeper appreciation for all the kids, even (and sometimes, especially) the ones who create the most challenges.

For more insights and wisdom from experienced educators: When You Can’t Relate to Your Students’ Experiences – Edwords Blog – BAM! Radio Network

Enough theory …

Okay, so enough theory.  How’s about a sample of an effective peer group discussion around PLAYING FAIR?  Check out this link.

Just remember that for peer group discussions to succeed, the teacher does not so much ‘teach’ as ‘facilitate.’  Facilitating is all about keeping discussions moving forward by asking new questions whenever the current question has lost its ‘engagement factor.’ Facilitating, more importantly, is about listening, really listening.

Real listening happens with ‘full on’ attention

Our attention – when it’s open, accepting, interested, and sensitive to our students’ unspoken messages – is one of the most nurturing ways we can, with consistency and over time, develop a sense of safety for our students who are living with adversity.   Get ready to do some powerful learning of your own. Learning that will help you create more safety and ‘belonging’ for all the kids in your class.