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

(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.

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