|Why We Should Teach Empathy to Preschoolers
||In the fall of 1978, Yalda Modabber had just moved to Massachusetts from Iran. Her timing was bad: The next year, a group of armed Iranians took more than 60 U.S. citizens hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. As a result, her fellow students bullied her ruthlessly.
“It was nonstop for two years,” says Modabber, who has dark curly black hair and a warm smile. “That period in my life was so hard that I blocked it out. I don’t even remember my teachers’ names. The entire class turned on me.”
Modabber is now the principal and founder of Golestan Education, a Farsi-language school in Berkeley, California, where my son will be going to preschool next year. In a quiet voice, she tells me that being bullied drove her to integrate empathy into every level at Golestan.
Various studies show that the more empathy a child displays, the less likely they are to engage in bullying, online and in real life. Empathic children and adolescents are more likely to engage in positive social behaviors, like sharing or helping others. They’re also less likely to be antisocial and exhibit uncontrolled aggressive behaviors. That’s a big reason why educators have been devoting more attention to empathy in recent years, integrating it more deeply into schools and curricula. And as Golestan illustrates, some of these efforts are focusing on early childhood education.
Indeed, research suggests the sooner we learn to empathize, the better off we are in the long run. People exposed to empathy earlier in life have greater and longer-lasting emotional benefits than those exposed to it later, or not at all. One recent study suggests that children who are taught social and emotional skills (as opposed to purely cognitive skills) in preschool and kindergarten have better social skills and fewer behavior problems in both kindergarten and first grade, compared with kids who don’t experience that holistic classroom setting.
Should we teach empathy to even the very youngest students? Can we? The answer to both questions seems to be yes—but it’s not easy.
Born for empathy
Our capacity for feeling empathy starts very early in life. Yes, my toddler pulls our cat’s tail and thinks it’s funny, but I also see his capacity to sense the emotions of others. If I’m having a bad day, he pulls me and his papa in for a group hug with his tiny little arms. And it’s not just toddlers: Infants as young as eight to 14 months old can show precursors to empathy, signs like displaying concern for a parent if they’re hurt or upset. The older we get, the more we can empathize. A recent study from the University of Munich in Germany found that children between the ages of five and seven increasingly anticipate feelings of concern for other people.
Teaching empathy doesn’t just make kids more emotionally and socially competent; it can also help them be more successful and functioning citizens in the future. A recent study from Duke and Penn State followed over 750 people for 20 years and found those who were able to share and help other children in kindergarten were more likely to graduate from high school and have full-time jobs. Students who weren’t as socially competent were more likely to drop out of school, go to juvenile hall, or need government assistance. Empathetic people are also more likely to help those they don’t even know—to pay it forward.
Autumn Williams works with Ashoka, an international network of social entrepreneurs that has recently devoted considerable attention to building empathy in education. As part of its work, it has identified more than 200 schools internationally that actively nurture empathy—including Golestan, the first preschool in the network. Williams says empathy plays a crucial role in creating positive change and solving deep-rooted systemic problems—a fact the organization recognized when it looked more closely at the social entrepreneurs whose work it had been supporting over the past 30 years.
“Most had an experience that made them desire to make a change before they were 20 years old,” says Williams. “We’ve recognized empathy as integral to their change-making. That’s why empathy must be as essential as math and literacy. We need a world full of individuals that have the ability to cultivate change where it’s needed, and to recognize they have the ability to do so.”
Tina Malti, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and author of a 2016 report looking at school-based interventions to promote empathy in children, says it’s never too late to learn to empathize. Though our perspective-taking develops dramatically in the early stages of life—it helps mold who we are as adults—we’re always malleable.
“It’s not just children,” says Malti. “It’s a life issue. I think a holistic view emphasizes living a more balanced life. If you only focus on academic outcomes, or work outcomes, you are going to miss the whole being of a person. It needs to be balanced in a healthful and meaningful way. And the word ‘meaningful’ always entails the whole being.”
Malti says our education system is at a turning point: More and more experts understand and agree that our social and emotional health is important for our academic learning, our psychological well-being, and our overall success in life.
“If you keep them apart in the classroom, you are not going to reach psychological or mental functioning,” says Malti. “It goes hand in hand: a person can’t thrive academically if he or she is depressed, and in order to be a better learner, those depressive issues need to be addressed. I think any other approach—like focusing on particular groups of children, or prioritizing academics or health outcomes—is more likely to be exclusive.”
Who let the dogs out?
At Golestan Education, Yalda Modabber tries to foster empathy in her students by bringing her dog Nica to work. They feed her, groom her, and give her water.
Research suggests people who have an attachment to a pet are more empathetic. One recent study by the American Humane Association shows having an animal in the classroom, even a small fish, ups students’ feelings of compassion and empathy towards one another. The report also indicates empathy is linked to improved social interactions, class participation, and less behavioral issues in the classroom.
Malti says there’s no one right way to teach empathy, but there are some wrong ways.
Take Nica. “It’s not about bringing in a dog,” says Malti. “It’s about teaching a student how to care for another. You can have a good teacher or a horrible teacher. If a student just watches a teacher taking care of the animal, and doesn’t participate, she doesn’t learn as well. But research shows if you have the child care for the animal, or even an infant, herself, it’s different. How you learn how to care for something is important.”
Malti says another way to build empathy in the classroom is to focus on the individual. She says teachers shouldn’t have a rigid ‘empathy curriculum’ for each grade level, because students won’t thrive in that environment.
“Every single classroom is a microcosm,” Malti says. “And each child in that classroom has varying capacities of mental needs. If you don’t look at the varying needs, you miss the opportunity to promote empathy in the best way possible.”
In addition to bringing her dog to school, Golestan Education’s Modabber has the students do gardening as part of their daily routine. Every Monday, they pick flowers and put them in vases around their classrooms.
“They’re nurturing seeds to grow,” Modabber says. “They’re giving it water and sunlight, they take care of it every day. Then they plant it. They don’t just pick them. They are really appreciating these plants. They see them. They’re present. They’re aware of these plants and how they’re growing.
They also grow food. Every day before lunch, they sing a song and chant and thank the earth for the food they’re about to eat. And after lunch, they sing a song thanking the chef. Modabber says empathy and gratitude go hand and hand. Research backs her up: More gratitude is linked to higher empathy and less aggression.
Empathy is also about connecting with other cultures. Modabber says she’s still affected by those two years of intense bullying she received as an Iranian immigrant in the U.S. during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. She doesn’t want her students to act like this. So every Friday the children learn about a different country or culture, so they can better relate to people with context.
“Golestan makes a big emphasis that we are a small part of this very diverse world and we’re here to respect it,” Modabber says. “It’s threaded in everything we do. It’s our foundation. It’s our benchmark.”
|What Narcissists and People Pleasers Have in Common
||Narcissists and people pleasers seem to be drawn towards each other. While opposites do attract, there are some similarities that keep the connection powerful. Priorities. Narcissists think of themselves first and very little of others; people pleasers think of others and very little of themselves. … ...
|Victim Services Unit Police Dog Lucca (Video)
||Service dog Lucca joins the Victim Services Unit to help people who've survived trauma to go through the legal process....
|Is Trump a Sex Addict?
||The temptation to diagnose Donald Trump from a distance is hard to resist. So I’ve been sorting through the evidence for and against #Trumpisasexaddict. And if he’s not, then what’s … ...
|10 Common Fears Of The Diagnosis Of BPD
||Do you know someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)? Are you diagnosed with it yourself? How did the person (or you) accept or deal with the diagnosis? As a therapist … ...
|Study finds boredom can lead to political extremism
||New research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology has found a link between boredom and political extremism. “Boredom puts people on edge: It makes them seek engagements that are challenging, exciting, and that offer a sense of purpose. Political ideologies can aid this existential quest,” wrote Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg of King’s College [...]
|No Kids Allowed
||Hi. My name is Elaina J and I will never have children. It is not that I am physically incapable, but I am not emotionally capable. My parents are dying … ...
|Did I Really Just Commit to That?
||How ‘Yes’ slips out in spite of ourselves. Why, when a request comes our way, we are often surprised to find ourselves taking on yet another obligation.
|Getting chills from great music connected to a new cognitive dimension of personality
||People more open to Fantasy, which results in them being more cognitively attentive to music, are more likely to experience “frisson”, according to a study published this May in Psychology of Music. This contrasts with previous research that had repeatedly highlighted the relationship between frisson and the emotional aspects of an individual’s personality type. Frisson, [...]
|Music can reduce anti-dark-skin prejudice, study finds
||A cross-cultural musical education program can reduce anti-dark-skin prejudice among young adolescents, according to recently published psychology research. Despite decades of progressive efforts, racism and other forms of prejudice remain a troubling reality in virtually all parts of the world. In particular, dark skinned peoples, women and non-heterosexuals continue to suffer from oppression at most [...]
||The check. And here you thought I was talking about the dinner bill, didn’t you? No, for those hearty souls battling obsessive-compulsive disorder, “the check” refers to something different than picking up the restaurant tab. For those afflicted with OCD, the check could mean ritualizing … ...
|OCD and Namenda
||There are a couple of reasons why I don’t write much about specific medications for obsessive-compulsive disorder. For one, it is debatable whether any of the many medications my son … ...
|When The Poo Emoji Hits The Fan!
||Sometimes you just can’t say it like an emoticon/emoji can say it! “Happy ” , “Sad “, “laughing
|Helicopter parents: Hovering may have effect as kids transition to adulthood
||As thousands of young adults prepare to leave the nest and attend college for the first time, parents may want to examine whether they are kind and supportive or hovering into helicopter parent territory. Parental involvement is crucial to a child’s development into an adult, but Florida State University researchers are finding that crossing the [...]
|Greenery in neighborhoods may reduce adolescent aggressive behavior
||A study to be published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) reports that adolescents in urban communities may have less aggressive behaviors if they live in neighborhoods with more greenery, such as parks, golf courses, or fields. Studies have shown that the families [...]
|Liberals, conservatives differ in response to bin Laden’s death
||Conservative Americans remained unwaveringly suspicious of foreigners following Osama bin Laden’s death, while liberals dropped their guard briefly before returning to more vigilant beliefs, finds a provocative new study led by a Michigan State University scholar. The findings, online now in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, suggest conservatives and liberals respond differently to [...]
|Could growing Internet use inspire more democratic uprisings?
||While events like the Arab Spring brought hope that the internet could inspire the growth of democracy in authoritarian countries, a new study offers a reality check. Researchers studying Russian and Ukrainian internet users found that their demand for democratic reforms in their countries depended on what they were doing when they connected to the [...]
|Methylene blue shows promise for improving short-term memory
||A single oral dose of methylene blue results in an increased MRI-based response in brain areas that control short-term memory and attention, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology. Methylene blue is used to treat methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in which oxygen is unable to release effectively to body tissues, and [...]
|11 Superpowers of an Introverted Child
||There are a few myths about kids who are introverts: they’re shy, they’re nervous, they don’t like other people, or don’t want to be social. The truth is that shyness is … ...
|Fostering Self-Actualization During Child Development
||Finding out who we are meant to be can be a difficult task and most won’t take the time and energy involved in the journey. Perhaps, not that they won’t, more often than not they can’t. Many people struggle daily with meeting other, more base … ...