|Home | Empathy
An article by Arundhati Ray
Below is an article I found while surfing the net. It supports much of what I have been saying about empathy. A funny thing is that when I was reading it later I thouight, ¨It sure seems like this person has read my site.!¨ Then I got to the bottom and saw she gives me a reference. That was a pleasant surprise!
|Cultivating Empathy in Children
By Arundhati Roy
The day's headlines are a roll call of violent acts that make no sense. Is the world going mad? No, say psychologists, we are simply losing the ability to empathize.
Throughout the world, teachers, sociologists, policymakers and parents are discovering that empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured in order to give peace a fighting chance.
As the world grapples with violence that plays out in public and personal domains in battlefields and on playgrounds the challenge is to reinstate and reaffirm values of tolerance, cooperation and respect. It is becoming increasingly evident that the ability to identify with others, and hence to respond appropriately to them, is crucial.
It's a lesson that humans are continually challenged to re-learn. The concept of empathy has been around for a long while. Most of the ancient religious systems such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are imbued with it. In nature-centered systems like that of Native Americans based on interconnectedness of everything, animate and inanimate, the guiding principle for righteous action is empathy.
But empathy, and mastery of emotions in general, have been neglected by rationalism and the "hard" sciences, which have become such powerful forces in modern society. Education programs increasingly focus on powers of reasoning, cognitive ability, and rational thought to the exclusion of emotional literacy.
The former have been seen as measures of intelligence and indicators of a person's potential for success. Feelings and emotions have been devalued, their display considered a sign of weakness and lack of control.
This single-minded pursuit of cognitive intelligence is one of the greatest ironies of our times. As science and technology have made the world into a vast global village, human beings find themselves ill-equipped to succeed because they lack the abilities and skills that such a world without boundaries requires. To thrive in today's world depends on the ability to work cooperatively with strangers, to be tolerant, to respect and appreciate differences, and to be able to resolve conflicts in a constructive manner.
Legitimizing the Importance of Emotions
In our personal lives, the fallout of the neglect of our emotional selves is evident in many ways, including child abuse, poor parenting skills, escalating rates of violence among children, and teen suicides. Social pressures encourage us to disconnect from our emotional selves, and when we do, our repertoire of emotional responses gets severely limited. The emotional resources we bring to a challenge are frayed and depleted, resulting in behavior that is antisocial and self-destructive. 1
In response to these challenges, a concerted, cross-disciplinary movement has emerged that legitimizes the importance of emotional abilities and social awareness skills such as empathy. The seminal work of two American professors, John Mayers and Peter Salovey, has contributed significantly to validating for the scientific community the role of emotions.
David Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence has helped to popularize the subject, finding itself on the cover of Time magazine in 1995. This encouraged the corporate sector to add the ability to empathize to the set of strategic skills and financial acumen expected of managers.
While the ability to empathize is finally earning priority status in the adult world of work in areas such as business, childcare and parenting, the field of learning exhibits the greatest formal emphasis on nurturing empathy. The reason for this, according to psychologists, is that the socializing patterns a person develops as a child tend to last a lifetime.
So if emotional literacy skills are honed at the same time one learns the traditional mathematical and literacy skills, there is a good chance people will turn out to. be caring and compassionate adults who are good at managing relationships. Because they are in tune with their emotions and can be appropriately responsive to others', they will be good at creative problem solving and great teamworkers. Furthermore, developing empathy in early childhood is correlated to development of a strong set of personal ethics.
Elizabeth Morris, principal of the U.K.-based School of Emotional Literacy, endorses this view, and states that emotional literacy, "can no longer be ignored as an optional adjunct to the school or family agenda." 2
All over the world, today, there are programs that regard teaching children to walk in someone else's shoes as altogether serious business. In a primary school in Toronto, Canada, for example, a group of 10-year-olds, participants of a Roots of Empathy program, learn to read an infant's body language and respond appropriately.
Across the Atlantic, in England, early childhood centers are experimenting with Early Childhood Adventures in Peacemaking a curriculum that integrates conflict resolution, social and emotional learning, and appreciation for diversity. In the crowded streets of Mumbai, India, an organization called MelJol encourages elite private school pupils to team up with students from the city's poorly-equipped municipal schools to plan and execute a series of childrights campaigns. And in steamy Medan in the North Sumatra region of Indonesia, young persons from traditionally segregated communities indigenous Indonesians and Chinese attend the same school Yayasan Sultan Iskandar Muda, set up by Sofyan Tan thereby breaking down centuries of racial prejudice.
Empathy A "How To" Guide
The process of developing an ability to empathize involves distinct stages. The first step is self-awareness: we need to be able to identify our own emotions, recognize them for what they are and acknowledge them. A crucial precursor is allowing ourselves to experience emotions rather than blocking them.
Being cognizant and in tune with our own emotions enables us to undertake the next step: becoming aware of another's emotions. The wider the range of emotions that we can experience and the higher our emotional literacy (the ability to correctly identify and label our emotions) the greater our chances to correctly "read" another person's emotional message.
Good listening (which involves asking questions, filling in gaps and emotionally intelligent guesswork) is essential, as is the ability to interpret nonverbal cues. Sensitivity, of course, is crucial because the more sensitive one is, the greater is the ability to pick up the most subtle emotional nuances.
Being able to correctly and comprehensively read another person's emotional messages empowers us to intuitively identify with the person. We are able to imaginatively insert ourselves in the other person's situation and experience it intimately. And this, in turn, ensures that we feel and hence make an appropriate emotional response.
A simple example: when a person is scared he may react with aggression. Empathy allows one to accurately interpret the emotional trigger for this behavior and respond in a manner that addresses the feelings of fear (with reassurance, understanding, etc).
Learning initiatives that consciously nurture empathy among young people have devised a variety of approaches and methods. The programs featured in this issue of Changemakers Journal demonstrate that there are numerous ways in which the ability to empathize can be successfully cultivated and reinforced among children.
Programs like Loreto Sealdah School and MelJol encourage empathy by creating opportunities for children from very different backgrounds to interact as peers who learn to work toward common goals. Children from vastly different socio-economic contexts learn to relate as friends who are bonded by mutual respect, compassion, understanding and affection.
Some programs have developed curricula that are explicit in their aims to encourage tolerance by inculcating empathy. Delhi-based Ankur, for example, encourages its young participants, most of whom are slum dwellers, to celebrate differences and revel in diversity. Another Delhi-centered program, Pravah, takes privileged kids on a journey from "me to we" by going through a series of lessons carefully designed to open their abilities to empathize.
Theater and role-playing exercises are acknowledged tools for enhancing the ability to empathize because they expand our emotional spectrum, train us to assume different identities, and insert us in another person's reality. For Swati Lal, a second-grade teacher in Kolkata (Calcutta), it's the very core of her curriculum. Her entire approach to teaching is "feelings-based." Whether it's studying reading, social studies or current affairs, learning is built on a foundation of the ability to identify with another's situation.
Peaceworks' crusade against communal conflict and the protection of democratic values is based on using the arts as catalysts for developing empathy. The initiative harnesses the potential of films, literature, drama, music and arts to transport one to different realities in order to develop tolerance, appreciation of diversity and mutual coexistence among students and transform them into peace activists.
Ulitmately, Empathy Equals Survival
For all their differences in approach, these programs share certain common strategies. First, space for introspection and reflection is built into the structure of every program so that self-awareness is possible.
Second, all subscribe to the principle that empathy can be encouraged only when the facilitator (teacher, leader, mentor) is an empathetic person. Teachers' reactions to situations and people, their ability to handle their own emotions and relate to others', has a direct impact on their ability to determine the emotional development of a class. Thus, even when a program's primary focus is young people, it is crucial to include teacher training.
Ultimately, the survival of our species may depend on our collective ability to empathize: to be aware of our own feelings and to have the capacity for relating to and interacting with others in a "pro-survival way." S. P. Hein is part of a group of researchers in this field who have created a Web site on emotional intelligence. Hein makes a convincing argument for the need to regard empathy as an important factor in evolution. He argues that our ability to empathize is one of the primary ways that our emotions contribute to the survival of the species, and this is one of the ways nature slowly evolves towards a higher level of survival. 3
John Lennon's anthem to world peace prevailed upon us to "Imagine all the people living life in peace . . . Sharing all the world." With our imagination we can see Lennon's vision. With empathy we can make it happen.
Go to the Changemakers Library for selected Internet resources about Cultivating Empathy in Children and Youth
For more information on this, particularly for the way it underscores the impact of society's deliberate efforts to suppress the emotional abilities of boys, see Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Raising Cain, Harvard University Press. Kindlon, an assistant professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the HSPH Department of Maternal and Child Health, and Thompson, a psychologist at a Boston-area boys' school, share what they have learned in 35 years of combined experience working with boys and their families. Using research findings and case studies to support and illuminate their argument, the authors paint a portrait of boys who are systematically steered away from their emotional lives by adults and peers, and who in contrast to girls receive little encouragement to develop qualities such as compassion, sensitivity, and warmth. The result is to leave boys with a limited repertoire of emotional responses. Moving from diagnosis of the cultural malady to prescription for its cure, they identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school and show how parents can help boys cultivate emotional awareness and empathy. "The difference between boys who overcome adversity and those who surrender to it always comes down to the emotional resources they bring to the challenge," the authors write.
|Dr. Arundhati Roy is
a freelance journalist and co-author of a book on Sikkim,
an Indian state in the eastern Himalaya. Based in
Calcutta, she runs a placement service for women and is a
consultant with Ashoka's Innovative Learning Initiative
Note to Arundhati, if you read this, please write me.
I am trying to find your email address!
By Arundhati Roy
A few years ago visitors entering Calcutta International School (CIS) might have been welcomed by ear-splitting, soul-curdling screams emanating from behind the solid wooden doors of Class II (the second grade). If they had bothered to investigate, they would have discovered a nine-year-old boy screaming his vocal cords out.
He was reacting not to any kind of disciplinary action, nor to a fellow student he might have gotten into a fight with but to something as simple as not being able to figure out a certain word in his text. If the visitors hung around for a while, they probably would have seen the situation rapidly deteriorate into full-blown acts of violence as the boy started beating up other kids and ripping apart their books.
Yet, if these same visitors entered the classroom a few years months later, a very different sight would have greeted them: that little boy happily absorbed in his work, breaking off from his assignment only when he wanted to help a classmate who may have gotten stuck
The visitors would probably be impressed by this remarkable change, but they would learn that in this classroom it's par for the course.
"Year after year, I have watched little rowdies enter Swati Lal's class only to emerge as caring, thoughtful individuals," observes Nanda
Chatterjee, a former principal of CIS who retired in May. "The transformation is dramatic: six and seven-year-olds are gradually molded into a cohesive group, bound by a common code of values and mutual concern and appreciation. It is almost miraculous to see those kids becoming sensitive to each other's needs, aware of their own and of others' feelings, and conscious of larger issues."
Swati Lal has been teaching at CIS since 1988, and every batch of young students has benefited from her powerful feelings-based teaching methodology. Strongly influenced by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's ideals of holistic education, a firm believer in the importance of aesthetics in education, and a passionate advocate of Theater in Education (TIE), Lal's classroom is a learning environment founded and strategized on the core principle of empathy.
Lal has structured the school day so that it constantly encourages and enables children to analyze, understand and articulate their inner worlds. It is through this self-examination and awareness that one can actually experience another's feelings, she says.
And it is this ability to empathize that makes a better person: you don't want something to happen to you, and so you don't do it to others. Thus, the codes of conduct that govern how one interacts with one's environment comes not from rules imposed from the outside, but from an innate, organic discipline born out of the ability to empathize.
"I follow a feelings-based approach to the syllabus that naturally and organically nurtures empathy and ethics," Lal said. For example, she chooses storybooks for language class that deal with emotions books like William's Doll, the narrative of a little boy who is persecuted by other children because he plays with dolls and so is "different." But, as the grandmother who gave the boy a doll explains, taking care of his doll will help William take care of his own child later, and to be a good parent.
The children talk about the issues raised by the book and reflect on questions like: What do you learn when you play with dolls? Does it make you more responsible, more caring? Does it teach you about taking care of a child? Does it make you feel good? Aren't these all good things? Should playing with dolls be only for girls?
This, of course, naturally leads to talking about the construction of social stereotypes and prejudices, and how meaningless they usually are. The process "enables children to judge behavior through the lens of whether it's making the world a happier place, and not by socially imposed norms," Lal said.
In social studies class, when they study plants and animals, the children learn about habitat destruction and environmental protection not as academic facts, but through the more powerful channel of emotions. Exercises encourage the students to imagine themselves as an animal or a tree having its home destroyed, its family split up, living in the alien, confined environment of a cage.
"Little children understand most effectively through the first-person." Lal notes.
The children learn about current events from discussing headlines in the day's papers. Inevitably, there are reports of violence and violation. This provides another opportunity to analyze feelings and talk about actions and reactions.
When Lal's students discussed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they approached the topic by picturing what their situation would look like in a war-torn Kolkata (Calcutta). This leads them to questions like: Can war ever be a solution?; Does one's man's evil justify suffering being inflicted on so many?
There is also a large theater element to the lessons because Lal believes that role-playing is a powerful tool for promoting empathy. "It forces you to stretch your emotional spectrum and sharpens your emotional recall," she says.
The empathy-based approach is not restricted to the classroom. For example, instances of bullying on the playground, like deliberate shoving, are dealt with, not by punishment, but with a conflict resolution process that involves exploring and articulating feelings.
"Victims" talk about the feelings of betrayal, injustice, rage and helplessness that they experienced. "Aggressors" are encouraged to introspect and to express why they did what they did. They're also made to put themselves in the victim's situation, and to imagine aloud what the victim must be feeling.
Every actor in the drama gets a chance to speak, and as a result, nobody feels invalidated. Listening attentively to one another, they understand what the other felt, and where the person was coming from. This clears the air and makes it easier for resolution to take place.
The constant sharing of feelings, analysis of situations and emotions, all helps the children to think things through, and it also trains them to become good listeners by demonstrating the importance of hearing other people's stories. The capacity to listen, to validate another's narrative, is crucial to becoming a more caring, empathetic person.
But, as Lal stresses, this approach to teaching can only work if the teacher herself truly believes in the underlying principles of empathy. Children are extremely intelligent when it comes to detecting double standards: they have inbuilt radar for picking up mixed and false signals.
The teacher's own behavior, she warns, must be consistent with what she expects from her students. How a teacher handles situations and manages and responds to emotions will impact how effective the teacher is with the students.
Teachers' own levels of empathy and codes of conduct will determine the extent to which they can shape their students' emotional education. Thus, introspection and self-awareness is crucial for the educator as well.
As the children learn to get in touch with their own feelings and are sensitized to the feelings of others, they become perceptibly gentler and tolerant of differences. They develop a moral compass, not through a separate class on "moral science," but because every subject is designed to make them conscious of being part of network where every action has a consequence.
"The old maxim, 'I think, therefore I am,' here evolves into, 'I care, therefore I am'," Lal concludes.
Nanda Chatterjee observes:
"In my career of 37 years, of which I have been principal of schools for 19 years, Swati's empathy-based approach to teaching composed of developmental programs of her own devising is one of the most powerful pedagogic methods I have witnessed.
"What's also amazing about Swati's class is that despite being very young, the children are tuned in to global issues and extremely articulate when they voice their opinions whether it's about war or bombings.
"CIS has a very strong value education component in each class, but Swati's approach impacts children in a way that is truly remarkable."
Every year Swati Lal writes the end-of-term play for her students. The pieces typically highlight issues related to the environment, freedom, animal rights, family, friends issues that her students have been exploring through the course of the year.
Here is a song from her play, All Kinds of Cages (performed December 2000):
You can be that person running down the street
proxied.changemakers.net/journal/03october/swatilal.cfm (This article has moved a couple of times on the changemakers site)