EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Time magazine ran an article this week describing a radical new anti-bullying program that tries to teach young children empathy by having them observe a mother and baby, and try to figure out what the baby is feeling. This is supposed to help them imagine themselves in another's place, and also to help them learn to put their own feelings into words. Evaluations of the program show that it does decrease "aggressive behavior" and increase "pro-social behavior," but I have doubts that it's really all that effective against the kind of cruel harrassment and intimidation campaigns so many of us remember from middle and high school. It doesn't seem to me like that's anger boiling over so much as a decision coolly reached that some people just aren't worth treating like people. And I'm not sure empathy training can address that.
An antibullying initiative sure to give Counselor Troi the warm fuzzies
I read this article in this week's Time magazine with great interest --- it describes an educational program called Roots of Empathy that aims to make children kinder, more peaceful and more considerate of others by teaching them to pay attention to how other people are feeling, and to the ways one's own behavior can affect other people's feelings.
Here's a description of how it works from Roots of Empathy's own "About" page:
At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained ROE Instructor [link] coaches students to observe the baby's development and to label the baby's feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the "Teacher" and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This "emotional literacy" taught in the program lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the "Changers". They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties. In the ROE program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. The ROE Instructor also visits before and after each family visit to prepare and reinforce teachings using a specialized lesson plan for each visit. Research results from national and international evaluations of ROE indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behaviour.
That's the theory; here's a bit from the Time article describing how it works in practice:
At a public school in Toronto, 25 third- and fourth-graders circle a green blanket and focus intently on a 10-month-old baby with serious brown eyes. Baby Stephana, as they call her, crawls back toward the center of the blanket, then turns to glance at her mother. "When she looks back to her mom, we know she's checking in to see if everything's cool," explains one boy, who is learning how to understand and respond to the emotions of the baby --- and to those of his classmates --- in a program called Roots of Empathy (ROE)....One of the most promising antibullying programs, ROE (along with its sister program, Seeds of Empathy) starts as early as preschool and brings a loving parent and a baby to classrooms to help children learn to understand the perspective of others. The nonprofit program is based in part on social neuroscience, a field that has exploded in the past 10 years, with hundreds of new findings on how our brains are built to care, compete and cooperate. Once a month, students watch the same mom and baby interact on the blanket. Special ROE instructors also hold related classes and discussions before and after these visits throughout the course of the school year."We love when we get a colicky baby," says founder Mary Gordon. Then the mother will usually tell the class how frustrating and annoying it is when she can't figure out what to do to get the baby to stop crying. That gives children insight into the parent's perspective --- and into how children's behavior can affect adults, often something they have never thought about.When Baby Stephana cries, an ROE instructor helps students consider what might be bothering her. They are taught that a crying baby isn't a bad baby but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure out how to help, they learn to see the world through the infant's eyes and understand what it is like to have needs but no ability to express them clearly.
That last part, the part I highlighted in bold text? I think that's a crucial thing to understand, but I'm not sure children are the ones who most urgently need remedial lessons in it.
Failing to grasp that someone without language will still have needs, and will use whatever other means of communication they have to try to call other people's attention to their need, underlies a lot of the most abusive, callous treatment of developmentally disabled people by their caregivers.
Accordingly, I'd love to see a similar empathy-building program for would-be paraprofessionals, special-ed teachers, home health aides, etc. I think caregivers often fail to put themselves in their clients' shoes, and appreciate the anxiety/stress/pain/hunger/whatever that the client was feeling, and the added stress of not being able to tell the caregiver what they needed, and instead either blame the client for "acting out" or, worse, consider hir beneath blame, so broken and messed up by virtue of hir disability that nothing ze does could ever possibly be a response to anything, just a "behavior" that happens randomly, like error messages from a glitchy computer.
Anyway, back to Time, and back to (some more of) the theoretical underpinnings of Roots of Empathy:
[L]ike language acquisition, the inherent capacity to empathize can be profoundly affected by early experience. The first five years of life are now known to be a critical time for emotional as well as linguistic development. Although children can be astonishingly resilient, studies show that those who experience early abuse or neglect are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic, bullying other children or being bullied themselves.That helps explain why simply punishing bullies doesn't work. Most already know what it's like to be victimized. Instead of identifying with the victims, some kids learn to use violence to express anger or assert power. [Bolding and italics mine]After a child has hurt someone, "we always think we should start with 'How do you think so-and-so felt?'" Gordon says. "But you will be more successful if you start with 'You must have felt very upset.'" The trick, she says, is to "help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they've got language. How they can say 'I'm feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.'"When children are able to understand their own feelings, they are closer to being able to understand that Johnny was also hurt and upset by being bitten. Empathy is based on our ability to mirror others' emotions, and ROE helps children recognize and describe what they're seeing.
I really like this idea in general, and think it's based on some pretty sound principles --- especially the ones about giving people the verbal tools to help vent their frustrations, or ask for help dealing with them, and about understanding that much of what we experience as "problem behavior" from others comes when they are experiencing stresses that overwhelm their ability to cope.
I have no trouble at all believing that this type of training greatly helps kids learn to handle their own feelings in a safe, non-destructive way, and to be more considerate of their classmates' needs and feelings. (This is indeed what independent evaluations of ROE --- there have been nine so far --- have shown: lasting increases in prosocial behaviors like sharing, helping others, being fair and trying to include everyone; in social and emotional knowledge; in kids' sense of their classroom as a caring, safe place; and lasting decreases in aggressive behavior).
But I am not sure that bullying --- a sustained, calculated campaign of terror against targets chosen for their vulnerability --- is in the same category as the aggressive behaviors ROE nips in the bud. Bullying doesn't seem to me like a spontaneous outpouring of emotion too intense to be contained, from a person too inarticulate or emotionally illiterate to express it without violence. Most bullies know exactly what they're doing, and have enough self-control not to do it; I know this because they're able to keep the worst of their violence hidden from authority figures. Some bullies are also very articulate and emotionally intelligent, convincing their victims that they are "friends," and guilt-tripping victims for not doing everything they ask. (The comments section of this old post on Pandagon is full of useful insights about bullying, and similarities between bullying and spousal abuse).
I think bullying comes because the bullies have keen insight into social dynamics --- they see that some people are less powerful, less well-liked, less noticed, less valued than others. They see that, they realize they could do just about anything to one of those unfortunates, and they decide, coolly and rationally, that so-and-so isn't a person, or at least isn't anyone worth treating like a person.
In most cases, there might not be any deep emotional turmoil underlying their cruel treatment of so-and-so; they do it because they can, end of story. Empathy training might help somewhat by making potential bystanders more likely to intervene, and stick up for the person being bullied, and it might also make it harder for potential bullies to tune out their targets' feelings if they've been trained from preschool to notice people's feelings.
I also think one of the major factors emboldening bullies is the larger culture's tacit (and sometimes explicit) endorsement of the very ideas bullies are experimenting with: specifically, that there are people who matter and people who don't and that you treat people differently according to which group they're in. All the empathy training in the world won't wipe out bullying if that doesn't change.