Please visit
for new posts


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Empathy Enough?

Empathy is an antidote to bullying, but is it enough for bystanders to intervene or report bullying?  Do schools need to develop empathy in students as part of the solution to bullying?  These are important questions and  they can lead  us to some productive thinking on the issue of bullying. 

Here are some things to consider about empathy and its role in bullying prevention:

Current research  with babies as young as 5 months seems to suggest that humans are wired to be attentive to the needs of others.  This research was featured on a recent 60 Minutes episode that showed babies reacting more favorably to a puppet who helped another puppet.  This seems to make some sense since babies need to be attuned to their caretakers and ultimately learn from others.  Learning is ultimately a social act as much as an individual act.

This same research also revealed a tendancy for babies to prefer others whom they see as similar to themselves.  Babies who observed a puppet eating their favorite cereal seemed to prefer that puppet to one that ate a different cereal.  This research supports the research of Robert Thornberg who found that the key reason why bystanders didn't intervene was because they saw the victim as being "different" from them.  He said it was like  members of a tribe only caring for other tribe members.  I think this can also work in reverse. Bystanders can be afraid that if they help a victim who is different (from another tribe) that they risk losing their identity in the tribe they want to belong to.  They risk being viewed as being associated or connected to someone who is not well regarded: instead of guilt by association-it is unpopularity by association.

Developmentally the ability to step outside of ourselves and look at the world through the eyes of another is part of the growing awareness that kids have of peers and the need for peer approval.  Seeing the world through the eyes of another also helps kids project and think about how others view them.   This new developmental ability becomes a double edged sword for kids-they rely on and need their peers but  they risk losing their own identity in the process. (This is why learning through stories is integral to being human-we need to step outside ourselves in a safe way and see how others have balanced this tension between individuality and community.) This growing awarenss  of others or empathy can create confusion and tension for kids.

Research is pretty clear that empathy in students decreases as they advance through the grades.  I attribute this to a need for self protection.  If a student feels for another student and at the same time is not able to help that student, it can be hard to live with guilt or remorse day in and day out.  I think students will tend to see the victim as different or undeserving of help as a way of relieving themselves of any guilt for not acting.

If empathy decreases a student could also just become resigned to doing nothing -that is just the way school is.  Some students  could still retain some empathy but become cynical about the whole culture of school run by adults who are out of touch, indifferent or incompetent.  If the adults don't seem to care, why should they.

Do we have to develop empathy in students or nurture what is already there?  Probably a little of both, but first we need to reflect on the current culture of most schools and understand the "forces" that seems to be working against caring for others who are targets of bullying.

Schools are designed more for individual achievement than community growth.  School is really about individuals.  The hidden message (sometimes not too hidden) is just care about your own grade and success.  In fact, schools are a zero sum organization where there is a limited amount of success to go around-kids are graded on the "curve".  As more students pass tests, new tests are designed to do a better job of sorting kids out.

Schools are designed for the adults to be in charge so it can be easy for students to feel that all problems should be solved by adults.  This is a misperception on the part of students but it is probably the default perception also when it comes to the problem of bullying.  Unfortunately most schools view students as the source of problems, they are the ones that need to change, rather than be part of the the solution to problems.

Rewards and consequence systems sharpens the focus on individuals and not on the needs of others- community.  In schools that rely on rewards and consequences the message is "follow the rules as an individual and our community with be ok".  It develops community through motivating individuals for personal rewards-this only gets them thinking more about "me" and less about "we".  This approach gives kids a very mixed message about empathy.  It also strenghtens the message about responsibiltiy to authority (the source of rewards and consequences) not the community as being what is most important.  There is no way around the key message of rewards and consequences being "what is in it for me?"

A behavioral approach to student management when you trace its roots in academic research is based upon the premise that concepts like empathy or conscience are only figments of our imagination. They are only mental constructs that people project on a clusters of behaviors.  People only change when their behavior is controlled through a well designed sequence of positive or negative reinforcements. 

These elements that I just discussed are so much a part of the DNA of schools that it is very difficult to imagine schools being any other way.  This is why bullying is such a persistent problem-in a way its DNA matches that of most traditional schools-that it why it is so easy for it to hide in plain sight in many schools.  There are altenative ways to imagine schools so that its DNA can be clearly different from bullying.  This reimagining might be thought of as radical but in reality it more closely matches what we know about what works best in child rearing or what the "wisdom of the ages" have told us about passing on civilization generation to generation.

I think that families and schools need to work together to build upon what kids are wired for.  We need to focus more on community and responsibility to others as the primary source of responsible individual behavior.  Kids need to have adults point out to them how their behaviors affect others, so that kids decide how they want to act based upon how their actions affect the greater good.  Adults need to guide kids about how they perceive differences and help them discover commonalities in people they might initially perceive as different.  Kids need to know that they are needed and have influence so they need to be involved as agents and real participants in the life of their school.  Kids need to see and hear adults caring not just for the high achievers, best athletics but for the kids who don't fit in easily.  They need to see that schools are inclusive places where every member is valued and the success of everyone is important.  Schools and parents need to be specific with kids about how to "operationalize' empathy-what to say or do when they see someone being hurt.  Kids need to see that people are  "works in progress" and that even kids who forget and bully others are not criminals or villians but are capable of learning better ways of interacting.  Schools need to inspire kids and have them aspire to doing great things-things that integrate the  "me"' with the "we".  This type of greatness is what all great and enduring stories are really all about.

To sum it all up, we need to have education really be about educating human beings rather than just be a training program to get them to act the way we want them to act.  If  we educate rather than train, we are saying that kids start out having something good inside of them, we don't have  to create the goodness out of thin air or from fear that they will be out of control.   Education is giving kids the best environment for growing and learning what it means to being a responsible caring person in the context of learning with other human beings.

No comments: