Empathy and Kindness in Children

Photo Credit: Unsplash free stock photo by user Andres Branch

Photo Credit: Unsplash free stock photo by user Andres Branch

The Berkeley University website, Greater Good in Action: Science-Based Practices for a Meaningful Life, offers an exercise for “Encouraging Kindness in Kids”, offering four practices and making the recommendation to try to use one of them at least once per week.

  • Avoid using external rewards to reinforce altruistic behaviour.
  • Praise character, not behaviour: Research suggests that children are more likely to make kindness a habit if they are praised for being kind people rather than just for doing something kind.
  • But criticize behaviour, not character:  In other words, it OK to induce guilt but not shame.
  • Model altruistic behaviour:  Actions speak louder than words when it comes to cultivating altruism and children are very observant of disconnect between adults’ words and behaviour.

Why We Should Teach Empathy to Preschools” by Shuka Kalantari, was published on the mindful website on July 14, 2016.  It tells the story of Yalda Modabber, whose family’s move back to Boston from Iran in the fall of 1979, when she was 9, proved to be a traumatic incident in her childhood, as it coincided with the attack on the US Embassy in Iran by an armed group of militants who held 60 US citizens hostage in the Embassy, making her the target of extensive bullying by her fellow students “nonstop for two years.  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.”

Yalda Modabber is now the founder and principal of Golestan Education, a Persian/Farsi preschool and after-school full language immersion program in Berkeley, California, collaborating with local schools on cultural education.  Her experience of being bullied has motivated her to integrate empathy into every level at Golestan. The mission of the school is “to support the development of curious, creative, and altruistic children through experiential and heuristic learning, with a special focus on heritage language immersion and cultural education”.

The preschool has been recognized by the international organization, Ashoka, an international network of social entrepreneurs that has recently devoted considerable attention to building empathy in education, as a “pioneering Changemaker School” for the work they are doing “to empower children with the skills they need to be changemakers in our rapidly changing world.  Specifically, Golestan was selected for serving as a model for cultivating empathy, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving.”  The Ashoka organization, as a result of looking closely at the social entrepreneurs whose work it has supported over the past 30 years, has recognized that “empathy plays a crucial role in creating positive change and solving deep-rooted systemic problems”.  Most of the changemakers with whom they have worked had an experience that made them desire to make a change before they were 20 years old.  Autumn Williams, an Ashoka spokesperson, is quoted by Shuka Kalantari, “We’ve recognized empathy as integral to their change-making.”

The aim of the Golestan school is to foster “a community of confident, caring, and compassionate children that value Iranian culture while being responsible and inspiring citizens of our ever-changing, multi-cultural world”.  The school has developed organically, starting from when Modabbar was a young working mother searching for a nanny or a preschool for her son.  “I was alone in Berkeley and didn’t have any family here,” she said in a 2009 article in The Berkeley Daily Planet.  “I didn’t want my son to grow up without other people speaking Farsi.”  After another Iranian parent responded, they formed a small playgroup.  “The group just grew organically – in fact it became too big.  Soon we had 30 families, and within months we had to hire a teacher, and then a teacher’s aide.”  From there the organization has continued to grow, building collaborative links with local schools, developing its curriculum drawing on tenets from Montessori and Waldorf philosophies along with Persian culture, and incorporating classes in theater, music, nature, science, language and cooking.  They are now on the verge of opening an independent primary school.  Families where both parents are Iranian are in the minority at Golestan, and the school draws from the wider community, including the Afro-Cuban community, as well as from families with an Iranian parent.

As Shuka Kalantari points out in her article, research has shown that the more empathy a child displays, the less likely they are to engage in bullying, online and in real life.  “Empathetic 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.”  She points to a 2016 study by M.L. Broekhuizen et al, the results of which suggest that children who are taught social and emotional skills (as opposed to purely cognitive skills) in preschool and kindergarten “demonstrated better social skills and fewer behavior problems in both kindergarten and first grade comparing to children who did not experience higher classroom quality.  The examination of the first grade results indicated that the emotional and organizational quality of pre-kindergarten classrooms was the strongest predictor of children’s first grade social skills and behavior problems.”

Kalantari notes that teaching empathy also impact functional citizenship and social success in adults.  A 2015 study from Duke and Penn State on Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness by D.E. Jones et al, demonstrated “the relevance of non-cognitive skills in development for personal and public health outcomes”.  The study followed 750+ people for 20 years and found that “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.”

While early empathy training can make significant impact for children, Kalantari quotes Tina Malti, a psychology professor at University of Toronto, whose 2016 report looking at school-based interventions to promote empathy in children demonstrated that it’s never too late to develop and improve empathy skills, even in adulthood.  However, Malti believes that “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.”

Malti stresses that there are multiple ways to foster empathy in children, but the key is modeling.  Some programs, for instance, bring pets into the classroom, but according to Malti, it’s not about just bringing in an animal.   Says Malti,  “It’s about teaching a student how to care for another….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.”  She also notes, “another way to build empathy in the classroom is to focus on the individual….teachers shouldn’t have a rigid ‘empathy curriculum’ for each grade lever, because students won’t thrive in that environment.”

The Golestan school includes gardening as part of it daily routine, both flowers and food, and incorporated sung/chanted thanks to the earth for the food they eat before starting their lunch, and a song of thanks to the chef after the shared meal.  Modabber also incorporates respect for diversity as an integral element of the school’s curriculum, with children learning each week about a different country or culture, so they can better relate to people of different cultural backgrounds.  “We are a small part of this very diverse world and we’re here to respect it,” she concludes.