Experts advocate for teaching kindness and empathy in schools to reduce bullying. Why? Because kindness is the antithesis of bullying and empathy is the foundation of kindness.
Being kind means that you consider the needs, feelings and concerns of others to ensure you act appropriately. Having empathy means you're able to put yourself in someone's shoes to understand their needs, feelings and concerns.
Why is empathy so important?
Empathy is a critical interpersonal skill that everyone needs to cultivate throughout their life. It plays an important role in shaping our children's future selves and can affect everything from their health, happiness, level of resilience and even the amount of money or possessions they have.
Empathy is essential for good communication and maintaining positive, meaningful relationships that lead to safe, caring and inclusive communities and school environments. It's also shown that children with high levels of empathy are more engaged in the classroom and enjoy greater academic achievement.
Are today's youth less empathic?
Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally recognized expert and author on children, teens, parenting, bullying and moral development. She believes technology plays a large part in the decline in empathy.
“American teens are now 40 percent less empathetic than they were three decades ago. While we are producing a smart and self-assured generation, today's students are also the most self-centered, competitive, individualistic, sad, and stressed on record.”
“Our culture has undergone a seismic shift,” says Dr. Borba. “Self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns” is “permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character.”
"Our children became very plugged in around the year 2000. It’s very hard to be empathetic and feel for another human being if you can’t read another person’s emotions. You don’t learn emotional literacy facing a screen. You don’t learn emotional literacy with emojis.”
- Dr. Michele Borba, Educator, Speaker and Best Selling Author
Do bullies have empathy?
There is a general perception that children who bully lack empathy. This is an understandable assumption given their anti-social and hurtful behaviour and is certainly true to a point.
Research shows that bullies do, in fact, possess empathy. According to Daniel Goleman; '“cognitive empathy” is simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. But there can be a dark side to this sort of empathy – in fact, those who fall within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims.'
The type of empathy a bully may lack is known as “affective empathy” or “emotional empathy” which is the ability to experience other people's feelings as their own and respond appropriately to their pain.
“... many bullies objectively know very well how their victims feel, but lack the affective empathy that would actually deter them from attacking others. However ... having high cognitive empathy may be the link to helping children learn to increase their affective empathy, and ... “shows the necessity” for emotional education in schools as a means to reduce bullying and other aggressive behavior.”
- Kimberly van der Elst, Greater Good Science Center
Can children learn empathy?
Dr. Borba has spent the past decade working with over one million parents and educators while researching empathy. She is convinced that it is possible to solve the empathy crisis.
She says teaching empathy “requires ongoing, embedded work guided by strong school leaders who are empathetic themselves” and that “gauging success won't come from a grade or score, but from a student's response. Look for smiles, engagement, joy, and even tears: lessons in empathy can be life-altering.”
While writing her book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michele identified 9 competencies that serve as an educator's guide for empathy education.
Michele assists educators in their quest for growing empathy with the points below.
Principles of Effective Empathy Education
Effective empathy education requires seven core principles guided by strong, empathetic school leaders.
1. Ongoing: Educating for empathy is not a one-time lesson, but a continual focus.
2. Woven-In: Empathy competencies are integrated into content and interactions, not tacked on.
3. Meaningful: Instruction is authentic, touches the heart and mind, and stretches "me" to "we."
4. Internalized: The goal is for students to adopt empathy competencies as lifelong habits.
5. Student-Centered: Students' needs, not curriculum, drive the lessons and experiences.
6. Respectful Relationships: Empathy breeds in a culture of respect and caring.
7. Empathic Leadership: Empathy is modeled, expected, and core to a principal's vision, purpose, style, and interactions.
- Dr. Michele Borba, Educator, Speaker and Best Selling Author
Social media can be used to encourage more empathy
Sue Scheff is an author, parent and cyber advocate. In her book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, she offers insight on how to protect our children against a growing lack of empathy and safely navigate the ever growing and often cruel world of cyberspace.
“We need to remember, that the majority of young people have smartphones (95%) and 45% of them say they're online constantly. With just over 50 percent (59%) of teens saying they have experienced online bullying or harassment, we need to encourage our young people to be upstanders online as well as offline.”
“There is no doubt that the best antidote to curb bullying is empathy. I'm impressed with the number of what we are calling in my latest book, Shame Nation, #NiceItForward campaigns. These inspiring campaigns are being created by students and others that want to spread kindness and build morals in their schools.”
“We are recognizing more and more schools organizing social media platforms to help end bullying. From Facebook to Instagram to Twitter, social media can be used for good - when you have young people spreading positive shout-outs to their classmates."
- Sue Scheff, Author, Parent Advocate, & Cyber Advocate
“We can spread kindness in a click. Sending out a cyber-heart or a cyber-hug, letting your friend know you're in their corner. Kindness matters - online and offline.
With so many of us digitally connected, we can't forget that we all have the ability to spread kindness through our keypads too.”
AUTHOR: Lisa Currie - Ripple Kindness Project
Lisa is the founder of Ripple Kindness Project, a community and outreach program, and primary/elementary school curriculum. Passionate about improving well-being and reducing bullying, RIpple developed a whole school, evidence-based SEL, kindness and mindfulness curriculum to build character and emotional intelligence to nurture positive, happy and safe school communities.