Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Empathy and the Amazing Mirror Neurons

In Born for Love, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry explain that we are born with foundational skills that allow us to learn empathy. Babies have the ability to imitate facial expressions, and they have an automatic response of crying when other babies cry. These two skills probably engage a cluster of brain cells called "mirror neurons." 

The study of mirror neurons is still young, but it has already given us some insight into human behavior in social settings. As Szalavitz and Perry describe, "Mirror neurons fire when you do something - but more important, they also fire in a less intense fashion when you see someone else do the same thing." Neuroscience researchers from the UK explain that mirror neurons fire in the person doing the action, and they fire also in the person observing the action. Whether you are doing something or whether you are watching it being done, the mirror neurons are active. 

So how does the study of mirror neurons help us understand the development of empathy? We learn empathy by watching others show empathy. It is a compassionate response, an act of kindness that fires the mirror neurons. 

Here is an example: A young man sees an elderly woman struggling to get her groceries into the car. He sees her struggle and begins to feel empathy toward her situation. As he goes to her and assists her, his mirror neurons are activated. The brain is responding to his compassionate actions. Amazingly, the mirror neurons of anyone witnessing the exchange also responds, although to a lesser degree. The woman herself experiences an emotional and cognitive response. So, in an act of kindness the person who comes to another's assistance and anyone witnessing the situation experiences the same empathetic cognitive response. Again, mirror neurons respond to action or by observing action. 

As neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese explains, "It seems we're wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different,,,As humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves." When our children see us in situations where we are helping, comforting, and supporting, their mirror neurons fire, and they begin to understand what it feels like to be there for someone else. By our acts of compassion, we are helping our children develop empathy. 

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or 
perceive a sense of his own worth 
until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of 
another loving, caring human being.” 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Understanding Trust in Bullying Prevention Efforts

We know that effective bullying prevention efforts are found within strong school communities, but what is at the heart of those strong communities? TrustAs Tony Bryk and Barbara Sneider suggest, "trust is the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students."  Understanding the critical role of safe and supportive places for our students in bullying prevention efforts is not enough. We need also to understand how to build those strong school communities. The importance of building trust in bullying prevention efforts, then, cannot be ignored.

Tony Bryk and colleagues, among other researchers, have compelling evidence of the importance of relational trust across the school community as a critical resource for school reform. Parker Palmer explains that relational trust is built on empathy, commitment, and compassion among other aspects. When relational trust is evident, people understand the rights and responsibilities of themselves and others. It is a dynamic, social interaction.

The most successful school reform efforts, including bullying prevention initiatives, will have evidence of strong relational trust.  It will be found across school buildings and will involve everyone. This trust will be identified within student populations, across the teaching staff, between schools and their parents, and so on. In sum, trust must be evident within and across every subgroup. The potential of the most solid research- and evidence-based bullying prevention initiatives can be realized only when trust is evident within the entire school community.

Megan Tchannen-Moran and her colleagues have spent nearly two decades studying trust in schools. They suggest that when we trust, we are willing to be vulnerable to someone. Essentially, our feelings are open to being hurt. This willingness comes from our confidence that the person is benevolent, reliable, honest, open, and competent.
As we build trust in our school communities, we honor the obligations we have to one another. We assume the good intentions of others and come to rely on them as well. As we increase the honesty and openness in our buildings, we share decision making, remain flexible, and keep promises. Most importantly, by building or restoring trust in our schools, we are providing the foundation for strong communities.

The Colorado Trust published Build Trust, End Bullying, and Improve Learning in 2008, a report of its school and community bullying prevention initiative that touched the lives of over 50,000 students. The report cites increases in academic achievement and highlights the critical role of adults in effective bullying prevention efforts. In particular, the report states that "a positive relationship with adults and students at school and a school culture of trust and fairness are key to reducing bullying."

"Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him." --Booker T. Washington

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bullying Behavior Is a Serious Public Health Problem

In October 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Preventing Bullying through Science, Policy, and Practice. This publication provides the results of a study commissioned by the NAS that aimed to determine what we know and what more we need to know about bullying behavior and its impact. While the entire study results are available for download at the NAS site, a policy brief is also available here.

The findings of this committee are broadly based and noteworthy. For example, the committee finds existing bullying prevention programs that are effective, and it identifies programs and approaches that hold promise, including restorative practices. At the national level, it notes the important limitations of existing civil rights and anti-discrimination laws with regard to bullying. It also exposes the substantial differences in state anti-bullying laws, especially with regard to a common understanding of the term bullying and the accountability of the schools when bullying occurs.

By examining bullying as a "serious public health problem," the  seven recommendations of the committee are federally focused with an emphasis on national, state, and local partnerships. The first two recommendations are specifically charged to the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, an interagency group that includes the US Departments of Education, Defense, and Justice, among others. These recommendations focus on the collection of more accurate information about bullying behavior and its impact:

  1. The term bullying must be consistently defined so that the prevalence of bullying and the effects of prevention efforts can be more accurately determined. This definition is the one most accepted by the research community and the CDC: intentional and repetitive harmful behavior rooted in a perceived imbalance of power. The committee also recommends cyberbullying be considered a type of bullying behavior, rather than be considered in a category of its own. Finally, with a consistent definition, the committee recommends the examination of bullying as a developmental behavior in order to see how that behavior changes through the stages of  child development.
  2. Data collection around bullying must include all types of bullying and should take into account anyone involved in an incident, meaning those who bully, those who are bullied, and those who are witnesses. The committee recommends data collection that involves all school-age children. With this broad brush, the effects of bullying on the bystanders might be determined. It also calls for a specific focus on those groups identified through the study as most vulnerable to bullying behavior, such as our LGBT youth and students living in poverty.
Bullying, in many contexts, has been normalized into a rite of passage. By labeling bullying as a public health problem, we can better understand the prevalence of this behavior and its impact. We can strengthen those preventative measures shown to be effective and collect more compelling evidence on those promising practices. Finally, we can devote our time and energy to the safety and well-being of all children. It is now a health imperative.

"Bullying is not a normal part of childhood and is now appropriately considered to be a serious public health problem."  ~The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Monday, October 31, 2016

Strategies for Preventing Bullying

One characteristic of bullying that sets it apart from aggression in general is the perceived imbalance of power between the child engaging in bullying behavior and the child who is targeted. Those who bully focus on others they perceive as inferior in some way.

Young people who are perceived as "less than" have characteristics that set them apart from the rest. Some of these characteristics make children more vulnerable to bullying, such as our LGBTQ children and those on the spectrum, but any of a host of reasons place our children at risk, from food allergies to gender and ethnicity.

Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, and Charisse Nixon, PhD, co-authors of Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, offer two powerful strategies for bullying prevention. Although written for girls and young women, these research-based strategies are applicable for all young people, regardless of gender.
  1. Build social-emotional skills at an early age. Begin your child's social education as early as preschool. Instill in young children the value of their unique qualities and respect for that uniqueness in others. Also, model empathy and kindness, and recognize them in your children. The authors urge us to remember that "behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, and those that are not are abandoned." Finally, frame bullying in a "moral context": bullying hurts and can damage others. This will help to prevent the social/relational bullying that reaches its peak in middle school. 
  1. Give children and young people the courage to be kind: Help your child understand the qualities that make up a good friendship and the disadvantages of relationships that exclude others. Support your child in becoming a good friend, encouraging connections that are supportive and caring. Teach your child/young person to be assertive, rather than aggressive. Help them to see the difference between expressing feelings, thoughts, and ideas versus pushing them on others. Finally, nurture in them the confidence and courage to speak up and to speak out when they feel they should do so. 
A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed over 15,000 American young people about bullying behavior. Dr. Tonja Nansel and her associates found that those who bully and those who are targets of bullying have social and psychological difficulties making and keeping friends. In bullying prevention the importance of human connection as the context needed to build social-emotional fitness and to nurture kindness and compassion cannot be ignored.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential of turning a life around.   ~Leo Buscaglia

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Buffering Potential Bullying Behavior

Just like having our children wear a winter coat and mittens on a cold day, we can buffer our children from potential bullying situations. This buffering helps to protect all of those involved, but especially those engaged in bullying behavior and those who are targeted.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) urges us to understand why certain children and young people have potential to engage in bullying situations. Recognizing those potential risk factors will allow us to strengthen protective factors that may prevent children and young people from engaging in aggressive behavior.

The following are some examples of the social, family, and school protective factors for those children most at risk. These are factors that are within our circle of influence.
  1. Strong social-emotional skills and competencies
  2. Healthy relationships with adults outside the family
  3. Parents with high educational expectations
  4. Frequent, shared activities with parents
  5. Strong and positive relationships with people at school
  6. Strong engagement with the school
  7. Involvement with positive, social activities outside school
Again, the importance of the school culture should not be minimized. Over and over, we are reminded that a healthy, safe, and supportive environment provides a culture where bullying cannot flourish. Students who are connected - to adults, to their peers, and to their school - are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior. The most powerful protective factors require no sophisticated training, college degrees, or additional funding. They require only for us to connect with all of our children, especially with those at risk.

“When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do. ”     ~ Rachel Naomi Remen

Friday, October 28, 2016

For Parents: Developing Empathy in Your Children

Developing empathy is a powerful and simple way to reduce bullying and aggression in children. In addition to the research- and evidence-based approaches to empathy development available to educators, wonderful evidence-based methods are also available for parents.

The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is one such resource for parents. The project offers the following guidance for cultivating empathy in our children:
  1. Empathize with your children, and let them see you empathizing with others. Let them learn through experience and observation. This will build trust between you as you model concern for them and for others.
  2. Set high ethical standards for you and your children that make caring for others a priority, and make this priority a part of your daily lives. Convey a clear and consistent message that we have a responsibility to tend to those around us.
  3. In addition to modeling empathy,  provide frequent opportunities for your children to practice empathy. Talk about characters from television and books from an empathetic lens. The more they practice empathy, the more it becomes a natural occurrence. 
  4. Zoom out to expand your child's circle of concern and encourage them to consider multiple perspectives. Zoom in to help your child develop strong listening skills. This will also help build tolerance and respect, in addition to empathy.
  5. Nurture social-emotional development, and help children develop self-awareness and self-monitoring. Children will begin to identify and redirect triggers; they will learn to manage negative emotions. Additionally, they will be developing stronger relationship skills.
Dr. Gwen Dewar, founder and director of Parenting Science offers additional strategies for parents to use in fostering empathy in their children. The following are some examples: 

  1. Address your child’s own needs, and teach him how to “bounce back” from distress. This helps to build resilience.
  2. Be a “mind-minded” parent, and teach children to be cognitive of their emotions. Help them to see how emotions influence both pro- and anti-social behaviors. 
  3. Show children how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. That action actually helps the brain to trigger the emotion in them. 
One of Dewar's tips is for older children, but something all adults should remember; that is, to understand the mechanisms of "moral disengagement." Studies suggest that when we are given seemingly logical and reasonable rationale, it becomes possible for us to justify harming others and also to detach ourselves morally from observing acts of cruelty. Empathy requires the solid connection of people. Bullying and empathy cannot co-exist.

Adults are no less vulnerable to the influence of social messages and social pressures. As we help our children develop empathy, we must also be mindful to stay morally engaged with the world. Our children are watching.

Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.    ~Mohsin Hamid

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Catching" Empathy

Mary Gordon, Founder and President of the Roots of Empathy organization, describes empathy as something contagious that spreads from one person to another. She says that empathy is caught, as opposed to a skill or ability that is taught. Empathy development is experiential. It must be observed or witnessed; empathy is not learned from a textbook.

As a Kindergarten teacher, Gordon was very concerned about some of her students and how troubled and sad they were. She realized early in her career that schools must reach out to families before their children enter school and that schools could still be instrumental in developing empathy in children already in classrooms. From this realization, she developed Roots of Empathy (ROE). ROE is a Kindergarten through 8th-grade curriculum that unites a classroom with a family and their baby at the beginning of the school year. The curriculum is divided into  nine themes, and three lessons support each theme.  The family visits the classroom nine times throughout the year.

She explains the process to the authors of Born for Love: "When we use little babies as teachers, it's not just the babies we're watching. We're watching the baby in tandem with the parent. I believe that successful people develop empathy from receiving empathy or witnessing empathy."

While some may be quick to scoff at the Roots of Empathy approach, it is important to note the compelling evidence from nine independent research studies. Schools implementing ROE saw the following:
  • Decrease in bullying and aggression
  • Increase in prosocial behavior (e.g. sharing, helping and inclusion)
  • Increase in social-emotional competence
  • Increase in perceptions of the classroom as a caring environment
  • Increased understanding of infants and parenting in ROE students
  • Lasting results
The Roots of Empathy curriculum is used extensively in Canada, but is also used in England, Ireland, New Zealand, and some US states. For more information about Mary Gordon and the program, the first chapter of her book, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, is available free for download here.

Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. 
But few of them can be solved without it.     
 ~Born for Love