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