Teaching Children Empathy Prevents Bullying

September 8, 2015 | By

Empathy“Empathy, an understanding that other people have feelings and that those feelings count, is a learned behaviour. There is no gene for empathy. That learning begins in infancy.” Says Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, research scientist in psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin.

Why is empathy so vitally important for success in life and work?

Empathy breeds courage: A recent study of almost 900 children between the ages of 11 and 13, revealed that participants with a higher level of empathy were more inclined to engage in “assertive bystander behaviour” by standing up to a bully on behalf of someone outside their peer group. Social isolation and exclusion of a victim of bullying often leads to anxiety and depression, which can be prevented by this kind of courage.

Empathy fosters emotional well-being: Schools are placing empathy in the top three desired outcomes for their students and employers likewise place it fifth among the most needed work skills. Empathy gives a sense of self and multiple perspectives on others, making children more accommodating of the differences between them.

Empathy drives thoughtful problem solving: Emphatic problem solvers are able to put themselves in other’s shoes, enabling them to solve larger, persistent problems more effectively, resulting in considerably less confrontation.

Empathy is a key ingredient in conflict resolution: Children who are emphatic, can predict conflict and intercept or divert before it erupts. Similarly they are more inclined to keep conflict from escalating.

Empathy enhances relationships: It increases altruistic behaviour and reduces racism. Empathy is known to reduce aggression and bullying in children. “Empathy and the care and connection it enables are essential to the overall health of people, communities and society as a whole. Not only is the development of empathy important for individual health and well-being, it also underlies virtually everything that makes society work – trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.” Says Szalavitz & Perry.


How do we teach empathy?

Read and play together: Children’s book author and illustrator, Anne Dewdney, says: “When we open a book and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” Noticing the body language and facial expressions of the characters, help them identify the emotions. Talking about how that character might be feeling, how it would make the reader feel and what could be done to make it better, cultivates empathy.

The interactive comic strips, The Adventures of Bully & Boo, are specifically designed scenarios to be read and played through, encouraging emphatic discussion around the characters’ experiences and behaviour. In doing so, young children are guided in an age appropriate manner, toward a deeper understanding of their own feelings as well as developing a sensitivity to the feelings of others.

The module is currently available worldwide, in five languages: English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Spanish & French. Read more about this project and watch a demo here.

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