Essentials: Empathy Matters - A Guide For Educators!

Essentials: Empathy Matters - A Guide For Educators!

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Do the children you work with seem to lack empathy? Is this affecting their ability to handle social interactions? How do you even begin to teach them this key skill?

Join us on School Behaviour Secrets as we discuss the complexities of teaching empathy to children who may lack the neural circuitry for deeper understanding. Explore workaround strategies, the importance of labeling emotions, and practical tips to foster a more empathetic school environment.

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Simon Currigan  0:00  

Do the children you work with seem to lack empathy? Is this affecting their ability to handle social interactions? How do you even begin to teach them this key life skill? Join us for this edition of School Behaviour Secrets to see how you can make a difference to your pupils empathy and relationships today. Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton. And we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course, students. When classroom behaviour gets in the way of success, we're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural Special Needs whole school strategy and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behavior Secrets podcast. 

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to another freshly baked essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets, where I share with you one important strategy or idea or insight from an earlier episode that can have an impact for the students that you work with in your school or your classroom. But before we go any further if you enjoy listening to School Behaviour Secrets, please remember to subscribe so you never miss another episode, all you have to do is open up your podcast app and click follow or subscribe it's completely free. 

Today we join a discussion from an earlier episode where my co host Emma Shackleton and I think about children and empathy and the different stages that kids go through to develop this important skill and how we as educators can specifically teach those who find it difficult enabling them to integrate successfully into the social life of the classroom. It's generally thought that kids don't develop empathy in a meaningful way until they hit about two years old before their kids do develop some emotional empathy. So they can look at their parent understand whether they're happy or upset that at that point, they don't have cognitive empathy. So they might understand that the mother or father is upset, but they find it hard to take their perspective. And then because they can't do that, they don't act on it, you don't see active compassionate empathy or putting someone else's needs above theirs. So an example if you're a parent, I'm sure you've experienced that I have a feeling really quite unwell lying on the sofa feeling really rough with a horrendous cold, you got a cup of lemsip you looking really rough, you know, your toddler can look at you can see her and well, but they'll put their own needs first because they really want to play with you. And they'll jump up and down on the sofa until you join in. Even though you look really rough, it's interesting kids might develop emotional empathy early than we think experiments are shown kids as young as eight months can recognize emotional distress not just in their parents, but in other infants. So we are developing this at an early age. But then the more complex layers to cognitive empathy and the compassionate empathy. They come later.

Emma Shackleton  3:05  

And we've also got something called Joint attention. And that's realizing that two people can both be focusing on the same thing at the same time. And this develops in early years as well. So for example, if you point at something, the child will look to see what you're pointing at and realize that you're both looking at the same thing. At the same time, they're also beginning to start reading your intention. Interestingly, animals often demonstrate that they don't have this cognitive ability. So try this with your pets at home. If you point at something to show your cat, the cat will just look at your finger and not at the thing that you're pointing to. Dogs are interesting though, if you put a bone in a newspaper at the end of a garden and gesture for the dog to fetch, it will often collect the thing it knows that the human wants, not the thing that would naturally go for so often it will fetch the newspaper to please the human rather than fetch the bone to please itself. Well, that's the theory. I'm not sure my dog would do either. She'd probably just roll over for a belly rub. But it's clever stuff.

Simon Currigan  4:14  

At two years old children do begin to understand intentionality in a more complex way. So what we mean by that is starting to read people's motivations for their actions starting to understand why they're doing the thing that they're doing. So they can start to understand that a person is making a sandwich because they're hungry. And importantly, they start to understand the difference between someone engaging in an action accidentally and someone who's doing something on purpose. So if someone walks past them and bumps them, they can understand that could be an accident, in which case one response is more appropriate or they deliberately went and hurt me and barged into me, in which case another reaction is appropriate. So they are starting to take perspective in a way and understanding people's motivation and this really interesting isn't limited to humans, there are studies to show that other primates can do this. And again, you can see in a social animal how understanding someone's intention would help you fit into the group and be successful.

Emma Shackleton  5:13  

And just imagining two monkeys now working out whether somebody bumping into them was done on purpose or not.

Simon Currigan  5:18  

Those bananas have gone everywhere. 

Emma Shackleton  5:22  

So by the time they start school, then most kids have a higher level of emotional empathy. And they are developing cognitive and compassionate empathy to but this does vary massively from child to child. So you'll have some school starters that are well on the way with this. And then you'll have other children that it takes them much, much longer to pick these skills up. Sometimes it makes it hard for children to understand the impact of their actions on others. So for example, well, I knocked over the tower of bricks because I wanted to be a dinosaur. And just not recognizing that the tower of bricks is important to somebody else. And just because you're wanting to be a dinosaur, and knock things down, that might not be what everybody else is wanting to do as well. So they're just beginning to work those things out.

Simon Currigan  6:11  

At ages four or five, they do start to develop some more complex theory of mind and perspective taking. And there was a fascinating experiment all around false belief. Now false belief is understanding and predicting someone's actions based on what they believe around the world, rather than what's actually true. So the experiment went something like this, they had a child in a room. And there were two adults, let's call one adult, the experimenter and the other the stage. So there's a table and there's some crayons on the table. And there were two boxes, box one and box two. So the students in the room have the child in the room, and the experimenter picks up the crayons and shows both the child and the stage that they're going to put the crayons in box one, and then the clothes box one the stage make some excuse to leave the room, they've got to go and take a call or do some work or something, and the child sees the stage, leave the room and close the door. So now in the room, it's just a child and the researcher, then the researcher opens box one takes out the crayons, puts them in box two, and closes the lid of both boxes. So the crayons are now in box two, and the child has seen the crayons transfer from Box One, box two, then they call in this stage, the research asked the child, if the adult wants the crayons, which box will they go to, there'll be for the age of about four or five. At an early stage of development, the child knows that the crayons are in box two, and the child will say the adult will look at box two, because they don't appreciate that although they know the truth, the other person doesn't know the truth, they can have a false belief. Now obviously, when the students left the room, they saw the crayons going into box one and they haven't seen the crayons been transferred from one box to the other. When the child reaches about age four, h five, they start to develop that more complex thinking they can understand that the student can have a belief that isn't correct. And this is sort of the turning point, the child will start to say well, the student will look in box one, but actually we move them when they weren't looking screening shown that kids with autism find false belief really hard, appreciating that someone can believe something's not true, or something different from them. And they go on to find coping with the idea of false belief hard even later in life. 

Emma Shackleton  8:18  

And these are really important skills, because they help us to engage socially with the group help us to predict what people do and what their intentions are. So it's really understanding those subtle nuances of social interaction. And without the skills the world is quite a scary place. Because people appear to be unpredictable, and may even behave in a way that we find threatening. And this can lead to a buildup of anxiety and stress. Some children can mask the lack of empathy by learning by rote what to do or say in certain social situations. So for example, some children, if they hurt, somebody will say sorry, because they know that that's the socially acceptable thing to do. But they're just saying it by rote. And they don't actually feel sorry, they haven't got the feeling behind it. So although we might think that they are socially skilled, actually, they've just learned to say something by rote that they know gets the positive response, and they don't really have the feeling behind it.

Simon Currigan  9:23  

So let's think about teaching empathy, how do we teach these skills to kids? Well, the first thing to accept, as Emma's just mentioned is some kids simply may not have the neural circuitry to do this, their mirror neurons simply may not be active enough. And there's actually a term for this called Mind blindness. So it may be we have to teach them workaround skills. Maybe we have to teach them to give a rote answers to fit into society, rather than having some sort of deeper understanding about what the other people are thinking or feeling. The first step when we're teaching empathy, of course is to help the child understand that their own emotions if they can't label if they can't link the emotions, the feelings they're having in their body to basic labels like happiness, sadness, excitement, anger, upset, then they're not going to be able to do that with someone else. So to understand someone else's emotions, you first have to be able to recognize what you're feeling, and place a label on it for your own emotions. 

Emma Shackleton  10:22  

And teaching empathy is often about going back and being explicit about the skills children develop in the early years. And some children even quite older children do need to revisit this with the way that we can do that is by role modeling and explaining scenarios from other people's perspectives. And we'll have to do this over and over again, this isn't something that can be taught in a one off lesson for example.

Simon Currigan  10:51  

And that was Emma and I discussing the stages that children go through to develop empathy and what we can do to help them foster connections with their peers develop collaborative skills, and ultimately achieve social success in the classroom. For more strategies and a deeper understanding of the various strands of empathy, then simply click the link that goes with this podcast episode description to head back to the original episode. If you found today's episode helpful or valuable, please take a moment to rate and review us. It really makes a difference. It takes just 30 seconds and when you do, it prompts the algorithm to recommend School Behaviour Secrets to other listeners, and that helps us grow the podcast and reach other teachers, school leaders and parents who need this information. Thanks for listening today, and I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)