Empathy Is the Root of No Evil

By Bryan Toporek — April 29, 2010 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Want to avoid having your child turn out to be a bully? According to a recent TIME Magazine article, a growing number of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators believe teaching young children empathy could be the key to prevent school bullies.

Humans begin empathizing with others naturally at a young age—studies have shown that babies prefer adults who help, rather than hinder, others. However, traumatic experiences in childhood could thwart a child’s capacity to empathize, and instead lead to path of aggression and bullying.

“You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children,” says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University, “or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment.”

School programs such as Roots of Empathy are being designed to teach children compassion, in hopes of preventing school bullying. The program has reduced bullying at schools according to nine separate studies, and many schools are using Roots of Empathy. According to TIME, 3,000 kindergartens, elementary, and middle schools are using the program in Canada, and 40 U.S. schools are using it in Seattle, Washington.

Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, believes that children can be dissuaded from negative behavior by “anchor[ing] how they felt in the moment.”

“We always think we should start with, ‘How do you think so-and-so felt?,’” says Gordon. “But you will be more successful if you start with, ‘You must have felt very upset.’ The trick is to help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they’ve got language. Now they can say, ‘I’m feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.’ ”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.