Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The tiniest teachers: how babies teach empathy

Mooey the bullied chicken is my ambassador of empathy for kids of all ages. One of my favorite parts of spending the day in a middle or high school is when word gets out that there's a live chicken in Ms. Gonzales' class. Groups of kids gather outside of the door to confirm, "Mrs. Gonzales, is there really a live chicken in here?!" and "Mrs. Gonzales, can I come into your class this period?"

Something about Mooey evokes empathy. Students feel sorry for her because she was the target of bullying. It galls me that she became a bully -- a much more brutal bully than those who pecked on her. I ask the kids, "Do you feel more compassion for Mooey as a target or as a bully?" The audience is always split.

I feel more empathy for her as a bully. Empathy is the key word here. How to get kids to develop empathy is a challenge because empathy must be experienced in order to learn it. Canadian educator Mary Gordon founded a program in 1996 called Roots of Empathy. A community member brings an infant into an elementary classroom several times over the year to help children identify and think about their own feelings and thoughts, and what other people might feel.

According to research, the program works. See more at this post, sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.  More than 12,000 Canadian schools have hosted the program and it's starting to immigrate to the USA.

Chickens and babies can open the door to our hearts in ways that big humans don't. It all boils down to empathy -- the ability to understand how others may feel.

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