As we prepare for classroom activities with children and conferences with families, we will find many helpful rationales and resources in Michele Borba's book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World. Along with this summary, find links to empathy-building activities. I recommend this book to teachers and families of students of all ages.
“But why should we want our kids to empathize? For starters, the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity. It promotes kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage, and it is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism. Empathy is also a positive predictor of children’s reading and math test scores and critical thinking skills, prepares kids for the global world, and gives them a job market boost….
“Empathy is core to everything that makes a society civilized, but above all it makes our children better people, and that’s why I’m concerned. In the past decades, our kids’ capacity to care has plummeted while self-absorption has skyrocketed, and it puts humanity at stake. Today’s culture values ‘Me’ more than ‘We.’”
(Michele Borba, from the introduction, p. xiv)
Summary: Readable, anecdotal, and practical, Michele Borba asks families, teachers, and coaches who work with children to counter “selfie society” and help children develop empathy and become “Unselfies.” Connecting empathy to quality of life, personal achievement, and humanity’s future, Borba organizes her book in three sections, asking us to help children develop empathy, practice empathy, and live empathy by becoming upstanders and changemakers. This is a good book to recommend to parents and guardians to read, and from which teachers and administrators can share excerpts for discussion or in school newsletters. As well, teachers will find the book chock full of games, discussion prompts, and classroom fundamentals to lay a foundation of empathy building.
Borba cites numerous and varied studies throughout the book, always pointing to the importance of empathy in children’s achievement and success as well as in their development as compassionate and courageous human beings. Using the phrase “Empathy Advantage,” she is clearly aiming to make believers out of achievement-oriented parents/guardians and teachers. She reminds us that empathy can (and must) be cultivated, practiced, taught, and encouraged.
Borba starts by citing studies that identify dropping levels of empathy, increased cruelty to peers, more cheating, and higher incidences of mental health issues in today’s youth. (See Introduction pages xv-xvi for details.)
In Part One: Developing Empathy, Borba suggests numerous ways to teach emotional literacy, encouraging us to tune in to each other and tune out the distractions of digital devices. With age-by-age strategies in Chapter 1, she suggests such steps as creating “sacred family times” without digital media use, eating together, reading and discussing books about feelings, and taking time to discuss feelings with both boys and girls. (See pages 21-24 for details.) In Chapter 2, Borba discusses ways to help children develop moral identities and ethical codes. Countering the “self-esteem” building trends, she asks us to avoid nurturing narcissism and instead nurture altruism in our children. She shares such practical strategies as holding family meetings, identifying family values, creating moral mottos, acting as role models for ethical and caring behavior, and sharing strategies to help children monitor their own behavior: “Grandma Test: Would I do it if my grandma heard about it?” or “3Rs Test: Could it damage my relationships or reputation, or might I regret it later?” (See pages 34-45 for details.) In Chapter 3, Borba describes practical ways to help children understand the perspectives (and feelings) of others. Calling this ability to “gateway to empathy,” she invites parents and teachers to ask children to “Do it over,” Role play from the other side, “ and “Freeze and think,” about how their actions have affected others. Rather than spanking, yelling, shaming, or rewarding children, Borba asks adults to plainly explain why an action is hurtful, to express disappointment in selfish behavior, or help the child/teen recognize how their actions impact others. This type of “inductive discipline” activates empathy. (See pages 50-70 for details.) Finally, in Chapter 4, Borba discusses using literature and movies to develop empathy. Citing research that suggest digital reading is less conducive to promoting reading enjoyment, she urges children (and families) to share REAL books (especially fiction) to learn about other cultures, others’ feelings, and new perspectives. Further, she invites us to pose “What if?” and “How Would You Feel?” questions as we read or discuss literature with children and students. A list of age-by-age strategies to promote moral imagination concludes the chapter and the section. (See pages 76-92 for details.)
Part Two: Practicing Empathy begins with Chapter 5 and examples of techniques to promote children’s ability to self-regulate their emotions. The ability to self-regulate allows children to both calm themselves as well as recognize others’ needs. Yet, in our high-stress society, Borba worries (and research acknowledges) that stress promotes violent and selfish behavior and inhibits compassion. Thus, she suggests ways parents, teachers, and coaches can model calmness and teach self-control, using mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, identifying our bodies’ signals, and using positive message “self talk.” (See pages 98-116 for details.) In Chapter 6, after citing scientific studies asserting that kindness is catching (and leads to personal happiness), Borba cites many examples of school children practicing daily acts of kindness. Harvard University’s “Making Caring Common” Initiative has publicized disturbing evidence that students perceive that their parents value achievement over kindness. To counter this trend, Borba asks us to actively teach kindness and show children how important it is. Again she asks us to model kindness, and she gives examples of family and classroom kindness “rituals” that go beyond monetary rewards. Kindness pledges, kindness jars, kindness walls all help children to build kindness into daily actions. (See pages 125-140 for details.) Chapter 7 invites us to boost “us” and “we” thinking. She wants us to build recess into our school schedules and free-play time into our children’s lives to allow children to build collaborative and problem solving skills. Citing Elliot Aronson’s psychological research, she promotes cooperative learning groups in school as a way to allow children to get to know each other by working together on structured tasks. She also encourages us to use such activities as Mix It Up Day, family meetings, cooperative games, and youth service groups to enable kids (and families) to work with a variety of people on meaningful tasks. See pages 152-164 for details.)
So how to bring empathy into action? This is the topic of Part Three: Living Empathy. In Chapter 8, Borba shines a spotlight on kids who stick their necks out and demonstrate moral courage. She discusses factors that encourage children and adults to be bystanders rather than upstanders: “Powerlessness,” “Vague expectations,” “Peer pressure,” “The diffusion of responsibility,” “Empathy arousal (feeling too bad to help),” and “Weak adult support.” How can we encourage children to help? We can expect them to help, set examples ourselves, show them examples of heroic people, stop solving their problems for them, and using baby steps to larger acts of heroism and helpfulness. With pneumonic devices, Michele Borba offers parents, teachers, coaches, and kids steps for such empathetic actions as intervening to stop bullying. “STANDUP,” for example, reminds kids to Seek Support, Tell a Trusted Adult, Assist the Victim, Negate (rumors, insults) with a Positive View, Design a Detour, Use a Distraction, and Pause and Rethink (See pages 178-182 for details.) Finally, in Chapter 9, Borba asks us to empower children to become “changemakers.” Using steps very congenial with our “Think-Care-Act Project” model, Borba suggests we help children see themselves through a “growth Mindset” lens, able to develop empathy and exercise it increasingly effectively. Next we emphasize effort over results, and suggest practice and evaluation. (See pages 201-213 for details.)
1. Share articles with families to invite them to be part of the process of teaching empathy.
a. Harvard’s Making Caring Common Initiative offers a concise four-page list of suggestions for families to use with children to build empathy: http://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-mcc/files/empathy.pdf
b. Share The Atlantic’s article on Denmark’s program to teach empathy in schools: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/08/the-us-empathy-gap/494975/
2. The book is chock full of practical mini-lessons as well as larger projects. Try some of the breathing exercises on page 113, for example:
a. “Buddy Breathing:” Sit back-to-back and try to match breaths while deeply breathing.
b. “Belly Buddies:” Children recline with stuffed animal or pretty stone on tummy, and feel it go up and down with deep breathing.
c. “Candles and Flowers:” Child imagines breathing in a flower and blowing out candles.
3. Consider undertaking Think-Care-Act Projects in your school by grade level or in your own class. Detailed rationales, resources, handouts, and directions can be found on my blog: http://thinkcareact.blogspot.jp/2014/11/change-world-local-global-think-care.html
4. Try some of these classroom activities, described by Character.org: http://character.org/lessons/lesson-plans/
“Mobilizing children’s moral courage to be Upstanders may be our best hope to stop peer cruelty,” says Michele Borba (p. 181). It also may be key to the quality of our children’s lives and our development as true human beings.
Susan Gelber Cannon