Monday, November 29, 2010

Bullying, Empathy, and Human Nature

Is anyone else having a seriously hard time recovering from that long Thanksgiving weekend?

Well, welcome back to the real world : )

I just came across this NY Times article Fighting Bullying with Babies.  The article talks about the problem of bullying in our country's children (it doesn't seem to stop there, though, does it?) and a group called Roots of Empathy who has attempted to combat the bullying problem by bringing babies into classrooms.  Yes, that's right.  They get mothers and babies to come and do classroom visits in order to create an  empathic and compassionate response by the students.  It's an amazing article that I encourage you to read.  The gist of what I got from it is that bullying comes from our natural tendency toward selfishness and aggression, but it can be replaced by developing empathic connections to others (an ability which is now believed to be hardwired in our brains).

When the trained instructors accompany the mothers and babies on the classroom visits, they point out new developments that the baby has made since the last visit (like sitting up, eating solid food, rolling).  They encourage children to try to understand the babies feelings, even having them lay on their backs and imitate a babies sense of limited movement.  They are trained to bring out compassionate responses from the students. 

The baby visits have proven meaningful based on statistics and also teacher's impressions.  Bullying rates go down, tough kids loosen up.  While on one hand, it seems that the baby visits might induce oxytocin, the bonding hormone that mothers feel toward their children, and that the empathy response it hormonal.  By empathy response, I mean that they have seen the incidence rate of bullying go down by 50% in one program studied.  On the other hand, it could also be that the baby visits call upon the part of the human brain responsible for empathy.  The author suggests that the part of the human brain that gets stimulated when a mother looks at her child is the same part of the brain that is active when someone sees a stranger get bullied.  There is an innate sense of empathy in humans.  Whether the success rate of this program is due to oxytocin or brain function (or both), the results were seen to scale as well as on a longer-term basis (three years after the program ended!).

As one reader of the article posted in the comments, this article has "restored my faith in human nature".  I have to agree.

I hope that our baby area in the classroom has elicited a similar response as the baby visits studies, even if on a much smaller scale.  It reminds me also not to take for granted that just because the kids are playing with pretend babies doesn't mean they are fully getting the perspective-taking opportunity of playing the parent role.  It is my job as the teacher and facilitator of play to bring in dialogues that involve the parents' role, the babies' needs, the child's thought process.  My job is to help that empathy experienced while playing with babies and pretend families reach the conscious from the subconscious.  The founder of Roots of Change, Mary Gordon,  envisioned their program as "a seriously proactive parent education program – one that would begin when the mothers- and fathers-to-be were in kindergarten."  I hope that's what we're doing here at Beansprouts as well.

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