If a child said to you: I couldn’t be bothered caring about other people”, what would you say in response?

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The transitioning from ‘remote’ back to ‘real’ learning through 2020 will be problematic for educators and students alike. As many of us struggle with this lengthy process, what can help those transitions to succeed? Here is one option: Focus on supportive dialogue with young people, whether online or in real life. The quality of every relationship – personal or professional – is determined by the words we choose to use in that relationship.

In this compelling 4-blog series, Tony Ryan will explore the power of the conversations that we have with children every day. He will offer how you might respond to children when they say each of these four statements:

1. “I don’t like all of these endless changes right now.”
2. “I couldn’t be bothered caring about other people.”
3. “I don’t want to learn new things during this time.”
4. “I don’t know how to think about options for my life up ahead.”

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The Human Library1 loans out people for you to read. It is a non-profit organisation that arranges for users to ‘borrow’ a person instead of a book, and to then empathize with that person’s different perspective through conversation. First developed in Copenhagen at the Roskilde Festival in 2000, Human Library events have taken place in over 70 countries around the world.

We need ‘human libraries’ everywhere, especially online. Empathy is a critical competency for the mid-21st century, and it can be explicitly modelled and taught to children. So what does it really mean for children to be empathic in their daily life? It means they can appreciate the other person’s perspective. They feel compassion, listen deeply, and respond in a way that indicates they understand the other’s words and feelings. Dan Goleman2 identifies three types of empathy. The third is the desired end-result:

1. Cognitive empathy. They know what the other person is feeling, and perhaps even what they are thinking. It does not mean they care, though. They are simply able to understand the other person’s perspective.
2. Emotional empathy. They perceive what the other person is feeling, and they really care about them.
3. Compassionate empathy. Utilising the first two types of empathy, they then take action and provide practical support.

Give children frequent opportunities to build up to this compassionate empathy. They might, for example, engage in an online conversation with a fellow student who is feeling sad. Children need to learn two important empathic skills during those conversations. One is to ‘zoom in’ and deeply listen to someone. The second is to ‘zoom out’ and learn how to see the bigger picture on what is occurring. With both approaches, encourage them to become a little kinder than they need to be.

While many children can engage naturally in empathic support, others may struggle, especially during and after an extended home lock-down. What might you say to a child who says: “I couldn’t be bothered caring about other people. I need to look after myself.” Here are some responses you might offer3:

There are lots of benefits to being empathic. People will often like you more (although this is not the reason you do it). It helps you to understand other people better. It can lead to fewer misunderstandings and arguments with others, and it can even help you to be happier more of the time.

As you grow older, empathy will become more important than ever. Many future jobs will need high empathy. The world is becoming increasingly diverse, which means that we need to develop a greater awareness of the different lives people live.

Remember that it doesn’t make you a weak person to really care about other people. It makes you a stronger person when you empathise. Some males (especially teenage boys) seem to think that empathy is predominantly a feminine characteristic. That’s not correct. It’s a human characteristic to relate to other people’s needs and feelings, regardless of your gender.

It is critical that you yourself model empathy to young people. It is not just something you tell children to do. The most obvious modelling is your empathic support for your own students and school community members. Children also observe how you respond when a struggling child interrupts you during a class online lesson. For the children in your care, you are always on empathic show. Live up to your advice to them.

Resources:
1. http://humanlibrary.org/about-the-human-library/
2. Daniel Goleman, Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate, 12 June 2007. www.danielgoleman.info/three-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotional-compassionate/
3. Tony Ryan, The Next Generation: Preparing Today’s Kids For An Extraordinary Future. John Wiley & Sons, August 2018.