Nicole Vidiri Silva, M.S., LMSW
Put simply, empathy can be defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Yet how does one more completely describe empathy, and what makes a person truly empathetic? While seemingly basic, this quality of being empathic actually requires a tremendous amount of underlying precursor skills: the ability to identify, label, and express one’s own emotions; the capacity to notice and take another’s perspective; and the ability to use this knowledge (it is, in actuality, a very nuanced and intuitive form of intelligence) to demonstrate care and concern for others. At the most pared down level, empathy is truly where respect, collaboration, kindness, and peace begin. The problem? We are currently experiencing an empathy crisis. And I believe it has implications for society at all levels.
My experience as a school social worker over the last decade has been incredibly enlightening, and at times frightening, with regards to this crisis of empathy. I have noticed with increasing concern the number of students struggling with empathy, which one could argue is essential to the health of the human condition. Children seem to have difficulty acknowledging the perspective of another, let alone using that information to better inform their social interactions and behaviors. Often, in mediating a conflict, I will ask a student to reflect on what thoughts and feelings others may have, and how their actions impacted those around them. It is gravely concerning how many individuals are unable to answer such questions, needing significant prompting to even consider these pieces of the social puzzle. There seems to be some level of interpersonal disconnection at work here, which begs the questions: why, and how?
At the risk of sounding redundant, I have come to the conclusion that technology must play a significant role in this crisis. The students we are working with now in schools have never known a time when social media was not a part of everyday life. With relatively few exceptions, many children are exposed to this technology early, and it has become a part of their daily routine, forming a synthetic foundation of human interaction. They relate to their peers through these mediums, and this virtual “wall” has created a disconnect in understanding the impact of how they talk to each other, both online and in person. Add to this disjointed social media reality violent video games, and a serious decline in developmentally appropriate play opportunities and peer interaction, and we have a very real threat to emotional intelligence and empathic connection.
Alas, we have a crisis of empathy, and I would argue that this is the basis for many other crises we are facing in schools and society in general. Think about the major issues we are grappling with: bullying, cyberbullying, discrimination, social exclusion...few of these can exist (or at least, persist) within the presence of true, developed, pervasive empathy. When children (and adults) seek to understand each other and build skills in perspective taking and empathic connection, it is much more difficult to sustain conflict, hatred, and fear of the “other”. In this way, focusing on the development of emotional intelligence and empathy becomes a fundamental solution to many of the greatest challenges in our educational and social system.
The central question here is how we effectively address this empathy crisis. The solution must be multifaceted and needs to occur across the settings in which children grow and develop. In schools, we can center our policies, protocols, and programs around the development of skills in perspective taking, social problem solving, emotional intelligence and building capacity for empathy. We can prioritize social emotional learning, not as a separate quick fix curriculum, but as an approach that is interwoven into all aspects of the school community. When confronted with behavioral and social difficulties among our students, we can utilize restorative practices to address them in supportive and productive ways that encourage children to consider the impacts their actions have on others. We can better support our teachers in fostering their own emotional growth and creating emotionally safe spaces for students. Of course, to do this, schools must offer high quality professional development that enables educators to learn and put into practice effective techniques and approaches.
At home, we can make empathy a central focus in discussions and teachings with our children, starting very early on. Something as simple as reading books to young toddlers, and asking questions about the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of various characters in the story can make a huge impact. So too can changing the question of “what did you do today?” to “how were you kind today?”. Negotiating conflict between siblings can include questions about how one child’s action impacted the other, and what thoughts and feelings family members might have about what happened. Caregivers can be sure to point out that the feelings and experiences of other people matter, helping children to consider the social and emotional context in which different people live and interact. These small discussions promote the value of thinking about another person’s situation, perspective, feelings, and thoughts. In this way, families can help children form a foundation of empathy that educators can capitalize and expand on. Indeed, it is something that we all must work together on, if we are to change the current course and help our children develop more solid emotional and interpersonal skills.
In the end, we must acknowledge that empathy is critical and central to our communities, and to civilization as a whole. A crisis of empathy is a major concern, and one that we must address fully and collaboratively. In fact, I would argue that empathy is the foundational characteristic and precursor skill that must be developed in order for all other learning and interaction to take place effectively. Put in those terms, it is clear that this empathy crisis is of paramount importance to caregivers, educators, and society, and that we must act to address it in creative and comprehensive ways.
“The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?” - Jeremy Rifkin
This guest blog was written by Nicole Vidiri Silva is a bilingual school social worker that has recently transitioned into the role of Dean of Students and Social Emotional Learning at the James H. Vernon School in Oyster Bay, New York. Her professional interests include effective integration of social emotional learning, mindfulness, and restorative practices into public school settings. Follow her on Twitter @nsilvalmsw or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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