Bullying: Can Schools Teach Kids Empathy?

Photos: The Pain of Being Bullied Image via Facebook

In a Canadian second-grade classroom, a group of bright-faced 7-year-olds ponder how Hudson, a 4-month-old baby, might be feeling in this new, possibly intimidating environment. "Shy?" one child asks as Hudson works industriously on his pacifier. "Scared?" another child offers. In another classroom, when a giddy baby waves a toy and then drops it, a small student scoots forward to offer it back. Students in another class giggle as they watch a baby drool on a large plastic doll. "He's giving him a bath!" a child squeals.

These interactions, captured on video, will melt even the coldest hearts—which is exactly the point. They're examples of Roots of Empathy, a Canadian program now in 47 schools in the Seattle area, brainchild of educator and writer Mary Gordon. Roots of Empathy seeks to reduce aggression, violence, and bullying in schools by teaching children to see the world from another's perspective—in this case, the perspective of a baby—and in the process teach children empathy, compassion, and a few parenting skills to boot.

It's a program that's offering educators a ray of hope after a grim year. A spate of teen suicides triggered by antigay bullying has spurred a kind of national soul searching: Is high school getting nastier? Is it even possible to teach kids to be kinder people? "Teaching kindness is related to 'social and emotional learning,' " says Barbara Gueldner, a psychologist who worked on a University of Oregon study that evaluated anti-bullying curricula, in an email. Gueldner is optimistic that kids can learn both to manage their emotions and to be kinder to others.

These "emotional literacy" programs, with names like Caring School Community, I Can Problem Solve, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, and Strong Kids, typically start with "emotional identification," or understanding feelings and naming them. Young children, usually 4- to 8-year-olds, learn to recognize physiological cues, such as "when you feel afraid, your heart beats faster and you might feel uncomfortable," says Gueldner. "When kids are older, the concept is more sophisticated. Kids learn that there are thoughts that go along with their feelings."

The next step is learning that other people have these feelings, too—the "perspective taking" of the Roots program; in the Strong Kids program, students discuss common social scenarios and brainstorm possible feelings people might be experiencing. And finally, the social piece of the puzzle comes into play, says Gueldner: "Kindness is an action, and generally motivated by the feeling of sympathy and, hopefully, empathy. For example, you might feel afraid if someone bullied you, and when you think a classmate feels afraid, you may say something (a kind word) or come to her defense."

In fact, a primary component of anti-bullying curricula encourages the "bystanders"—the kids who aren't bullies or victims, but rather passive onlookers or even cheerleaders—to either step in or report bullying incidents. It's a common effective tactic in prevention programs to consider the school as an ecosystem of sorts, with every person—from cafeteria workers and bus drivers to parents and students—playing a role. "You treat everybody; you really try to change the system," says Malcolm Watson, a professor at Brandeis who studies aggression and violence in adolescents. But even when bullying decreases, it's hard to know whether kids are actually becoming "kinder"—kindness being hard to measure—or simply refraining from beating one another up in the hallways.

At the moment, "school districts can choose from dozens of programs [to ameliorate bullying]," says Scott W. Ross, a Utah State University professor who, along with Gueldner and another colleague, conducted Oregon's 24-year meta-analysis of 16 anti-bullying curricula, "all with different philosophies." But aggression, like kindness, doesn't come in countable units, so it's tough to determine effectiveness. In fact, some schools report an increase in bullying after programs begin, as teachers and students become more aware of negative incidents. "So it's hard to say this or that program really works to stop bullying," says Ross.

Though the schools that report a negative effect were the exception, the Oregon study showed only a modest positive benefit to many programs. A similar study at Cambridge of 59 anti-bullying programs, which showed a decrease in bullying incidents of 17 to 23 percent, managed to identify some common effective strategies: videos that demonstrated various scenarios and what to do; increased supervision of bullying "hotspots," like playgrounds; and parent training. "Each of the programs has some merit," says Shelley Hymel, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies bullying and peer harassment in schools, "but we still don't know which are the best techniques. Approaches that work in one place don't necessarily work in another."

The parent training may be the most critical piece of the puzzle. Gueldner, who now works in a pediatric practice, points out that we're living in difficult times: "A lot of kids don't have their basic needs met," she says, "and that's inherently stressful. When you don't feel that great, you're not that nice to other people." But even kids who are adequately fed and clothed may be observing—and imitating—parents who go through life with their brass knuckles on. If adults are teaching their kids that life is a zero-sum game (witness, in her reality show, Sarah Palin's crowing to her daughter about "one-upping" the neighbor), children are going to treat their classmates as competitors rather than colleagues.

"We definitely don't live in a collective society—and this speaks to [parental] modeling," says Gueldner. In the pediatric clinic, she teaches emotional literacy to adults as part of parent training: "First, you have to be aware of your own behavior and what you're modeling to your kids. This requires a certain amount of self-reflection—you have to care about what your behavior says about you. We talk about individual, family, and cultural values, feelings, and simple ways to validate their children's emotional experience." And then you have to be aware of what's going on in social situations, and talk about it. "You might say, 'This is what I saw happening. What did you see? What would you want someone to do if you were in that situation?' "

Parents and educators hope that this sort of multipronged effort will reduce aggression and bullying and produce happier and more academically successful kids. Bullied children don't want to go to school, and they're anxious when they get there, so transforming schools into safe spaces has a direct impact on academic performance. "Children's ability to demonstrate social, emotional, and academic skills are intertwined and ... essential for overall health and success," says Gueldner.

So as schools cast about to find the perfect, silver-bullet curriculum, Roots of Empathy offers a beacon of hope. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor in the department of educational and counseling psychology at the University of British Columbia, compared Roots students with a control group and found that those who had received the intervention reported an 88 percent drop in "proactive" bullying incidents (the sort of coldblooded targeting of a child by a bully) as well as a significant drop in "relational" bullying (backstabbing and gossiping, for example). She measured "bullying incidents" by distributing surveys to both the students and the teachers and found the answers to be remarkably consistent. Schonert-Reichl has been able to replicate these findings in three more studies in Canada as well as on the Isle of Man.

These are the sorts of numbers that could have educators scrambling to get a fresh crop of babies into American classrooms. However, the program hasn't been tested on kids older than grade 8, primarily due to the complicated logistics of keeping high-school students in one class for as long as an entire school year. It's also possible that learning compassion, like learning the cello or French, is easier for younger children. "It's a tougher sell to teach adolescents than kids of a younger age," says Watson. The Cambridge study, however, determined that anti-bullying programs actually work better on kids 11 and older—perhaps because adolescents generally enter a new stage of, in psych parlance, "moral development." Considering this conflicting information, Hymel said in an email, "Different programs reach different kids in different ways ... It would be great to have a series of initiatives across ages, all of which lead kids to the same positive outcomes."

The federal government thinks it's worth a try: in August the Department of Health and Human Services expanded its national anti-bullying campaign, Stop Bullying Now!, to target 5- to 8-year-olds, and in October the Department of Education distributed $38.8 million in grants to 11 states for a Safe and Supportive Schools initiative. Early next year, the Department of Ed will have workshops to "help educators better understand their obligations and the resources available to take prompt and effective steps that will end harassment and bullying in schools and on college campuses," says a press release.

All this discussion, though, raises a question: what's wrong with American high schools—or American families—that kids are this cruel to each other in the first place? "We have to look at the whole notion of high school," says Schonert-Reichl, a former high-school teacher herself. "Is our current model of high school developmentally appropriate? You create this massive institution with 3,000 students that seems prisonlike—how could you not have bullying occur?"