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Nurturing Children’s Empathy: Opportunities for Behavioral Science

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Feb 02, 2024

As a former elementary school teacher, I often reflect on the impact this post-pandemic era has had on my past students. The challenge of battling social isolation's effects was difficult for most adults, including myself, so I can only imagine how it was for these children. After all, they were at a crucial stage in developing socio-emotional skills: the capacities essential for enabling individuals to effectively manage stress, build relationships, and engage creatively and productively in their environments.1 Such skills include emotional regulation, social interaction, and resilience. The pandemic's disruption could have seriously impeded kids in developing these abilities.

Unfortunately, the research only confirms my suspicions. A recent study examining the socio-emotional impact of reopening primary schools after prolonged closures found that children were less likely to exhibit prosocial behavior.2 One third of participants reported concerns surrounding face-to-face interactions, such as maintaining physical distance with others or navigating changes in relationships. These results suggest that many children experienced the ultimate challenge of no longer finding “normalcy” normal.

This brings us to a critical question: how might we support children in developing (or re-developing) these essential socio-emotional skills such as empathy in a post-pandemic world?

What is empathy and how does it develop?

Empathy is “the capacity to resonate with and reflect upon the feelings and mental states of others.”3 It involves sharing someone else’s emotions (the affective component) and understanding why they feel that way (the cognitive component).  

A huge part of how empathetic we are is rooted in our biology – such as particular genes, hormones, and brain areas.4 There is no need to fret, however, if you’re worried that you might not have inherited this “empathy gene” from your parents, or that you’re low in oxytocin (a hormone linked to higher empathy). The good news is that while nature does play a part in developing empathy, nurture also matters a lot. Thus empathy, to a large extent, can be learned and developed. 

One way is through the direct role of parents – not just by teaching empathy, but by exemplifying empathy through their own behaviors.3 First, children learn by observing and modeling their parents’ self-regulation.5 Second, parents directly guide children through socialization, especially when it comes to emotionally challenging situations. Lastly, the climate parents create at home (whether that be warm and supportive or controlling and harsh) greatly influences their children’s socio-emotional competence – including their empathy.5

The importance of this parental role was even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. With school closures forcing students to spend a lot more time at home, parents became the primary educators in their children’s emotional development. This period highlighted the critical importance of nurturing an empathetic home environment, as children relied heavily on their parents on how to understand and process their emotions in a confined and altered reality.

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Opportunities for behavioral science

Socio-emotional learning at school: A TDL case study

While parents play a pivotal role, it’s equally important to recognize the profound influence of school environments in nurturing empathy. This is often achieved through social and emotional learning (SEL): the process of acquiring the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills necessary for healthy emotional development.

This ties into our work with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a renowned leader in the promotion of SEL within the education sector. Our partnership aimed to address the systematic challenge of disseminating SEL strategies within schools by bringing behavioral science into play.

CASEL is dedicated to providing support to educators and policy leaders alike in teaching SEL. We wanted to ensure that CASEL’s high-quality content would reach their target audience by enhancing their digital tools, such as their website serving as a go-to SEL resource. Our research involved personas and user decision maps from extensive interviews and surveys with various stakeholders. We adopted a user-centered approach, addressing systematic behavioral barriers through recommending navigation updates and prototyping interactive tools in their digital platform.

Our collaboration with CASEL demonstrated significant potential to widen the scope of SEL progress within education guided by behavioral science. We improved the discoverability and usability of SEL resources, making it easier for educators to access and apply them. This way, learning empathy can more easily be interwoven into the fabric of everyday academic activities.

Integrating behavioral design in empathy education

While our collaboration with CASEL holds the potential to significantly enhance systematic progress in SEL within education, it's essential to explore creative opportunities for behavioral science to further nurture children's empathy – both at home and in the classroom. 

Gamification for Emotional Learning

Develop activities where children role-play various scenarios. For parents, this may mean playing “emotional charades” where family members guess each other’s portrayed emotions. For teachers, this may mean rewarding points to students for correctly identifying emotions in story characters or responding appropriately in mock social situations.

Personalization in Empathy Education

Tailor activities to a child's interests. For instance, if a child loves space exploration, stories about astronauts working together may be a great way to teach them empathy. While it may not be realistic at school to customize learning to each student, it is still possible to leverage common interests among the group to promote cooperation.

Nudging Towards Empathetic Choices

Whether in classrooms or at home, subtle cues can encourage empathetic behavior. This might include empathy-themed posters, storybooks, or even discussion cards to constantly nudge children towards empathetic thinking and actions.

Feedback Loops for Emotional Understanding

Use tools like interactive digital platforms or direct feedback to provide immediate affirmation of empathetic actions. For instance, while reading a storybook, teachers or parents can compliment children for their caring responses, such as, “I like how you considered the character’s feelings in that difficult situation.” This reinforces the value of empathy in real-time and encourages students to continue thinking in this way.

A comprehensive approach to nurturing empathy

As we navigate the complexities of the post-pandemic era, the importance of fostering socio-emotional skills like empathy in students becomes increasingly clear. The challenges faced by children during the pandemic, such as decreased prosocial behavior and difficulties in social interactions, highlight the urgent need for effective strategies to support their emotional and social well-being.

Our work with CASEL has shown the tremendous potential of integrating SEL into educational settings systematically. However, nurturing empathy extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The behavioral design principles we discussed – like gamification, personalization, nudging, and creating feedback loops – are not just tools for educators but can also be adapted by parents at home. 

In the end, it's a collaborative effort. By leveraging the strengths of both settings – the structured, innovative approaches of schools and the personalized, nurturing environment of homes – we can provide children with well-rounded, continuous, and effective empathy education. This comprehensive approach ensures that our children are not only academically equipped but also emotionally intelligent, enabling them to navigate the complexities of a rapidly changing world with empathy and resilience. In doing so, we prepare them for whatever the future may hold, ensuring they are emotionally equipped to handle any pandemic-level event that might (though hopefully not) strike the world again.

References

1. Danner, D., Lechner, C., & Spengler, M. (2021). Editorial: Do we need socio-emotional skills? Front. Psychol., 12, 1-3.

2. Wang, J., Wang, Y., Lin, H., Chen, X., Wang, H., Liang, H., Guo, X., & Fu, C. (2021). Mental health problems among school-aged children after school reopening: A cross-sectional study during the COVID-19 post-pandemic in East China. Front. Psychol., 12, 1-15.

3. Levy, J., Goldstein, A., & Feldman, R. (2019). The neural development of empathy is sensitive to caregiving and early trauma. Nature Communications, 10, Article 1905. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09927-y

4. Knafo, A., Zahn-Waxler, C., Van Hulle, C., Robinson, J. A. L., & Rhee, S. H. (2008). The developmental origins of a disposition toward empathy: Genetic and environmental contributions. Emotion, 8(6), 737–752. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014179

5. Morris AS., Criss MM., Silk JS., Houltberg BJ. (2017). The impact of parenting on emotion regulation during childhood and adolescence, Child Development Perspectives 11(4), 233–238.

6. Schwartz, H., Skoog-Hoffman, A., Polman, J., Kelly, O., Bañales, J., & Jagers, R. (2023). Integrated learning, integrated lives: Highlighting opportunities for transformative SEL within academic instruction. CASEL.

About the Author

Mariel Guevara

Mariel Guevara is a Junior Research Analyst at The Decision Lab. She is currently pursuing her MA degree in Developmental Psychology at Ateneo de Manila University. She has held several research positions in the past spanning different technology-mediated interventions tackling issues such as substance use prevention, mental health promotion, and civic engagement. She is especially passionate about making mental health services more accessible in the Philippines. In her free time she enjoys playing video games, going on nature walks, and playing sports.

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