You can teach ’empathy’ in the classroom

When some people say “kids will be kids,” what they really mean is that “children are cruel.” 

The assumption behind the saying is that there’s nothing we can do about it.  It’s human nature.  Kids won’t grow out of cruelty until they mature. 

But according to a recent New York Times report, schools around the country – especially middle schools – are betting that children can learn their way out of cruelty through new curriculums. 

The idea:  “teach” kids empathy. If they can learn to be more empathetic, the thinking goes, children will be less cruel and more supportive to one another.  Bullying will be reduced, and kids who might have been pushed over the edge as outcasts will have a better chance for happy childhoods.

It’s a nice plan, but is it realistic?  Is empathy something that can be taught? 

Even if it can, will it, in fact, likely lead to the desired effect of less bullying?

Good news:  Saybrook’s Social Concentration Director Joel Federman has done research indicating that the answer to both questions is “yes” – if you do it right.


Federman was project director and co-author of The Choices and Consequences Evaluation, a study of a violence prevention curriculum created by the National Middle School Association and the Court TV Network.  The study was conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbara, Center for Communication and Social Policy, and involved more than 500 students at three southern California middle schools.

The study results showed that young people’s ability to empathize with others did increase after exposure to the violence prevention curriculum. 

“Earlier research had shown a correlation between lack of empathy and aggressive behavior,” noted Federman.  “Our study showed that exposure to a curriculum designed to increase both empathy and awareness of the consequences of risky behavior can have the desired effect of both increasing student empathy and decreasing the likelihood of physical and verbal aggression in school environments.”

Multiple curriculums could conceivably get the same effect, but according to The Choices and Consequences Evaluation, one of the most effective components of the violence prevention curriculum was its honesty:  it exposed middle-schoolers to real kids at their own peer-level, in real circumstances, rather than trying to play their heart strings with less complicated, more moralistic situations.

“The curriculum features the use of videotapes showing real teenagers appearing in court in trouble with the law, emphasizing the serious and lifelong consequences of violent and other antisocial behavior for its perpetrators and victims,” the study noted.  “The use of actual courtroom footage of young people likely increased the potential for students to empathize with the people and situations featured in the curriculum.”

Participating teachers indicated to the study that one of the reasons they felt the curriculum worked was that “students were fascinated by the videotapes and became emotionally involved in the subject matter as a result.”

It went on:  “This emotional involvement with the depicted victims of violence likely contributed to the positive changes in student’s empathy found in this study.”

If that is a key element, many of the empathy-building curriculums mentioned in the New York Times may not be as successful:  while some have similar focuses, others are oriented around more generic concerns, asking questions like “what makes you cry,” while others have “values jingles.” 

Anecdotally, however, some curriculums are getting results:  according to some school principals, fights and disciplinary referrals have dropped after instituting the curriculums. 

As The Choices and Consequences Evaluation suggests, more research is needed to find exactly what elements make such curriculums work, what the ideal curriculum length is, and how such curriculums impact students over the long term. 

Hopefully, as more schools look to empathy along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, such research will be done. 


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