How can we teach students to care? The miracle of empathy

The General Theory of Love tells of a monkey that underwent a limbic lobotomy, and so lost access to the part of his brain that governs social interactions. He “stepped on his outraged peers as if treading on a log or rock, and took their food with the nonchalance of one oblivious to their existence”.

Awareness of others, and the ability to care for others are primary distinctions between mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Although empathy levels fluctuates vary across individuals and over the lifetime (there is a significant dip for humans in early adolescence), it is a rare mammal that exhibits the sociopathic indifference of the monkey described above.

The big question, then, is how we can promote empathy, especially in young adolescents who are exploring their individuality at the expense of others. Nel Noddings, Professor of Child Education at Stanford University, is a leading authority. Noddings says that children develop the facility to care through a progression of experiences: “learning first what it means to be cared for, then to care for intimate others, and finally to care about those we cannot care for directly”.

No Bully adopted this progression in its creation of the Solution Team response to bullying. The Solution Team leader’s initial task is to create a climate where all students feel respected and attended to. She then lays out how the target of bullying is feeling and opens up the possibility of the team caring for this student. The team is next given the chance to practice by action. As Noddings writes: “If we want to produce people who will care for another, then it makes sense to give students practice in caring and reflection on that practice … Caring-about is empty if it does not culminate in caring relations.”

The end stage, according to Noddings, is confirmation : “the act of affirming and encouraging the best in others”. Under Solution Team, the team leader invites the target of bullying to the final meeting to report back how things have improved and to thank the team. As educators, once we have a relationship of trust with our students, we are in a position to call forth their capacity to engage in acts of caring.