These are far-reaching questions; and educators, legislators and the public can be expected to continue expressing different — and sometimes heated — points of view about the teaching of "values" and "morals" in the schools.
The present report will not take on the full weight of these numerous and complex issues. Instead, the intent here is to offer some insights from the research about one aspect of "goodness" that is of particular current interest to educators and society — the quality of empathy.
If we ask, "what are the characteristics of a capable, successful learner?" one view that is gaining increasing currency among educators is the notion that successful learners are knowledgeable, self-determined, strategic, and empathetic* (Jones 1990). That is, in addition to having (1) knowledge, including critical and creative faculties; (2) motivation to learn and confidence about themselves as learners; and (3) tools and strategies for acquiring, evaluating, and applying knowledge; successful learners also have (4) insight into the motives, feelings, and behavior of others and the ability to communicate this understanding — in a word, empathy.
Jones (1990) identifies some of the reasons that empathetic understanding is seen as an important trait of the successful learner:
Researchers and other writers use the word "empathetic" and the word "empathic" to designate a person or response characterized by empathy. Both are correct.
Successful students often recognize that much of their success involves their ability to communicate with others...they are also able to view themselves and the world through the eyes of others. This means .... examining beliefs and circumstances of others, keeping in mind the goal of enhanced understanding and appreciation .... Successful students value sharing experiences with persons of different backgrounds as enriching their lives (p. 19).
Regardless of conflicting views about the appropriate place, if any, of "values education" in the schools, people are generally able to agree that developing this capacity to understand, appreciate, and communicate meaningfully with others is an important and desirable goal. This enables us to move away from our differences of opinion about the specific CONTENT of "good character," focusing instead on the PROCESS whereby people come to care about one another and communicate that caring through their behavior.
... an empathic response is one which contains both a cognitive and an affective dimension .... the term empathy [is] used in at least two ways; to mean a predominantly cognitive response, understanding how another feels, or to mean an affective communion with the other (p. 100).
Carl Rogers (1975) wrote:
And THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE defines empathy as "understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts and motives of one are readily comprehended by another."
In addition to the shared feeling and accurate understanding dimensions of empathy, some writers also focus on the empathetic person's communication of understanding to the person whose "internal frame of reference" he or she has grasped. Thus, some definitions include this element, e.g., Haynes and Avery's characterization of empathy as:
Such a response may involve verbal confirmation of understanding and/or supportive looks and body language, and prosocial behavior such as sharing goods or providing help.
Because different writers emphasize different aspects of empathy, the measures of empathy used in the research include assessments of subjects' emotional states, their cognitive perceptions, and/or their behavior.
The literature on Empathy
Of the research documents, thirty-two are studies or evaluations, four are reviews or meta-analyses, and one reports results of both a review and evaluation. Subjects of the research are preschoolers (six studies), elementary students (fourteen), secondary students (four), elementary and secondary students (six), university students and other adults (six), and the age/grade of students in one study was not specified.
Both sexes and various racial/ethnic groups are represented among the research subjects. Of the school-age participants, most are students in regular school programs, but special education students are also represented, as are delinquent and other incarcerated youth. Most subjects are American, although the research base also includes studies involving Finns, Israelis, Australians, and Canadians.
Practices and treatments whose effects were investigated include empathy training (nineteen studies), childrearing practices and other home factors (eight), and classroom strategies and program designs (seven). Three studies identified correlations between empathy and other traits.
Looking at outcome areas, twenty-one of the reports were concerned with subjects' scores on measures of cognitive and/or affective empathy. Other outcome areas include:
1. Child-rearing practices
MOTHERS whose behavior toward their preschool children is RESPONSIVE, NONPUNITIVE, AND NONAUTHORITARIAN have children who have higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg, Lennon, and Roth 1983; EisenbergBerg and Mussen 1978; Kestenbaum, Farber, and Sroufe 1989; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
REASONING WITH CHILDREN, even quite small ones, about the effects of their behavior on others and the importance of sharing and being kind is effective in promoting empathy and prosocial behavior (Clarke 1984; Kohn 1991; Ladd, Lange, and Stremmel 1983; and Zahn-Waxler, RadkeYarrow, and King 1979).
PARENTAL MODELING OF EMPATHETIC, CARING BEHAVIOR toward children--and toward others in the children's presence--is strongly related to children's development of prosocial attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Kohn 1991; McDevitt, Lennon, and Kopriva 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
WHEN CHILDREN HAVE HURT OTHERS or otherwise caused them distress, research supports the practice of giving explanations as to why the behavior is harmful and suggestions for how to make amends (Kohn 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
PARENTS ENCOURAGING SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN TO DISCUSS THEIR FEELINGS AND PROBLEMS is positively related to the development of empathy in those children (Clarke 1984).
Researchers have also identified childrearing practices which are NEGATIVELY related to the development of empathy:
THREATS AND/OR PHYSICAL PUNISHMENTS meted out in an attempt to improve children's behavior are counterproductive (Clarke 1984; Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Kohn 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
INCONSISTENT CARE (e.g., inconsistency in parents' reactions to children's emotional needs) and PARENTAL REJECTION/WITHDRAWAL in times of children's emotional needs are both associated with low levels of empathy on the parts of the children (Kestenbaum, Farber, and Sroufe 1989).
Children from HOMES IN WHICH THEIR FATHERS PHYSICALLY ABUSE THEIR MOTHERS have low levels of empathy. For example, they are typically unable to recognize the emotional states of other people and respond appropriately (Hinchey and Gavelek 1982).
The provision of EXTRINSIC REWARDS OR "BRIBES" to improve children's behavior is counterproductive. As with other research on extrinsic rewards, researchers have found that providing payoffs for prosocial behavior focuses attention on the reward rather than the reason for it and that the desired behaviors tend to lessen or disappear when the reward is withdrawn (Kohn 1991).
2. Empathy training
Research supports the provision of empathy training to enhance empathetic feelings and understanding and increase prosocial behavior. This applies to children of all ages and to adults, and characterizes both fullscale empathy training programs and short-term treatments. The specific components within empathy training approaches that are associated with increases in empathy include:
TRAINING IN INTERPERSONAL PERCEPTION AND EMPATHETIC RESPONDING. A cognitive approach, in which students learn what empathy is, how it develops, how to recognize different emotive states in themselves and others, and how to respond to others positively, enhances their empathetic perceptions and skills (Black and Phillips 1982; Herbek and Yammarino 1990; Kalliopuska 1983; Kremer and Dietzen 1991; Pecukonis 1990; and Perry, Bussey, and Freiberg 1981).
INITIAL FOCUS ON ONE'S OWN FEELINGS. When seeking to increase the ability of children to assume another's perspective, it is most fruitful to have them focus first on their own feelings--the different kinds of feelings they have and what feelings are associated with what kinds of situations (Black and Phillips 1982; and Dixon 1980).
FOCUS ON SIMILARITIES BETWEEN ONESELF AND OTHERS. Activities which focus children's attention on similarities between themselves and another person (or other persons) is effective in increasing affective and cognitive empathy (Black and Phillips 1982; Brehm, Fletcher, and West 1988; Clarke 1984; Dixon 1980; and Hughes, Tingle, and Sawin 1981). Identifying these similarities is the logical next step following the focus on one's own feelings. As Brehm, Fletcher, and West (1988) point out:
Virtually all considerations of the empathic process have noted the close connections between responding empathically to another person and perceiving that person as similar to oneself (p. 8).
By way of example, Hahn (1980) found that crosscultural empathy is enhanced if classroom activities focus first on the similarities between other cultures and one's own society and only later begin calling attention to differences.
ROLE-TAKING OR ROLE-PLAYING. Activities which call for children or adults to assume the role of a real or fictional person and to imagine or act out that person's feelings and/or behavior are effective in increasing both affective and cognitive empathy (Barak, et al. 1987; Black and Phillips 1982; Herbek and Yammarino 1990; Kremer and Dietzen 1991; Morgan 1983; and Underwood and Moore 1982). Increases in empathy are noted even when children are asked to imagine the point of view of an animal, plant, or inanimate object.
A special case of role-taking and identification of similarities with others is a collection of activities which has been used to increase able-bodied students' UNDERSTANDING OF AND EMPATHY FOR THE PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED.
Robinson (1979) describes the content and beneficial results of a program in which students hear handicapped speakers, become familiar with prosthetics and other appliances used by the handicapped, and engage in roletaking experiences which approximate handicapping conditions. The outcome of these activities is that participating children:
ONGOING PRACTICE IN IMAGINING/PERCEIVING ANOTHER'S PERSPECTIVE. Repeated practice at taking another's perspective is more effective than one-shot or infrequent efforts to do so (Black and Phillips 1982; Haynes and Avery 1979; Kalliopuska 1983; Kremer and Dietzen 1991; and Pecukonis 1990). For many people, including the very young, the ability to imagine and gain insight into another person's point of view does not come easily. Sustained practice at role- or perspective-taking is an effective means to increasing levels of empathy.
EXPOSURE TO EMOTIONALLY AROUSING STIMULI. Exposure to stimuli such as portrayals of misfortune, deprivation, or distress on the part of others tends to increase empathetic feelings and responses (Barnett et al. 1982; Howard and Barnett 1981; Pecukonis 1990; and Perry, Bussey, and Freiberg 1981). Encouragement by trainers or experimenters to think about others and their needs also stimulates these feelings and responses.
POSITIVE TRAIT ATTRIBUTION. Positive trait attribution — or "dispositional praise" — refers to the practice of emphasizing to children that the reason they exhibit prosocial behavior is that it is their nature to do so. Positive trait attribution has been shown to be a powerful means of enhancing empathetic understanding and behavior.
For example, a teacher or experimenter might say to a child, "I'll bet you shared with Susie because you're a nice person who likes to make other children happy." Researchers (e.g., Kohn 1991; Mills and Grusek 1989; and Perry, Bussey, and Freiberg 1981) have found that reinforcing to children that they have a certain positive trait within them increases those children's performance of behaviors congruent with that trait. Kohn (1991) writes:
MODELING EMPATHETIC BEHAVIOR. Just as the research on childrearing shows that parental modeling of empathetic speech and actions enhances children's empathy and prosocial behavior, the empathy training research shows that when teachers (trainers, experimenters, etc.) model desired values, children are more likely to adopt these than when they are merely exhorted to behave in a certain way (Kohn 1991; and Kremer and Dietzen 1991).
STUDYING FAMOUS EMPATHETIC PERSONS. Learning activities which focus students' attention on the lives and achievements of famous empathetic persons have been shown to increase children's desire to be like these people and to take on attitudes and behaviors associated with them (Dixon 1980). People who have been the focus of such learning activities include Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Theresa.
In addition to increasing empathetic feelings, understanding, and behavior, empathy training has also been shown to produce other positive outcomes. For example, empathy training has led to increased willingness on the part of older students to be open and self-revealing (Haynes and Avery 1979) and to take everyone's needs into account when dealing with conflict situations (Kohn 1991). Better teamwork and greater job satisfaction have followed empathy training provided to adults (Herbek and Yammarino 1990).
Other and equally significant outcomes have been noted as a result of empathy training. Discussing these requires attention to some general findings from the empathy research, as follows.
EMPATHY AND GENDER. Generally speaking, females of all ages exhibit higher levels of empathy — particularly affective empathy — than do males (Barnett, et al. 1980; Borden, Karr, and Caldwell-Colbert 1988; Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; McDevitt, Lennon, and Kopriva 1991; Mills and Grusec 1989; Siegal 1985, etc.). While there is not a great deal of research on the differential effects of childrearing behaviors and empathy training on males and females, the work of some researchers (e.g., Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Haynes and Avery 1979; and Clarke 1984) indicates that empathetic modeling and training have potential for reducing the gap between the empathy levels of boys/men and girls/women.
EMPATHY AND AGE. Research clearly demonstrates that adults exhibit greater degrees of empathetic feeling, understanding, and responsiveness than children, and that older children are more empathetic and prosocial than very young ones (Ellis 1982; Hughes, Tingle, and Sawin 1981; Kalliopuska 1983; Ladd, Lange, and Stremmel 1983; McDevitt, Lennon, and Kopriva 1991; and Underwood and Moore 1982).
Older youth are better able to recognize emotive states in other people, more capable of relating to and sharing others' feelings, able to feel empathy for more diverse kinds of people, and more willing to express their empathetic response in generosity toward others. The developmental level of very young children, by contrast, is characterized by greater self-involvement, frequent objectification of others, and a tendency to experience and act on empathetic feelings only toward people very much like themselves in age, ethnicity, and gender.
Underwood and Moore (1982) identify role-taking capacity as the basis for the greater levels of empathy/prosocial behavior one sees in older children as compared with younger ones:
Despite these developmental differences, researchers have found that empathy training — including even very simple things such as calling attention to less fortunate children or pointing out to a child that he/she has the power to make someone else happy by sharing — can increase young children's empathy scores and incidences of prosocial behavior. Analogous to the research finding that empathy training produces greater increases in the empathetic understanding and behavior of males than females is the finding that younger children's empathy levels increase more than those of older youth following activities designed to increase empathy (Iannotti 1978; and Kalliopuska 1983). In both cases, the lower the initial scores on empathy measures, the greater the change following empathy training or instructions.
EMPATHY AND ACADEMIC OUTCOMES. One of the arguments against character-related educational activities is that they take precious time away from the development of basic and higher-order cognitive skills. The research, however, shows an impressive correlation between students' training and skills in empathetic understanding and their academic performance:
Researchers (e.g., Bonner and Aspy 1984) have identified significant correlations between students scores on measures of empathetic understanding and their grade point averages.
Program evaluation results have shown that schools where students are involved in programs designed to increase empathy and create "caring communities" have higher scores than comparison schools on measures of higher-order reading comprehension (Kohn 1991).
Review of research related to empathy training/instruction indicates that this instruction enhances both critical thinking skills and creative thinking (Gallo 1989). Gallo writes:
Gallo goes on to explain that "the attributes which characterize empathy correlate with those of effective critical thinking and imagination" (p. 114). She notes that role-taking, a key feature of empathy training, engenders the kinds of mental habits we associate with astute thinking. Role-taking:
3. Classroom strategies and program designs
In addition to programs and activities specifically intended to promote empathy, researchers have also identified several classroom strategies and program designs which tend to foster increases in empathy and prosocial behavior.
COOPERATIVE LEARNING. Over the last decade a great deal has been written about the academic and social benefits of cooperative learning. From a research perspective, the major finding has been that organizing learners into teams whose members differ from one another in race/ethnicity, gender, ability level, and other attributes, results in significantly greater prosocial interaction among these different learners (Johnson, Johnson, and Anderson 1983; Kohn 1991; and Slavin 1985). Following participation in cooperative learning groups, students report and are observed to exhibit:
Kohn (1991) writes:
CROSS-AGE AND PEER TUTORING. Students' empathetic feelings, understanding, and behavior have been shown to increase as a result of serving as peer or cross-age tutors (Morgan 1983; and Yogev and Ronen 1982). Following their study of the effects of secondary-level cross-age tutoring, Yogev and Ronen conclude that it:
HUMANISTIC/PSYCHOEDUCATIONAL APPROACHES FOR THE EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED. Finally, the research on different approaches to educating emotionally disturbed children indicates that structures congruent with the empathy-enhancing activities we have been discussing are far preferable to other structures. For example, Morgan (1983) studied the relative effects of a humanistic/psychoeducational model and a behavioral/learning model. The former, characterized by group meetings, a focus on how one's behavior affects others, peer tutoring, and role playing, was related to greater empathy, responsibility, and selfcontrol than the latter, which featured token reinforcement for good work and behavior, behavioral charting, and punishment for poor work habits and behavior.
To review, then, findings identified in the research base on empathy development are as follows:
Along with knowledge, self-determination, and strategy utilization, EMPATHY is coming to be regarded by more and more educators as a KEY ATTRIBUTE OF A SUCCESSFUL LEARNER.
EMPATHY is typically DEFINED as including: (1) the AFFECTIVE CAPACITY to share in another's feelings, and (2) the COGNITIVE ABILITY to understand another's feelings and perspective. Definitions sometimes also include the ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE one's empathetic feelings and understanding to another by verbal and/or nonverbal means.
CHILDREARING PRACTICES POSITIVELY ASSOCIATED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF EMPATHETIC UNDERSTANDING AND BEHAVIOR include:
CHILDREARING PRACTICES WHICH ARE NEGATIVELY RELATED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF EMPATHETIC UNDERSTANDING AND BEHAVIOR include:
EMPATHY INSTRUCTIONS AND TRAINING ENHANCE AFFECTIVE AND COGNITIVE EMPATHY in both children and adults, as well as leading to MORE PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR. Specific instructional/training components shown to be related to these desirable outcomes include:
EMPATHY INSTRUCTION AND TRAINING have also been shown to lead to increases in PERSONAL OPENNESS, MINDFULNESS OF OTHERS' NEEDS in conflict situations, IMPROVED TEAMWORK, and GREATER JOB SATISFACTION.
FEMALES exhibit HIGHER LEVELS OF EMPATHY THAN MALES; however, there is some evidence that empathy training reduces this difference.
EMPATHY AND PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR INCREASE WITH AGE; however, empathy training has been shown to reduce the differential in empathy between very young children and older ones.
In general, the HIGHER PEOPLE'S SCORES ARE ON MEASURES OF EMPATHY AND PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR, THE HIGHER THEIR SCORES ON MEASURES OF CRITICAL, HIGHER-ORDER THINKING. Role-taking, in particular, enhances openmindedness and reasoning capabilities.
CLASSROOM STRATEGIES AND PROGRAM DESIGNS WHICH ARE POSITIVELY RELATED TO EMPATHY AND PROSOCIAL INTERACTIONS among people in general and among different racial/ethnic groups, academic ability levels, the sexes, the differently abled, socioeconomic groups, etc., include:
EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED CHILDREN EXHIBIT GREATER EMPATHY AND PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR when taught in learning environments featuring COMPONENTS KNOWN TO PROMOTE THESE QUALITIES — focus on how one's behavior affects others, role-taking, etc.
Learning environments characterized by EXTRINSIC REWARDS, PUNISHMENTS, AND BEHAVIORAL CHARTING ARE NEGATIVELY RELATED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF EMPATHY/PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR IN EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED CHILDREN.
Implementation of school-controllable factors related to the development of empathy can help to lay the groundwork for the growth of other positive traits, including skill in reasoning and communication.
Attending to the development of empathetic capabilities can also respond to this report's opening question with an affirmative answer. One way of expressing this affirmation--and the one with which this investigation will conclude — is Alfie Kohn's comment on Martin Buber's statement regarding "education of character":
He did not mean that schools should develop a unit on values or moral reasoning and glue it onto the existing curriculum. He did not mean that problem children should be taught how to behave. He meant that the very profession of teaching calls on us to try to produce not merely good learners but good people (1991, p. 497).
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