Empathy: The Antidote to Bullying

October is national Bullying Prevention month. As a clinical social worker with the Blue Bird Circle Clinic at Texas Children's Hospital, I am invested in children with neurological illnesses or disabilities. I am privy to their distressing reports of being bullied, their social isolation and the disconnection that occurs from others in their school community. Unfortunately the rhetoric that surrounds "bullying" has yet to prove helpful to these children.

It is not easy to admit that our approaches to bullying have been ineffective, but it is because we do not dig beneath the weed and loosen the soil, that this pervasion of devaluing others seeps through our culture. Instead of addressing roots we chop the problem off at ground level never changing the societal values with which we live.

There is a clamoring of slogans, banners, posters, media coverage, t-shirts, web sites and celebrities addressing how to report bullying and proclaim bully free zones. Bullying will have difficulty rooting if, rather than reacting with verbal clamor, we proactively develop a community ethos of kindness/empathy. This is not to negate the encouraging responses to incidents of bullying,such as the bus monitor, the recent story of Whitney Kropp, and stories included in the documentary Bully. Most stories, however, record our shocked reaction and the rallying response rather than prevention.

Empathy has little to do with slogans, rallies, reports, celebrities, or anti-defamation league banners.Empathy is a quiet, powerful work; it is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings, or in simple colloquialism "walking in someone else's shoes." It is about "connecting." Bullying, conversely, is about "disconnection." The bully needs to identify and establish something about the victim that is different (that provides reason to disassociate) in order to bully. The bully needs to feel and believe there is a disconnection. In some ways bullying serves as a barometer showing the health of our communities. It measures the level of disconnect we allow between one another.

Angela is 10-years-old, a delightful, pretty, bubbly girl who has a neuromuscular disease. Since Angela lost mobility and has been confined to a wheelchair she has lost her girlfriends. They no longer interact with her at recess, they talk about her behind her back, one girl called her on the phone and Angela's mom overheard the girl making mean comments to Angela. The students' disconnect began when Angela stopped walking. One way the school could address this would be to use narratives that require children to place themselves in someone else's shoes. What might happen if the PTO moms brought in 20 pairs of different shoes from the thrift store for the class to wear, a set of AFOs (i.e.ankle, foot orthotic braces), a manual wheelchair, a power wheelchair, and a walker. "Walk in my shoes for a day" and students tried to understand and imaginatively enter into someone else's feelings for a day.

To develop a community ethos of empathy we must start with modeling kindness, compassion, and acceptance. If we want empathy and inclusion in schools then parents must model empathy with within the family. The suggestion is that parents support empathy by practicing it in daily living. The "demonstration" of empathy has a greater impact than the "instruction" of it. As a child copies and demonstrates this type of awareness the parent can reinforce and amplify it.

It is well established by educators and psychologists that children respond best to affirmation and positive reinforcement. So it seems if we focus on the culture we want to cultivate in our classrooms we might have better success than if we clamor about what we do not want. Several schools in Canada use an evidence-based program Roots of Empathy which incorporates experiential learning,and has seen positive results in emotional literacy. What if our national dialogue were to encourage the parent to mindfully model empathy before their child? What if the same dialogue extended itself to push our schools to develop lesson plans reinforcing social and emotional learning via an empathy based curriculum?

We must change from re-acting against bullying, to pro-acting for empathy. We change our culture by how we interact relationally with others, not by sloganizing. Community ethos is created by the practice of individuals affecting individuals until a tipping point is reached and the practice of the majority becomes the new culture. It becomes our community ethos.

Unity Day, which occurred on October 10, invited us to wear orange to show our support for the movement "Make it Orange, Make it End," which advocates for bullying prevention. Let's take it one step further and exercise our compassion and empathy muscles by reaching out, and engaging with a person who may be "different" to us and our group of friends.