How to Battle the Technological Assault on Compassion

Educators and researchers share how kindergartners & Navy SEALs are unlocking empathy to get ahead

Joint post: Words by Tim Scheu | Edited by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din

We recently joined our Changemaker Schools to seek-out innovative tools for the classroom that better cultivate mindfulness and pro-social behaviors among students. Why? The dominant and traditional measures for a student's ‘academic success’ in the United States education landscape--GPA and test scores--continue to marginalize what should be at the heart of education: a child’s happiness and wellbeing.

For instance, an online survey of more than 20,000 high school-age youth reveals that the most common words used by students to describe their current emotions at school are: “Tired” (39%), “Stressed” (29%), and “Bored” (26%). (See Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence)

It does not have to be this way! We can change these troublesome trends right now. There are some incredible new methods out there proving how social and emotional learning are supporting young people’s wellbeing. Educators within our #ChangemakerEd network are supporting young people to thrive in today’s world of constant disruption with classroom innovations for exercising Empathy, Leadership, Changemaking and Collaboration.

In this post, Tim Scheu— of Start Empathy— shares insights and powerful new tactics coming out of Momentous Institute’s Changing the Odds Conference focusing on social/emotional learning. It’s our hope to further explore with educators and schools how to scale up some of these ‘re-imagined education’ solutions that can amplify the social and emotional intelligence of our nation’s young people.

We’re born innately empathetic

We’re born innately empathetic. How do we know? Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center, shared compelling evidence from researchers who have been recording and analyzing the sound of different babies crying. It turns out that a baby can listen to the sound of his or her own crying and maintain calm. But if you play the sound of another child in distress, the baby becomes agitated. The reason, Keltner argues through extensive research, is that we have been naturally selected as sympathetic and compassionate creatures. The baby’s agitation represents an innate tendency to amplify the distress of another and signal for help.

So if we are born with the ability to empathize with those around us, what gets in the way? Why might this “muscle” atrophy? Here, Richie Davidson offers a hint. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” he explained. And in researching thousands of American adults, he found that “47% of their time, adults are not paying attention to what they are doing.” He explains that the idea of multi-tasking is a fiction. “We’re simply shifting focus, and that lack of attention creates a cost both for performance and for wellbeing.”

In other words, we’re so overstimulated in general, that kids lack the bandwidth and the sensitivity to pick up on other people’s experiences.

A media-saturated and increasingly isolated world can compromise our wellbeing and limit our compassion. This is problematic when you take into account how rapidly technology continues to influence youth social interactions and attention-spans in school. But, attention can be learned.

Through intentional exercises like meditation, Davidson demonstrates how there is a “neuroplasticity” that allows us to literally change the physiology of our brains to accommodate more empathetic distress. Empathy, in turn, gives rise to pro-social behavior like altruism and compassion. In the right circumstances, we can break that cycle and take back mindshare. And when kids can do this, there a lot more likely to be successful.

Are GPAs and test scores sufficient measures of success?

According to Richie Davidson from the Center for Healthy Minds, the “demonstration of pro-social behavior among kids is a better predictor of success than GPA, IQ and test scores put together.”

So what are we teaching in our schools again? Susan Kaiser Greenland and Brene Brown have some great ideas.

It seems likely that Greenland will be among those that “make meditation as common in 20 years as brushing your teeth is today.” (This was a refrain frequently heard at the conference.) And with that mindfulness comes that space for empathy and compassion. Greenland has made a name for herself by taking the hard science of folks like Daniel Goleman, Keltner and Davidson and translating their work into more practical “how tos” that any teacher can employ in his or her classroom. She’s most famous for the way she uses a “glitter ball” as a metaphor and a tool for navigating stress and anger. The wonks among us will recognize this as “self regulation.” At Changing the Odds, she took us through a series of “Mindful Games” from her forthcoming book that we could use with our own kids to similar effect. My favorite was “smell the rose, blow out the candle” - a simple and effective breathing exercise that I tried successfully with my three-year old the day I returned from the conference.

Brene Brown is another champion for empathy, and the way putting yourself in others shoes allows you to get a much better handle on the realities of your interpersonal experiences. She illustrated for attendees the pathway any of us could take from a volatile, emotionally charged reflex, to self-awareness, revision, and finally to thoughtful action. Brown relayed her own hesitancy vis-a-vis “mindfulness” and breathing. Even as a researcher, she couldn’t bring herself to accept the link between the physiology of breathing and emotional wellbeing until interviews with the Navy SEALs revealed their own preoccupation. “You need to understand emotion - what you’re operating from - or else you’re dangerous,” they said. Among SEALs, you’ll hear “box” breathing referred to as “tactical” breathing.

The upshot

Researcher Daniel Goleman best summed up the mind-set shift needed in our schools and communities. “What you learn in school gets you the job,” he says. “How you do in that job depends upon your emotional intelligence.” According to Goleman, to the extent that kids grow up as adults with “emotional intelligence”, they’ll be better off.


Were you also in attendance at the Momentous Summit? Share your insights and ideas with us on @Ashoka on Twitter, or Start Empathy on Facebook!

Want to learn more about Changemaker Schools like Momentous, and join the global movement to re-imagine education? Join us!

About the authors

Tim Scheu is the Director of Engagement Management for Ashoka Changemakers, focusing his efforts on youth changemaking and elementary education. Over the past three years he has led the day-to-day delivery of Ashoka’s Children’s Wellbeing, Re-imagine Learning, Start Empathy intitatives, among others. Follow Tim on Twitter @scheuster.

Mohsin Mohi Ud Din is the Director of Storytelling Innovation for Ashoka’s Youth Venture. Follow Mohsin and Youth Venture on Twitter @mohsindin and @youth_venture.

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