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If you claimed that there is an epidemic of bullying in our society, your claim would be affirmed by the drastic number of accounts of such behavior reported among our youth.
The underlying issue, however, is not the bullying behavior (though obviously troubling and heartbreaking). The major problem is the very poignant understanding that many children in today’s society lack a deep understanding and practice of compassionate behavior.
All humans have a basic biological need to belong to the greater whole. Prosocial behaviors are learned behaviors, through person to person connections with others. The development of empathic abilities begins in the first year of a child’s life.
Parents have a profound influence on the development of this ability by simply following the instinctual caring behavior of alleviating the suffering of their offspring. When their child cries, they soothe them.
A better understanding of the perspective of others gives children the opportunity to practice compassion in daily life. Compassion is like a muscle, it gets stronger the more it is practiced. Our educational system is understanding the need for additional training in empathy and compassion, which is an exciting path for the next generation.
This article contains:
- A Definition of Compassion for Kids
- How Can We Best Teach Kids Compassion?
- A Look at the Research
- What is Compassion Deficit Disorder?
- A Look at Teaching Compassion in Education
- Why is Compassion in the Education System Important?
- 8 Activities and Exercises for Teachers to use with Students
- 7 Compassion Videos for Students
- 8 Activities and Exercises to Cultivate Compassion in Children
- 7 Compassion Videos for Kids
- 5 More Helpful Resources
- 20 Inspiring Compassion Quotes for Kids
- A Take-Home Message
A Definition of Compassion for Kids
Defining compassion for kids could be difficult if you’re explaining it in adult terms. Saying to a child that compassion is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it,” would likely have the kids’ eyes appearing glazed over in confusion. Kids need definitions of compassionate behavior explained in words that they can understand.
A first step in understanding what they already know about compassion would be to have them define the following words:
If a child can define these words, relate their definition to compassion. Helping them better understand the vocabulary of the desire to help someone who is in distress, can deepen their awareness of compassion. Having a robust vocabulary can also give them more references in their daily lives in which compassion may appear.
Helping children take the perspective of another is important in understanding compassion. Slowing situations down and creating space for kids to communicate their needs effectively is difficult in our fast-paced world, but necessary in teaching what compassion means. When a classroom is set up with this as a priority from the start, it creates an environment where cooperation and community are valued over competition.
How Can We Best Teach Kids Compassion?
Children develop various levels of empathy at different ages. The development of empathy is necessary for compassionate behavior to develop as well. Teaching compassion, therefore, starts at birth. In the first year, kids develop global empathy. They match the emotions that they witness. When a father picks up his child and soothes him by singing, the child calms and reacts to the facial expressions of his compassionate dad. The child is learning compassion in these foundational interactions.
During the second year, kids actively offer help. Parents actively encouraging this helping behavior reinforces their desire to continue it. Praising the behavior and reinforcing the effect that the compassion has on the recipient is further reinforcement. Using phrases like, “that was so kind” will reinforce the child’s understanding of the behavior and its effect in real-world settings.
By year three, kids become aware that the feelings of others can be different than their own feelings. This change comes with a deeper understanding of language. The more words a child can use in explaining empathy and the actions of compassion, the deeper the understanding of its importance will be. Asking, “how do you think they felt?” can be a powerful way to ignite a child’s ability to empathize with another.
Empathy for another’s living conditions are developed in late childhood or early adolescence. Understanding that another person’s feelings might not be based around a current situation, but rather their more lasting life situation develops in this stage of childhood.
The development of empathy for entire groups of people like the homeless population or oppressed people is more fully understood during this phase of childhood too. Helping a child to manage their own feelings toward groups is very important, as to not develop overuse of empathic abilities as well.
Teaching compassion for children must be done in age-appropriate opportunities. Talking to a two-year-old about cultural oppression is obviously not the way to go. Helping kids come to their own understanding is the key to the appropriate development of compassion. Showing them to volunteer their strength to come to the aid of others is behavior that will need to be reinforced over and over again throughout a child’s lifetime.
Defining compassion is the first step in teaching how to show up for other humans. Teaching the “how” of compassion can prove to be a deeper lesson. The most important step in children’s understanding of compassion is modeling the behavior. Kids utilize “mirror” neurons readily. If a parent is consistently criticizing and judging others, the child will learn to do the same. Be mindful of how your behavior influences the behavior of your kids. They listen and internalize your behaviors more than you realize.
Finding a child’s compassionate strengths behavior is a great way to teach and reinforce compassion. Children will show compassion in different ways, just as adults will. Look for the following types of compassionate strength behaviors and help kids grow the behavior in real life settings. Celebrate them on what they already do and encourage the behavior’s growth.
Notice when the child….
- Does nice things for others without expecting something in return.
- Says encouraging things to cheer others.
- Shows interest in others by intentional reaches in prosocial (helping) behavior.
- Participates in active listening.
- Respects privacy and avoids gossip.
When teaching compassion, it is important to also teach the understanding that people experience compassion uniquely. Some people prefer a hug. Others might respond better to kids’ kind words. Also, different situations require different kinds of compassion. It is an abstract concept that kids have to learn in real-world settings in order to better understand its nuance.
The best way for kids to learn compassion is through watching models of this behavior. Their teachers, parents, and other adults need to behave this way for children to see it as valuable and find approval in copying it. Finding compassion in moments of adversity is a skill that all adults should be working to master. The future generation depends on it.
A Look at the Research
There is a vast amount of research taking place in the area of compassion. Increasing caring behavior will benefit the individual, but also society as a whole. The benefits of compassion are far-reaching. Having the science behind this behavior is exciting.
Going back to Darwin
A brilliant analysis (Goetz, 2010) found an intrinsic motivation for compassion across species. The very definition of compassion as an affective state defined by a subjective feeling, rather than compassion as an attitude.
This analysis also differentiated empathy from compassion, giving credence to the understanding that compassion is revealed in the action of trying to relieve the suffering of another. The evolutionary analysis finds that emotions are adaptations to survival and reproductive needs across species. This research sought to separate compassion from emotions, like love, to better understand a biological need for cooperation.
Darwin had proposed in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex that for ultimate species survival, the community with the most sympathetic members would be the most likely to flourish. This proposition has been supported by observations across species and cultural divides. The evolution of sympathy has enabled the continuation of species reproduction viability. Basically, the analysis concluded that Darwin didn’t just believe that “only the strong survive,” but more importantly “the most cooperative survive.”
The role of self-compassion in academic achievement has been an interesting topic of research (Neff, 2005). The focus of undergraduate students on self-compassion rather than self-esteem (as was done in decades past) has been a better indicator of resilience and more positive affect after an academic failure.
Self-compassion has many benefits like self-esteem, but with fewer drawbacks (like tendencies toward narcissism). Professor Neff has also employed research in the field of compassion fatigue to aid helping professions in overcoming feelings of burnout.
Compassion research centers
The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University is conducting an increasing number of research endeavors to better understand the implications of increased compassion in society.
Dr. James Doty founded CCARE to better understand and cultivate compassion and promote altruism. Dr. Doty’s research, along with many others at Stanford have sought to discover the implications of compassion on the brain and the heart through research in neuroscience, psychology, economics, and contemplative traditions. CCARE has teacher training, educational events, and programs to spread this knowledge into society as a whole.
Compassion fatigue and trauma
As previously mentioned, approximately 40% of teachers report compassion fatigue in their helping profession. Mental health professionals have been researched extensively, but the research on compassion fatigue in educators is somewhat limited. However, some interesting work has been done highlighting secondary trauma in school personnel (VanBergeijk, 2006)(Borntrager, 2012).
Educators see more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic in their classrooms. When having to report trauma, as is required by law, many suffer from secondary trauma resulting in increased emotional stress.
Public education personnel is particularly at risk of developing symptoms of secondary trauma due to increased exposure and high reported levels of empathy and compassion. Those who are more empathic will likely suffer higher levels of secondary experience of the trauma. Care and understanding of these educator’s emotional well being is an area that requires further research and improvements in care for their emotional well being.
The role of empathy in compassion is at the very foundation of prosocial behavior. A better understanding of empathy improves one’s ability to take action from a state of compassion. Research in empathy was done as early as 1902. Though not focused on children, research into prejudice (Stephan, 1999) revealed interesting findings into possible improvements in intergroup relations by improvement in empathic awareness.
A very exciting controlled design study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Flook, 2015) tested a Kindness Centered program to improve prosocial behavior in pre-school aged children. Over 12 weeks, children were taught mindfulness-based self-regulation skills. The results were exciting, as self-regulatory skills are a firm indicator of success over a lifespan.
The children in the study improved their interpersonal skills, increased prosocial behavior, and increased academic success. This malleable time of childhood is a profound area to improve mindfulness and prosocial activities. The capacity to regulate emotion and attention are indicators of school readiness.
Improvements in this area for children are indicative of improvements in school success. When these skills are attained in childhood, they are predictors of financial stability, educational attainment, and health in adulthood. More work is being done in application with regard to cultural diversity in this area of mindfulness as well.
Empathy has been studied for a long time and remains confused when viewed from the lens of social justice and moral behavior (Decety & Cowell, 2015). There is an intersection between neuroscience and psychology and moral decision making.
Emotional contagion is a neurobiological and cognitive implication of affective empathic behavior. To take that down a peg from the “science” is to say that through empathic parental care, humans learn to think more about the perspective of others because they’ve learned it and are mirroring this behavior when witnessing it. This article looks at the complex task of cognition and its role in empathic behavior.
The ability to assess the rates of empathy in children has developed into several assessments. The KEDS (Kids Empathic Development Scale) has recently been developed. Another predictor is the EmQue-CA (Overgaauw, 2017). The use of this questionnaire has been validated as a helpful predictor in the improvement of prosocial behavior, resulting in improved academic performance as well.
The assessment disentangles the three components of empathy and is better at predicting bullying behavior with the possibility of course corrections. It is a fascinating piece of work that pulls apart the complex actions of children and gives focus to the areas that need improvement.
A powerful piece of research (Gilbert, 2011) revealed a much-needed area of discovery in the fear of compassion and happiness. When children lack the attachment to empathic abilities, many self-criticizing behaviors erupt, which result in further psychological and emotional harm. Further understanding of the necessary pathways to mindfulness and the ability to identify and self describe emotions in the self is a powerful piece in a better understanding of cultivating empathy.
Another interesting piece of research (Zuffiano, 2017) was done in Switzerland. The study was done to better understand the co-development of sympathy and aggression in children aged 6-12.
It was found that children that have an underdeveloped sense of sympathy for others tend to elicit increased levels of aggression toward others. This is seen in behaviors that are both physically and emotionally aggressive behaviors. It is pointing to the fact that bullying behavior occurs when children do not have the cognitive or empathic ability to better understand the perspective of others.
What is Compassion Deficit Disorder?
The term compassion deficit disorder was coined by a professor at Wheelock College in Boston named Diane Levin. It is used to describe children who act without empathy or regard for others. Professor Levin works in the field of early childhood development and has done research in the area pertaining to antisocial disturbances in behavior.
The behaviors elicited by children with this disorder are violent/ bullying types of behaviors. One can imagine the disruption to a group setting when this type of behavior is present. Children with this disorder are expressing their needs in a violent way due to their inability to appropriately and efficiently empathize or communicate with their peers.
These disturbances are revealed in different areas of development, as early as Kindergarten. Teachers have recently reportedly spending more time trying to keep their classrooms safe than getting to teach content to their students. When these antisocial behavior disturbances arise in the classroom, the entire group of students is affected.
Knowing that empathy develops in different phases during early childhood, has given rise to the questions of the effect of technology on this development. If a baby is soothed by a parent and the child is reacting to facial expressions, empathy develops through appropriate human interaction. When a baby is soothed by a beeping or other form of technology, the baby is startled into being soothed, but empathy is not developed through social interaction.
When a child lacks empathy for others, they likely lack the ability to practice self-compassion as well. The resulting behaviors are violent and erratic. Lower self-efficacy and self-esteem further impact the child and all of those around him.
The amount of exposure to technology in early childhood has risen and the risks are far reaching. A great deal of research is currently underway in an effort to assess the risk to the mental well being of children and adults alike. Delaying exposure to technology as long as possible and instead encouraging appropriate, supervised interaction with peers is highly recommended.
There are not a great number of assessments to understand the level of empathy kids possess. The Kids Empathic Development Scale (Reid, 2012) was created for this very purpose. Prior to the creation of this scale, a greater understanding of the measurements of the elements of empathy in children proved difficult.
Understanding that underdeveloped empathic ability results in antisocial behavior, makes the deeper understanding of measurement in this subject vital. Early intervention in this area is key to building appropriate and effective interpersonal relationships. In positive psychology, the effective connection between human beings is a pathway to flourishing lives. Lowering the cases of compassion deficit disorder is vital.
A Look at Teaching Compassion in Education
Surely you’d agree that teachers are some of the most compassionate among professional workers. They witness all sorts of complicated societal and social issues. Children come into their classrooms from all different kinds of backgrounds and present many different kinds of obstacles and perspectives.
With those obstacles come the needs of the entire classroom. The main job of teachers is keeping their classrooms safe while trying to improve academic performance. Conflicting family approaches become the ultimate melting pot for educators. How then, do educators teach compassion in a group setting with children from all walks of life?
Compassion benefits classrooms by contagion. Kinder, happier, and healthier students are present in classrooms with higher levels of compassion. Studies show that the more compassionate the teacher, the more easily students will learn.
Increased incidents of violence and other antisocial behavior in schools has been a very serious topic of study for improvement in education. What many have found is that the earlier children learn empathy and appropriate prosocial behavior, the fewer the incidents of bullying and antisocial behavior in later childhood. The book Teaching Compassion: Human Education in Early Childhood by Mary Renck Jalongo, which is a part of a series of books about education in early childhood, outlines much of this research.
Research from the American Psychological Association in 2013 has shown that teenagers are inheriting the stress habits of adults. The higher the stress level, the lower the levels of dopamine. A human in a compassionate state has higher levels of oxytocin, which in turn increase the levels of dopamine allowing the subject to relax. A classroom of cooperation versus a classroom of competition would likely promote better results in the attention of its students.
Why is Compassion in the Education System Important?
Since the higher the level of compassion in a classroom predicts higher levels of student engagement; having teachers who regularly practice compassion is vital. With 40% or more reporting compassion fatigue, a problem arises in our education system. It all starts with teachers as examples of the type of behavior that our education system should elicit in children.
Since teachers are under great amounts of pressure to produce higher test scores, some of the stress has reduced the levels of compassion in our classrooms. Alleviating the compassion fatigue in teachers is an important step in improving the Education System. There are avenues to aid teachers’ ability to practice self-care. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project is a great place to start.
Here are a few ways to improve compassion in adults:
- Compassion meditation, especially loving-kindness meditation can increase levels of oxytocin.
- Practicing acts of compassion for familiar people.
- Practicing acts of compassion on neutral people (ex a cashier).
- Volunteering time with a troubled community.
Teachers can improve compassionate behavior in their students as well. Helping children see the perspective of others is a tall task, but very possible when the intention is set. Concentrating on a compassion strengths-based approach is an effective way to improve the type of desired behavior.
8 Activities and Exercises for Teachers to use with Students
- Playing cooperative and team building games. Having daily interaction with peers in a fun, team building capacity promotes prosocial abilities.
- Creating a “volunteer” helper position in the classroom. Many schools have created mentorship roles for children. Helping a younger child in a particular subject, or guiding new students through the school are great ways to foster the improvement of prosocial activities.
- Establishing a ‘acts of kindness’ jar. Encourage acts of kindness by helping kids focus on them. Creating a jar, or a box, where students can anonymously offer instances of kindness in the classroom is a powerful way to get them interacting in a positive way.
- Reading/ writing stories about helpers. Stories of important historical figures and their compassionate lives are powerful ways to inspire compassion in students. Hearing stories of leaders that make a compassionate impact on the world, show kids what is possible with intention.
- Writing letters to soldiers. There are many military kids who are growing up while their parents are elsewhere. Helping kids express their compassion for soldiers that are also missing their kids is a significant way to express prosocial feelings for the freedom being provided by those soldiers.
- Acting it out (get kids role-playing in scenarios requiring compassion). It can be scary at first, like a theater experience, but when kids get creative in practicing compassion in role-playing, they are laying pathways to compassion for later, real-life experiences.
- Whole class brainstorming in an imaginary crisis scenario (aka Hurricane Katrina). Helping kids come up with solutions in crisis are powerful ways for them to realize how vital compassion is, especially when situations are extremely dire.
- Teach children loving-kindness meditation. There are many available and taking the time to invest in this practice will lower stress for practitioners.
7 Compassion Videos for Students
A video set to music, highlighting the meaning of compassion for teaching the practice to middle school students.
A simple story of a young man connecting with fellow students by holding a door. It is a powerful video about a young man trying to connect with his peers in a time of suffering.
Educate Kids in Compassion is an animated video to teach kids fundamentals in compassion.
An animated instructional video about compassion set to music.
Fantastic video for young children to learn the basics of compassion.
Humans: Circle of Compassion
George Lucas Educational Foundation offers a series of videos highlighting the importance of speaking out about being an upstander. It shows the need for people to practice speaking out against the lack of compassion and bullying behavior.
8 Activities and Exercises to Cultivate Compassion in Children
Cultivating compassion in children is often an underestimated part of their upbringing. Making it intentional will help those compassion muscles grow. Here is a list of ideas to help children develop the ability to reach out to alleviate the suffering of others.
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter or at an animal shelter. While it may be painful to witness the suffering of the homeless population for some, it is a powerful way to show children that they can make a difference. Shelters everywhere rely on the volunteerism of citizens to better serve this community.
- Read books with compassion themes. There are many books for children with kindness and compassion as central themes. The more the topic is discussed, the greater the opportunities to practice in real life.
- Discuss suffering. Though it may prove to be a difficult conversation, helping children notice the suffering of others is a first step in cultivating the action needed to alleviate that suffering.
- Ask children who they would want to help in the world. They’re likely noticing more suffering than you might realize.
- Read about helpers. Help your child understand the helpers in their world and how their work in compassionate endeavors are valued.
- Teach them self-compassion. We learn too quickly to be hard on ourselves about failure. While we all want kids to succeed, notice when your children are suffering from that failure instead. Help them to know that it is okay to fail, especially if we can learn from it.
- Model, Model, Model. Show your children what it means to have compassion toward others and toward yourself. Be sure your interactions with children are lead with compassion.
- When your children are involved in social interactions and building relationships, be sure to observe and praise them when noticing compassionate behavior. Point out compassionate behavior in others as well.
- Help them learn self-awareness. Teaching kids to be aware that their actions affect others is vital in understanding empathic action behavior.
7 Compassion Videos for Kids
Using technology for growing compassion in kids is a great way to use technology for the greater good. Here are a few examples of some wonderful videos to share with kids. In a culture of consumption, this is a much healthier content to consume.
This powerful video follows a good human through his day. It highlights how his good deeds affect others. It helps children imagine themselves in the shoes of the compassionate. It reveals the ripple that compassion makes in the lives of those around them.
A Lesson in Self-Compassion.
Teaching Kids Compassion and A Spotlight on Poverty.
An inspirational collection of integrity and compassion.
An incredible story of a young woman who found her purpose in compassion.
This is a story of a giving family, who found compassion in helping another family in need. This short clip shows that compassion does not have to be contrary to pride. Showing the right thing, by doing the right thing is the theme.
Sweet cartoon about a dog and a heron finding compassion.
5 More Helpful Resources
- Edutopia is part of George Lucas’ Educational Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to expand the understanding of effectively educating children in grades K-12. It has great resources on expanding our approach to education.
- Great Expectations is a professional development program for teachers. It aims to help educators develop and ignite an environment of excitement and harmony in learning.
- Here is a list of books to improve practices of self-compassion.
- Here you can access information which offers parents skills to teach your children effective prosocial skills.
- Helps teachers share in the monumental task of teaching compassion in schools.
20 Inspiring Compassion Quotes for Kids
We rise by lifting others.
Unless someone like you cares a lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
The simple act of caring is heroic.
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
When you are kind to others, it not only changes the world, it changes you.
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
Be a little kinder than you have to.
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.
Let our hearts and hands be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. These three things are your greatest treasures.
There is no small act of kindness. Every compassionate act makes large the world.
Mary Anne Radmacher
All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.
If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
We have to make mistakes, it’s how we learn compassion for others.
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.
Dalai Lama XIV
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Dalai Lama XIV
No one has ever become poor by giving.
A Take Home Message
Cultivating compassion in children could be the antidote to the epidemic of bullying and aggressive behavior. It begins in our homes. Parenting is not an easy task, but focusing energy on helping our children to better understand and mirror prosocial behaviors is where a real-world change begins. Modeling compassion on a daily basis is the best possible way for children to better understand what this behavior means in real-world settings.
Classrooms have opportunities to further grow the reach of prosocial behaviors by creating environments of cooperation. A deeper understanding of each individual’s role in the greater good in his or her community will build more socially resilient and successful adults. Again, modeling is essential for children to better understand what compassion means.
Together parents and educators can improve the incidents of compassion showing up in children, rather than continuing to cringe at the incidents of bullying. We have a chance to educate the next generation on the importance of cooperation and kindness in everyday life. What we focus on, we find. Focusing on cultivating compassion is vital to the improvement of the successful adults of our future.
- Goetz, et al.(2010) Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin
- Neff (2005) Self-Compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure. Psychological Press
- VanBergeijk (2006) The Consequences of Reporting Child Maltreatment: Are School Personnel at Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress? Oxford University Press
- Borntrager (2012) Secondary Traumatic Stress in School Personnel. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion
- Stephan (1999) The Role of Empathy in Improving Intergroup Relations. Journals Social Issues.
- Flook (2015) Promoting Pro-Social Behavior and Self-Regulatory Skills in Pre-School Children Through a Mindfulness Based Curriculum. American Psychological Association.
- Decety & Cowell (2015) Empathy, Justice, and Moral Behavior. AJOB Neuroscience.
- Overgaauw (2017) Assessing Empathy Across Childhood and Adolescence: Validation of the Empathy Questionnaire for Children and Adolescents (EmQue-CA) Frontiers in Psychology.
- Gilbert (2011) Fears of compassion and Happiness in Relation to Alexithymia, Mindfulness, and Self-Criticism. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice.
- Zuffiano (2017) The Co-development of Sympathy and Overt Aggression From Middle Childhood to Early Adolescence. American Psychological Association.
- Reid (2012) The Kids Empathic Development Scale: A Multidimensional Measure of Empathy in School - Aged Children. The British Psychological Society.
- Staneck and Jalonge, Teaching Compassion: Human Education in Early Childhood. Springer 2014
- Hooria Jazaieri, Ihno A. Lee, Kelly McGonigal, Thupten Jinpa, James R. Doty, James J. Gross & Philippe R. Goldin (2015): A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1025418
- Levin (2018) Risking Human Security: Compassion Deficit Disorder? The Impact of Consuming Culture on Children’s Relationships.