Babies teach lessons in empathy

During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right.During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Babies are cute. But can playing with a visiting baby teach empathy? Five Washington D.C. elementary schools are bringing babies into classrooms “to hep students recognize and deal with emotions,” reports the Washington Post.

A Canadian program called Roots of Empathy is being tried  in the U.S. “amid growing concern about classroom bullying and growing conviction that teaching certain character traits — such as persistence, self-control and self-confidence — is just as crucial for students’ futures as teaching academics.”

Roots is built on a simple notion: When babies such as June bring their huge eyes, irrepressible smiles and sometimes unappeasable tears into the classroom, students can’t help but feel for them. The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.

A baby, with a parent, visits each classroom once a month.

 A volunteer instructor asks questions related to one of nine themes, from the reasons babies cry to the emotions they feel. The classes — which range from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the baby’s mood — are mostly a chance for students to watch the baby as it responds to songs and games and to ask questions and share observations about whatever comes to mind.

With discussions before and after the baby’s visit, students spend 20 hours a year on the program. Some D.C. elementary schools don’t offer a full year of science or social studies, the Post notes.

Children do better in school when they learn social-emotional skills, argues Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “Children who participate in Roots tend to show declines in aggressive, bullying behaviors and growth in sharing, cooperative and helping ones,” her research shows.

Imprisoned dad helps son learn self-control

In episode 6 of Last Chance High, Cortez visits his father, who’s serving a life sentence for murder. At his father’s urging, Cortez begins taking his medicine regularly and demonstrating self-control and openness at school.

The VICE News series focuses on Chicago’s school for students with behavioral and emotional disorders.

Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” . . . In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas. Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “Educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

Shame can be educational

Shame can be used as well as abused, writes Julia Steiny

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming. . . . when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.

Learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family, says Australian criminologist John Braithwaite.  “Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.” Children learn to control their impulses.

Parents who rely on humiliation to force the behavior they want tend to raise delinquents, he says. The “parents do all the work of controlling behavior.”

“Shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil,” Steiny concludes.

How do you teach grit?

Nobody really knows how to teach “grit,” says Penn researcher Angela Duckworth in a Scholastic interview.  “How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set?”

Duckworth’s nonprofit, Character Lab, is “organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics” and is  helping put together a MOOC for teachers.

Duckworth chose “grit” over pluck, tenacity, persistence and perseverance as the best word to describe the non-cognitive skills that lead to success.

Kids who lose recess need it the most

The sort of students who are kept in for recess are the ones who need it the most, writes Jessica Lahey in a New York Times parenting blog.

“Recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits” that are “crucial” to growing children, states the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Elementary principals overwhelmingly agree that recess helps academic achievement and social development, yet 77 percent take away recess as a punishment, according to a Gallup survey.

Self-control is not an unlimited resource, writes Lahey.

. . . by the time unstructured play rolls around, most children have depleted their reserves. They have had to resist the temptation to wiggle, eat the piece of cookie someone left on the carpet or talk to their friends in favor of focusing on math facts.

Recess provides an opportunity to refill children’s reserves of self-control through play and expression that’s free from structure, rules, and rigorous cognitive tasks. . . .  Several studies have found that students who enjoy the benefit of recess are more attentive, more productive and better able to learn when they return to the classroom from a period of free play.

“As our children’s schedules become more regimented and structured, and free-play time retreats indoors in favor of video games over kick the can and stickball, recess is the only opportunity many children have to learn” important social skills, Lahey concludes.

Boy trouble

School shooters usually are sons of divorced — or absent — parents, writes W. Bradford Wilcox. Boys raised by a single mother are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father,” he writes.

“Fathers . . . are important for maintaining authority and discipline,” writes sociologist David Popenoe. “And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.”

Family breakdown is tougher on boys than girls, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal. When parents divorce, girls tend to “internalize” their unhappiness, become depressed, while boys act out, becoming more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Girls get better after a few years. Boys don’t.

Boys are slower to mature, writes Hymowitz. They need more “civilizing.”

Lone parents tend to have a tougher time providing the predictability and order that help boys become capable students and workers. Poverty undoubtedly worsens the problem: in general, low-income children have poorer “executive function,” such as self-control and cognitive flexibility, than do middle-income children, according to a 2011 study by a group of Berkeley neuropsychologists. But poor children in single-parent families still came out worse in the study than kids with poor married parents. This is probably because unmarried parents tend to break up more frequently, go on to new relationships, sometimes serially, and bring stepparents and half- and step-siblings into their children’s lives.

Low-income single mothers often live in neighborhoods where “gangs have replaced fathers, the threat of violence looms, and schools are filled with apathetic or hostile males.” Economic mobility tracks marriage, concludes a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project:  “Areas with high proportions of single-parent families have less mobility—including for kids whose parents are married. . . .  areas with a high proportion of married-couple families improve the lot of all children, including those from single-parent homes.”

Schools can provide structure, time for boys to play rough-and-tumble games and better literacy programs, writes Hymowitz. But it’s not clear what will work for boys growing up without fathers — in places where “fathers — and men more generally — appear superfluous.”

High school sports support academics

Schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, write Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt in The Atlantic. Amanda Ripley’s cover story, The Case Against High-School Sports, is a lot of hooey, they argue.

Success in sports programs creates “social capital” — or reflects the fact that it’s already there, they theorize.

The success of schools is highly dependent on social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up,” wrote sociologist James Coleman.

The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man–Sports Edition.

In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.

Applicants were chosen by lottery.  According to a 2013 evaluation, the sports program “creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.”

If schools dropped sports teams, middle-class kids would have opportunities to play sports out of school, Bowen and Hitt conclude. Affordable access would be limited for low-income students.

The ‘grit lady’ wins a ‘genius’ grant

Angela Duckworth, known as “the grit lady,” has won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000. A Penn researcher, Duckworth says “grit” and self-control are strong predictors of success — and they can be taught.duckworth 

As a math teacher, she noticed that her best students weren’t always the brightest, she tells NPR. She wondered why some kids try harder than others.

The “character skills” of self-control and of grit are teachable, Duckworth believes. She plans to spend the $625,000 grant to bring middle-school teachers to Penn to discuss how best to develop students’ grit and self-control. (She also plans to buy boots.)

Grittier individuals tend to be “slightly less talented,” says Duckworth. “If things come very easily for you, if you learn things very quickly, you know, maybe you don’t develop the ability to overcome setbacks, to sustain effort, etc.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. “If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”