Many Words for Snow and Few for Emotion

Teachers from a school near the Arctic circle who work with children of mostly Inuit families find that this unique cultural group has a "limited vocabulary for talking about emotions as well as limited strategies for managing their emotions effectively." Recently these teachers travelled to Yale where researchers have developed a comprehensive emotion skills curriculum for children that trains the entire school community ("everybody with a face," they say) how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions (acronym RULER).

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Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21stcentury skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

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Is Empathy Learned--or Are We Born with It?

Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I were strolling with our toddler on the steamy streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we were taking a time-out before diving into our careers. At eighteen months, Zai was toddling ahead of us, and I watched as an elderly woman approached her, cupped hands outstretched, in the universal request for food or money. I held my breath as Zai offered the woman her most precious possession: her stuffed kitty. I did not want to interfere with Zai’s gesture of compassion—but the kitty was her security object. Empathy—a concern for others—is present in children from the beginning but not much has been known about how it unfolds early in life. Studies of newborn babies show that they cry more to the sounds of other babies’ cries of distress than they do to equally loud sounds of other types or even to recordings of their own crying. Psychologists believed that while this reaction foreshadows later empathy and suggests a hard-wired orienting to other people’s feelings, empathic distress throughout the first year of life was a more contagious, reactive, egocentric kind of response. Upset in others simply triggered, or got merged with, a baby’s own feelings of anxiety or fear.

Empathy in Children: The New Research

Until recently, researchers believed that true empathy doesn’t emerge in children until the second year of life, after 12 months of age, when a more separate sense of self begins to be consolidated. Psychologists believed that to accurately appraise how another person feels required greater cognitive complexity. Children needed to be able to separate what others might be feeling from their own internal experience. But three researchers were interested to see whether true empathy might actually be evident earlier, in the first year of life: Israelis Ronit Roth-Hanania at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and Maayan Davidov at The Hebrew University, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Roth-Hanania, Davidov, and Zahn-Waxler went into the homes of 37 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class infants from eight to 16 months and set up three distressing situations:

  1. The mother pretended to hit her finger with a toy hammer and be upset for one minute (and she avoided eye contact with her child in this minute so as to not bias the child’s response).
  2. The mother walked toward the baby and pretended to bump her knee, again showing distress for one minute (and again without making eye contact).
  3. The baby was shown a video of another baby crying for one minute.

All of the infants showed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways. The younger babies’ feelings of concern for their mothers’ pain registered on their faces, from a fleetingly furrowed brow to sustained looks of sadness. Many cooed or made other sympathetic sounds. As the babies tried to figure out what had happened, their glances bounced from the hurt body part up to the mother’s face and back.  Some made questioning sounds, or they looked to the face of another adult for interpretation.

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