Are students inherently selfish? How to cultivate compassion

The students currently passing through our schools have been referred to as the Me Generation or the iGeneration for their startling preoccupation with … themselves. However, a stream of recent research studies suggest that humans are not born selfish and that we are wired to co-operate. Allison Gopnik, UC Berkeley child psychologist and author of The Philosophical Baby reports that “Babies not only learn more, but imagine more, care more, and experience more than we would ever have thought possible”. Even from a very young age children have the ability to gauge right from wrong, show empathy, and follow ethical rules. Dacher Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center – a West Coast center for research on altruism, compassion and awe – writes that “human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

So how does self-interest get the upper hand? Positive traits such as compassion are highly plastic and susceptible to environmental forces. Place an empathetic child in a classroom of students where they feel either unsafe or unaccepted and survival instincts trump compassion. But if we inject positive environmental forces into that same classroom, can we actually cultivate empathy in our students?

Researchers say yes. They have identified several key that promote empathy in a child within the familial environment and by extension the school environment.

Here are three steps that No Bully recommends that schools take to promote compassion and altruism in their students.

1.    Reset your beliefs about human nature. If you are carrying outdated beliefs that students are essentially motivated by self-interest and competitiveness, your school will reflect and reinforce those patterns, even as it tries to overcome them.

2.    Create a classroom and school environment that promotes multiple layers of connection. The more secure relationships that a student establishes, the more they will tend to altruism. Aim to greet students by name. Seize opportunities for learning in small groups. Ultimately aim for every student to feel attached to the school and to have positive emotions about being part of your community.

3.    Avoid reliance on power assertion e.g. bald declarations of right and wrong backed by punishment. Instead use induction to engage students in moral reasoning when they have done harm. Encourage students to think about the consequences of their actions and how these actions have harmed others. The research shows that when used as a parenting style this promotes compassion for the suffering they have caused and a desire to remedy that suffering.

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