One might argue that in our modern society the characteristics that set children up for success in adult life are a competitive spirit and a strong sense of individualism.
However, there is evidence that the decline in connectivity between humans has led to a global increase in mental illness, an increase in narcissism and a disregard for the natural world. In contrast, values such as compassion can be argued to be essential for global citizenship and sustainable living.
Competency in building and maintaining human relationships, along with a positive self regard and a positive relationship with the environment are demonstrated to result in better mental and emotional wellbeing.
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Many researchers argue that the skills needed to promote global citizenship and a culture of peace are underpinned by the core disposition of compassion. It can be argued that compassion is an essential underpinning which enables social justice.
A recent article suggests that compassion is an 'ethical practice complimenting recognition of it as an act of heart with the power for social justice and peace through education'.
Compassion is understood differently in different cultures and contexts. It is often understood to be empathy. More recently empathy itself has been defined as feeling WITH someone (feeling the same as another person) whereas compassion is feeling concern FOR another person.
Neurobiological research demonstrates that empathy activates parts of the brain associated with pain whereas compassion activates parts of the brain associated with love.
It makes sense that we should work to foster the development of children's compassion and that requires we understand what compassion looks like in children's behaviour so that we can develop a community of compassion. In their research Broadfoot and Pascal suggest that compassion first requires us to notice that there is an issue with another person; that another person is feeling bad/sad about something.
This in itself requires a level of emotional competence, which begins with the ability to identify emotions in oneself and then transfer that understanding to enable recognition of an emotion in another. Associated with this is the willingness to reach out to the other person.
This requires communication skills (You look sad. Are you okay?) and the willingness to listen to the other person. Following this is the ability to offer support. This is where skill is really important because support does not always mean coming up with a solution.
Sometimes feelings simply need acknowledgement and a comforting presence - the death of a loved pet for example means a person may feel sad for some time and that sadness should not be dismissed with a casual, oh-you'll-be-okay type response.
There is a degree of cognition involved in determining what kinds of support to offer in what contexts. Support might simply be a shoulder to cry on, it might be a cup of coffee and a chat, or it might be a suggestion of what might be done. Support can be offered (would you like me to .....) and it may be indirect (making sure someone is included in a future outing because you know they are lonely). Support can be verbal (I'm there for you), your presence (just being there), or physical (a hug for example).
As parents and educators we can help children develop compassion by the way we interact with each other and with children. We can focus on enquiry; noticing something is wrong, finding out as much as we can as to what is the problem, what happened.
Sometimes with children (and even adults) we have to guess, particularly when children do not yet have the emotional competence to identify their own feelings. (You look sad. Are you feeling sad?)
Once we have the information, we can ask what it is that we can do along with reflection and encouragement to help the child think what s/he can do? (Johnny is crying. He wants the toy you have taken from him. What do you think you can do to make Johnny feel better).