Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Developing Empathetic Skills among Teachers and Learners in High Schools in Tshwane: An Inter-Generational Approach Involving People with Dementia

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Developing Empathetic Skills among Teachers and Learners in High Schools in Tshwane: An Inter-Generational Approach Involving People with Dementia

Article excerpt

Introduction

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in training and research in empathy from multidisciplinary perspectives (Ickes & Ickes, 2009). This interest is not only rooted in human beings' exceptional capacity to "feel with" others, as is evident from evolutionary biology and neuroanatomical history, but also from the central role that the ability to accurately infer another person's thoughts and feelings has on the social development of young people (Zeidner, Roberts & Mathews, 2002). The realisation that we are an empathetic species and that we are all interconnected has significant implications for rethinking the mission of education (Rifkin, 2010). Schools are increasingly educating learners to interact with others using social networks via the internet in which information is shared rather than stored. This emerging sense of interconnectivity goes hand in hand with efforts to increase understanding between people globally, not only on a cognitive, but also on a socio-emotional level. This transition is profoundly reconfiguring the way in which learners learn and create communities (Nelson & Christie, 1995; Rifkin, 2010). It is interesting to note that conditions and experiences that promote violence in children and youth are, on the whole, the opposite of those that create caring, helping and altruism (Staub, 2002). A commitment to incorporating empathetic education into the 21st-century Grades 1-12 curricula is, therefore, a social necessity and not merely a pedagogical enhancement.

Depending on the research context, however, empathy can have many different definitions, ranging from knowing another person's internal state, i.e. cognitive empathy and cognitive accuracy (Eslinger, 1998), to states of "feeling with" or resonating with the other which can occur at any level, including neural to phenomenological, conceptual to affective (Preston & Hofelich, 2012). According to Preston and Hofelich (2012: 25), true empathy is "a compassionate other-oriented state that requires a distinction in the observer between self and other". This "feeling with another" can be understood through direct perception or imagination of their state (Basch, 1983); however, the extent to which empathy requires self-other overlap is not clear. Proponents in favour of the necessity of self-other overlap do not define this overlap as primarily aversive or distressing, but rather as an "oneness" or intersubjectivity that does not confuse personal boundaries (Preston & Hofelich, 2012).

Training in empathy at schools has been mainly conducted to impact on antisocial behaviour, i.e. interpersonal violence, anger management and bullying (Jagers, Morgan-Lopez, Howard, Browne & Flay, 2007; McMahon & Washburn, 2003; Sahin, 2012). Fonagy, Twemlow, Vernberg, Nelson, Dill and Little (2009) described a programme using a whole-school intervention to target bullying, to improve the capacity of school staff and learners to interpret their own and others' behaviour in terms of their mental states. In the mentioned study, 1,345 third to fifth graders in nine primary schools in a medium-sized Midwestern city in the United States of America participated in a cluster-level randomised controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of active intervention for two years, followed by one year of minimal input maintenance intervention. Outcome measures included peer and self-reports of bullying, by standing and metalizing behaviour and classroom behavioural observations of disruptive and off-task behaviour. This approach proved to be effective in impacting on reduced aggression and victimization in the treatment group. Furthermore, Fonagy et al. (2009) pointed out that maintaining empathy may have been an important factor in the treatment's effectiveness.

In South Africa, a number of programmes address bullying and interpersonal violence among learners in the school system. The development of social skills (e. …

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