Magazine article Teach

The Language of Emotion

Magazine article Teach

The Language of Emotion

Article excerpt

The Importance of Learning Empathy in the World of Technology

Everyday, a Grade Two student (let's call her Rose) repeatedly asks the other girls in her class to play with her. One of those classmates (who we'll call Meg) gets fed up and complains that Rose's requests are annoying and no one likes the games she plays. Meg's mum advises her daughter to take a chance and invite Rose over. The next afternoon, the two little girls spend a couple hours playing together. As Rose is leaving that evening, Meg sees that Rose has a giant smile plastered across her face and she hears Rose's words of excitement and notices her dancing feet too. Meg understands how gleeful Rose feels, and she feels that glee too.

Empathy-the ability to recognize and understand another person's feelings-is an extremely important life skill. In English, the word empathy is only about a century old. It is a rough translation of the German word einfuhlung, which means "feeling into." While empathy may be a relatively new word, it is a basic part of human nature. Such a seemingly simple ability to connect with and tune into another person has enormous sway in our lives: empathy forms the basis for all successful human interaction. We learn this vital skill from parents, caregivers, friends, and role models as infants and children. "If you lose that opportunity to learn emotional literacy during childhood, it has negative impacts," says Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, an in-school program that involves observing and learning about empathy through a live mom-and-infant dynamic. "Roots of Empathy uses the mother and baby because of their attachment relationship," says Gordon. "They are attuned to each other." But a lack of empathy can have hugely negative impacts on supportive learning environments, friend-making abilities, good mental health, strong relationship skills, and so much more.

In today's high-tech world, many worry about the impact of technology on our ability to empathize. Sharyn Timerman, a Montreal behaviour specialist and founder of The Early Years, a development centre for parents and kids who experience behaviour issues, says the basic nature of the human being has not changed but technology, along with other factors, has changed the way we learn this vital life skill. "A big element ofthat change is that both parents are working, kids stay out of the home later and later, kids are left on their own a lot more and the role of technology grows." Technology now fills the role of a real live friend and playmate.

Kids who get home from school and immediately turn on their consoles or log into the computer are missing out on key social interactions as well as free play that help them learn to read the emotions and body language of others. "It's not so much that technology has a positive or negative impact on kids-it's what they're not doing because of technology that is a problem," says Gordon. Children should play with their friends in an unstructured environment as often as possible; get outside, kick stones, play in the water. Timerman notices a similar trend (or lack thereof). "Even if they have a friend over, they're playing video games. They aren't involved in dramatic play-imaginative, role-playing-with each other," Timerman says. "They need to have spontaneous, reactive, unidirectional play that helps them learn to be creative. But when kids spend too much down-time on the computer, they're losing the opportunity to learn developmental skills that allow them to build friend-making skills, creativity, imagination, and empathy," says Gordon. Free play involves all senses, whereas computer play does not. "There are lots of positive and playful things on a computer, and kids are able to play with each other. I'm not critical ofthat, but I'm very wary. It needs to be balanced with free time," Gordon says.

As a teacher, it is not possible to direct or control empathy-related education at home. But it is an important skill to teach in the classroom because it is one that is so important for a supportive learning and teaching environment. …

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