A common criticism of higher education in America is that it’s too “educational” and “unfriendly” to students with mental health issues.
In other words, it’s not teaching the kids how to be kind.
But a new study by the nonprofit Humanism Special Education Project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that teaching students empathy and kindness in an era of “bullying, racism, and mass incarceration” could actually help to reduce mental health problems among students.
“We have to change our thinking,” said Rebecca K. Stavros, a research associate in the Humanism Research and Education Program at Berkeley and the study’s lead author.
“But we also have to find a way to change how our students are teaching their emotions and emotions.”
That means learning empathy and compassion, Stavro said.
To that end, the Humanist Special Education Program created a website, called Empathy is the Answer, which has been making headlines in the past few months with its focus on compassion.
A few years ago, the website started with the goal of making people feel like they could “be good” by showing compassion for others, but the idea took on a life of its own, Stravros said.
The Humanist Education Program now aims to help students “embrace” empathy as part of their education, and the site has even featured a TED talk on the topic.
“Empathy is The Answer,” reads the logo.
“You can teach kids empathy by showing them how to do it in an empathic way.”
The idea of teaching empathy as a skill has gained popularity in the wake of recent high-profile cases of children with mental illness being bullied and threatened for expressing emotions that were considered offensive to society.
In August, a 16-year-old boy in Illinois was arrested for posting a comment on a Facebook group about the murder of his grandmother that included the phrase “I want to kill my grandmother.”
A similar post on a school resource center in Texas prompted a school district in Georgia to remove a sign that said “You are not welcome.”
In a similar incident last year, a 10-year old girl in Oregon was charged with inciting a riot for sharing a picture of herself with a Confederate flag.
Stravro and her colleagues have found that teaching empathy can be effective in some cases, but it doesn’t always work.
A recent study by Stanford University showed that students who were more emotional and empathetic were less likely to score as high on standardized tests as students who reported higher levels of self-esteem and self-acceptance.
So the Humanists are now using empathy as an educational tool in order to help their students become empathetically compassionate.
In the study, Stovros and her students trained two groups of children for three weeks, one of which received an emotional treatment program.
The other two groups received a different treatment.
The groups were then paired to take part in a standardized test.
The emotional treatment group was also instructed to “listen” to other people, while the control group was instructed to focus on their own feelings and reactions.
The study found that when students were allowed to focus solely on their emotions, the emotional treatment students scored higher on their tests than the control groups.
“Students with the best emotional outcomes are those who are the most empatically compassionate,” Stovro said, adding that a key takeaway is that this “is not just a learning thing, but a way of being empatical.”
The study also found that emotional treatment did not improve students’ ability to learn from other students.
Instead, the group who received emotional treatment performed worse than their control group.
And even when students did get the opportunity to speak to other students and teachers, they were not as empathetical as the control students, according to the study.
The researchers did find that emotional treatments were effective for some students who struggled with emotional and social anxiety, but not for those who had mental health conditions.
“When students with anxiety were given a treatment to help them become more empatatically compassionate, their anxiety scores improved and their social anxiety scores also improved,” the study said.
“However, these students did not perform as well in math and reading.”
The research also shows that emotional training may be particularly effective for students with developmental disabilities, as some of them have developmental delays, which may also help them learn empathy.
“Many of our students with intellectual disabilities are also dealing with social difficulties,” said Stavrom.
“It is very important that we are empatizing these students in a way that is empatachable to them, not as if we are trying to be the teachers, but rather the empatricators.”
Empathy may also have an effect on students’ mental health, though it’s still unclear whether that would be the case.
For instance, the researchers said there was a “moderate” decrease in students’ scores for emotional empathy