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Training Kids for Kindness

How a trailblazing compassion training program expands children's natural capacity for empathy and kindness—even toward so-called "bullies."

By Brooke Dodson-Lavelle

Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, M.A., is Doctoral Candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. Her work focuses on the confluence of Buddhist contemplative theory and cognitive science, as well as the cultural contexts that shape the transmission and reception of Buddhist contemplative practices, and the specific ways in which such practices are selected and adapted for scientific study. Brooke is a lead instructor for several studies examining the efficacy of Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), and has helped to develop and adapt CBCT for school children as well as adolescents in Atlanta’s foster care system. In 2010 she helped developed the CBCT Teacher Training Program, which she now co-leads.

August 16, 2013

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center website here.

Last year my colleague and I were invited to teach a compassion meditation program to third graders at a local elementary school. As I walked through the halls of the school on my way to class, I couldn’t help but notice the school’s Kindness Campaign. Signs reading, “Be kind!” lined the walls.

This school seemed to be on to something, and I secretly wondered whether the students needed our help at all. When I got to class, I asked the children to tell me about the signs, and what it meant for them to be kind.

“Just be nice,” one child said. “Don’t be mean,” said another.

I was sure it was fairly easy for them to be kind to their friends, but I wondered whether they could extend this kindness to others. I asked if they could be kind to someone who had bullied them.

“No way!” yelled one child.  “Probably not,” said another. Some of the other children looked puzzled.

I knew from that moment that we had work to do. Many of us recognize the benefits of kindness and compassion, but how do we learn to be more kind—even to those who commit unkind acts?

Training Compassion

My colleagues and I at Emory University believe people have a natural capacity for empathy, love, and compassion, and that it can be deliberately deepened and expanded—to include even so-called “bullies”— through training.

Compassion involves both the heartfelt wish that others be free from suffering and the readiness to act on their behalf. It arises from a deep sense of affection for others, coupled with a sensitivity to their pain and the recognition that their suffering can be transformed.

Most of us find it easy to feel compassion for those that are close to us. The closer we feel to someone, the more unbearable it seems to witness their pain. It is more difficult, however, to feel compassion or even concern for strangers, those that are not like us, or those who have harmed or wronged us in some way. When it comes to those we dislike strongly, we may feel little if any discomfort in seeing their suffering, or may even, in the worst cases, take pleasure in it.

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In order to learn to extend our compassion in ever-widening circles, including to those whom we have had difficulties with, we need to cultivate impartiality. To enhance our feelings of closeness and connection to others, we must generate affection toward them. One strategy for this is to cultivate gratitude for others by reflecting on the kindness of others and the countless ways in which we depend on others to survive. These two conditions—impartiality and affection—are necessary for compassion.

Feeling moved by suffering is not necessarily the same as compassion, however. Sometimes witnessing pain can overwhelm or even paralyze us. Thus it is just as important to foster inner strength and courage as it is to cultivate sensitivity to others’ pain. We gain this strength in part by deepening our insight into the causes of suffering and recognizing that it can be overcome. When we realize that we have the capacity to transform our suffering, we gain the confidence and determination to do so. This courageous practice of open-heartedness, insight, and vulnerability is what we call self-compassion.

These three ingredients—impartiality, affection, and self-compassion—form the basis of our Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) program. CBCT, a secular compassion program developed by Geshe Lobsang Negi at Emory University, draws from the lojong or “mind training” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and involves the systematic practice of gradually training the mind in compassion until compassion becomes spontaneous.

The program is “cognitively-based” in that it relies on analytical meditations that encourage us to actively work with our emotions and cognitive appraisals in order to release hostility and indifference toward others and develop deep feelings of affection for, and positive connection with, others. This style of meditation does not involve simply thinking about something in a purely intellectual or detached way. We have to make it personal. The point of these reflections is to gain insight into the ways we think of and relate to others, and to deepen these insights through repeated reflection and practice until they transform the ways in which we treat others. 

Be Kind (it’s good for you)

Simply wishing to be kind, or telling our children to do so, won’t necessarily make us caring or compassionate (just as simply wishing for money won’t make us wealthy!). But if we develop and cultivate the conditions for compassion, it will arise and deepen naturally.

Being kind isn’t just about being nice or polite; it is also good for us. Our research has shown that CBCT training can reduce stress as well as the activation of autonomic and immune pathways that have been implicated the development of a host of chronic, stress-related illnesses, including depression, heart disease, and diabetes. But these benefits don’t simply come from attending classes or thinking about being more kind or compassionate. One of the most important implications from these studies is that practice matters: one needs to meditate regularly in order to effect real change.

CBCT training also helps us build skills necessary for sustaining and enhancing our personal relationships. Practicing CBCT enhances our empathic accuracy—that is, our ability to infer others’ mental states—which is essential for building our social relationships. These skills are especially important for many adolescents in foster care who have difficulty forming new, healthy relationships in part because of past trauma or neglect. Compassion training seems to help these children build inner strength and gain the emotional tools necessary for opening to and connecting more deeply with others.

CBCT aims to help participants gain psychological flexibility, learn to reduce suppression or avoidance of intrusive thoughts and emotions, and increase positive emotions and social connectedness, all of which may promote coping and resilience. Although CBCT was not designed to treat trauma specifically, our team is exploring its potential application as an adjunctive therapy for the treatment of PTSD. Members of our team are also investigating the efficacy of CBCT for suicide attempters at a local hospital in Atlanta, GA.

We have also begun to explore ways in which CBCT can promote prosociality and well-being in schools. Our team developed curricula for elementary school children (ages five to nine) that not only teaches them the practices of mindfulness and attention but also facilitates their emotional intelligence and moral development through the practices of self-compassion, impartiality, empathy, affection, and engaged compassion for others. We are currently evaluating the effects of this program on prosocial behavior, bullying, social exclusion, stereotyping, and bias at a local school.

It is our hope that further research can help us learn the most effective and developmentally appropriate ways to help our children (and ourselves) learn both why and how to be more kind, compassionate, and caring.

Though we have not published the results of this program yet, our work in elementary schools seems to be making a difference. We spent a lot of time during the course working towards cultivating compassion for bullies. A few weeks into the program, I asked the children how they would feel if their best friend got in trouble at school for saying something unkind to another student. One girl said that she would feel very bad, because she knows that her best friend is a really good person, and that she would only ever say something like that if she were really upset.

I understood what she meant—it’s certainly easier for us to forgive those that are close to us, for we are able to see them as complex beings, capable of doing or saying unkind things from time to time, even if deep down they are really good people. Then I asked if she would also feel bad for the school bully if she got in trouble for saying something unkind to another student. “Well, no, but….” she said, pausing for a moment. “Well, I might feel a little bad. Maybe she was just upset, too.”

Something clicked in that moment: part of learning to relate to others, even bullies, is learning to recognize them as just like us in wanting to be happy and free from suffering. Learning why others are unkind is part of the path of learning how to be kind.