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Is Teaching Kids Empathy Just as Important as Teaching Them Math?

A conversation with Joan Cole Duffell on social-emotional development.
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Are we teaching our kids to feel?

It’s a question posed by countless education pioneers, many of whom took issue with the rigid conformity of No Child Left Behind (and found at least some subsequent relief through the new Every Student Succeeds Act). And as study after study proves, Americans don’t fare too well in social-emotional competency; the need for early childhood education is becoming increasingly more apparent.

For more, Pacific Standard spoke with Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, the non-profit behind a new e-book that takes a look at the importance of social-emotional development on children, both as students and individuals.


What exactly does Committee for Children do?

Committee for Children is a non-profit organization that focuses on a vision that we have [of] safe children thriving in a peaceful world. So the question is, how do we get there? That’s kind of a big leap from where we are today.

Our theory of change is that people become better human beings and act better when they have really strong social-emotional competence. These are competencies that lead to better life outcomes for people in many different ways. If you have the ability to empathize with other people or take another person’s perspective when you’re trying to solve a problem, you’re far more likely to be a successful person in the workplace, in your family relationships, in school. And you’re going to be less violent and aggressive, and more of a constructive creative problem solver.

You know you don’t start teaching people those skills when they start exhibiting problems as they’re older. The ideal time to really reach people with that kind of skill training is in their developmental pathway to learn those skills.

Our idea is very simple but very rigorously designed curriculum programs that teachers use in the classroom with very young children, as young as three and up to age 14, to proactively and preventatively teach all of the kids in their group these social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy, self-management, social awareness, the ability to solve problems; those skills are learned from the time kids are really young, instead of waiting until they’re exhibiting problems and then doing it as a remedial activity.

Another big component of our program is teaching kids what we call executive functioning skills. How to be a high-functioning person in the world of learning. How to listen, pay attention, use your working memory to go through some steps that you heard, how to follow directions. Really focusing on the task at hand and ignoring distractions.

Joan Cole Duffell.

Joan Cole Duffell.

Let’s use empathy as an example. How do you teach kids that skill?

To really help children acquire empathy, we start with the very building blocks of empathy. One of the first things people need to learn is how to decode facial expression in other people. That’s not empathy, but it’s one of the important steps toward it.

So let’s say in kindergarten, the teacher has a big lesson card, and on the front of that card is a picture of a child’s face at their age level, and on the back is everything the teacher needs to conduct that lesson. So the teacher is holding up the picture in front of the kids and following the lesson on the back of that card. And the kids are looking at this child’s facial expression and the lesson is for them to guess how that child might be feeling by looking at their expression. And it’s very specific because if the kids say, “Well, Jamal looks really happy,” the teacher would say: “How can you tell? What is it about Jamal’s face that tells you he’s looking happy?” There’s a lot of learning around what a smile looks like.

Kids are learning a lot of words for emotions, a richer emotional vocabulary. One of the mechanics that we think is important is that mere practice of children getting in the habit of looking at other people and thinking “I wonder how that person’s feeling?”

The larger goal of your organization is to influence policy. Why has policy been so slow to catch on?

There’s been for a long time a strong focus in policy—particularly in education policy, through No Child Left Behind—on academic performance. The policy itself wasn’t necessarily the worst part of it; it’s that every school seemed to interpret it that we can only focus on academics if we want good academic outcomes. They got so freaked out by the policy because if you didn’t hit your marks you could lose your funding. So the stakes were so high, people didn’t want to do anything except drill on facts and academic learning.

Several years ago, a landmark meta-analysis came out that showed beyond any shadow of a doubt that when you focus on the whole child and you used evidence based approaches and teach social-emotional skills in a quality way, you are going to optimize your academic scores. You’re going to actually get an average 11 percentile point gain just because you’ve added the social-emotional component. Even if you’re using the same math and language arts curriculum you were before, you can bump those scores up. Kids in a calmer learning environment are able to work out their problems and not carry them back into the classroom and have had a lot of lessons in self-regulation.

Is America lagging behind when it comes to social-emotional learning?

It’s an interesting question. I’ll first say that the interest in social-emotional learning in growing exponentially globally. The United States has probably got more uptake of social-emotional programs in schools than other places, but the interest globally is just exploding. We hear it from Save the Children, from International Rescue Committees, from the World Bank, from the World Economic Forum. The WEF just published a report on a new vision for education fostering social and emotional learning.

Americans have a very strong individualistic culture and a real pride in the idea that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be a self-made person. Other cultures don’t hold that same value at all. In some ways there’s some real positives about that, about people really achieving things and self-actualizing, and in other ways it sort of isolates us and keeps us from really developing as social creatures.

In 2014, you wrote a story for Pacific Standard that claimed “Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age.” Has there been much progress lately?

Yes, there has, I’m happy to report. We and our colleagues in the field of social-emotional learning, when we meet with each other, we all share how much more we see schools taking this work on. We’ve seen a real explosion here in the U.S. and in other countries of interest in wanting to take this work on. People are starting to get it. So these ideas are more in the drinking water than they used to be, and that’s useful.

Policy-wise, several states are now passing standards of student learning for social-emotional learning skills, just like they have math and language arts. On a Federal level, No Child Left Behind, which was sort of the policy nobody liked, has been re-authorized to the Every Student Succeeds Act. Of course, no policy is perfect, no policy is going to fix everything, but it’s better. It includes a section that really does focus on the conditions for learning. That wasn’t really spoken of in the old law.

Do you notice a lack of social-emotional skills with any of our country’s leaders?

I was just at an education event last night in D.C. and everybody talked about how, if today’s presidential candidates were our students, they would probably be put into a remedial social skills class. We’ve spent our entire careers trying to build these skills in four and five year olds, yet the adults who are purporting to lead our country are showing an appalling lack of these skills in their daily discourse.

Do you find that to be the case in D.C. as a whole or more so with —

The frightening thing to me is that there are a lot of people who are jumping on the anti-social bandwagon. What’s disturbing—and maybe this is just a comment on our current zeitgeist in our country — is that what gets you elected isn’t necessarily being a compassionate, respectful person. That’s not considered an electable trait.

That’s a sign of weakness, right? It’s kind of attributed to liberals, hippies.

Which is exactly why we made the e-book. We wanted to hear from voices who weren’t just the typical, liberal hippy people like me. We also need to really look at the fact that this is what business is looking for, these are marks of success by any measure—except, apparently, elected officials.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.