Social-emotional learning programs in schools are getting a lot of airtime (not to mention a lot of money) these days. As a parent consultant who works from a developmental perspective, many parents are surprised that I am not enthusiastic about these programs. Don’t I care about children being empathetic? Yes, but if it’s going to be true empathy, it’s not going to come from being taught. Don’t I want children to know the language of feelings? Yes, but not if feelings are divided into “positive” and “negative” categories, which they often are in these programs. Don’t I want children to get along with each other? Sure, but I’m not overly concerned with teaching young children to “get along” or, even, to “make friends.” Basically, I’m not a big fan of these programs and think that the guiding principles behind them are, too often, mis-guided.

Empathy and consideration are natural fruits of the maturation process; they require a developed pre-frontal cortex, which enables children to hold conflicting feelings at the same time (“I feel like throwing the eraser because I got the math problem wrong,” and “I like my teacher and she doesn’t want me to throw the eraser” OR “I am frustrated that I lost that card game and feel like calling Johnny a cheater,” and “I don’t want to call Johnny a name because he’s my friend,”). Attempting to “teach” these qualities takes them out of the realm of development and into the realm of learning; the way these programs work is that children are rewarded in some way for demonstrating empathy and consideration, whether that be positive feedback from the teacher or a star chart for being “a good friend.” These behavioral structures, imposed on qualities such as empathy, kindness and consideration, end up cheapening and undermining the true virtues of these qualities. Children end up wanting to “be nice” so that they get the reward; as my teacher Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “this isn’t empathy [or consideration], this is narcissism [or selfishness]!” It may look like what we hope for, but it is not. If we could have more patience, more faith in development and invest our precious school money in programs that actually serve development, we would be more likely to get true empathy and true consideration, all in due time.

What can we do, as parents and teachers, to support true development of empathy and consideration?

  • We can let the children in our care know that we love them unconditionally.
  • We can make room for all emotions; we can understand that emotions need to be expressed, not “calmed down.”
  • We can remember that separation-based discipline of all kinds (ignoring, time-outs, consequences) can shut down the emotions that need to be felt in order for optimal development to occur.
  • We can model, model, model, kindness, consideration and our own mixed feelings (“On the one hand, I feel like this, and on the other hand, I feel like that…”).
  • We can remember that development is slow and messy; growing up takes time. We can make room for the inevitable messes and mistakes that will happen along the way.