Baseline research for schools
By Sreepriya Menon
Empathy is a widely researched topic in many disciplines and has far reaching socio-cultural and developmental impact in the lives of students across the world. Through the work of several scholars in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, pedagogy, social work, theology and cognitive neuroscience, today we have sophisticated ways of understanding empathy in adults. The evolution of empathy in a developing mind is framed and shaped deeply by its circumstance and environment.
While discussing and inspiring ideas around empathy as teachers, leaders and parents we also need to foster supportive environments for empathy to be practiced and nourished safely by the young and old alike. Therefore as an initiative to step into the world of a young child and invite them to be an empathetic adult citizen of the world, a pre-requisite would be to understand how they themselves conceive and define and recognize empathy in their lives.
In order to do this and make a curriculum that has empathy weaved into it which can be introduced to schools across the country, we need to start with a baseline assessment and evaluation of empathy in the school students we will be working with initially.
To study the concept of empathy in school students of 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th standard in three locations of Buniyar (Kashmir), Chieswema and Kohima (Nagaland)
To engage with them freely through play and art media to understand their concerns as students (and their general well being)
To develop a unique empathy assessment tool that is built and adapted to Indian student population culturally
To understand the socio demographic profile of students who are participating in this project
The objective of undertaking a baseline research study for Project Empathy in Boniyar and Kohima was to understand how children and teachers perceive empathy and it's role in education and holistic development of students in a classroom setting. We conducted interactive sessions with students and teachers through focus group discussions, using art and semi structured probes that formed a safe enough space for students to share their ideas of how they perceive their relationships with their family, with each other, with animals and environment as well as with the larger community. Identifying emotions felt by themselves and their peers was also another objective of starting the conversation around empathy at the Assam Rifles schools in Kohima, Chieswema, and Army Goodwill School, Buniyar, Kashmir. Preliminary data analysis shows that there are several underlying emotional experiences that students are sensitive to and within each family environment the activities and events that occur expose children to several challenges and conflicts where having empathy is a strong skill set. We have also found that teachers can benefit a lot from participating in empathy workshops since not only are they role models for the students but also need to make empathetic decisions for them when they are in the class and often extend that role as a guide and mentor to nurture student's potential as they grow. Empathy has a developmental consequence is shaping more sensitive and inclusive leaders for the future, they provide equitable help during times of disaster and crisis as witnessed during the pandemic and regular floods, earthquakes and landslides. The way forward for Project Empathy requires a lot more attention from decision making authorities and all stakeholders at the school level to carry out training, research and workshops to prioritize socio emotional skills for all. Students, teachers and administrative staff can all participate to make communities more empathetic. Several corporates have started empathy training for their leadership and management positions and it goes a long way to remedy conflict resolution if we begin work at a young age. Another major issue is that through Project Empathy, the teachers will be more equipped to identify and start working on areas such as identifying and teaching children with disabilities, learning disorders and mental health issues and change their approach from getting good marks to getting a good education that is holistic. A large number of students witness marital and domestic disputes and violence and aggression at home. Since this is a taboo in the larger society a lot of pressure falls on the children to hide their feelings about the same. This raises anxiety, fear and triggers a trauma response of guilt shame and anger in them often displayed as inappropriate or aggressive behaviour or poor academic performance. Punishment is not the suitable response from educators in this situation and an empathetic response is required. Based on preliminary findings we as social action researchers and psychiatric social workers recommend that there are several issues that the appropriate authorities should pay attention to and support Project Empathy team in its efforts. 1. Identifying as many schools there are under the purview of Assam Rifles and Army Goodwill Schools, ensuring that the team of Project Empathy reaches and is able to continue the research and training engagement with students and teachers so that the follow up interventions for students are provided and they receive the adequate support throughout their school education. 2. Conducting workshops at a district level with multiple stakeholders so that the role of Assam Rifles, Army and Project Empathy in developing students to be more pro social citizens is encouraged and supported in the larger community around the schools as well. 3. Supporting Project Empathy to develop and supply learning material for students and teachers that are class or age appropriate to continue their engagement with Project Empathy, do as to make a strong base for value based citizenship, supportive relationships with family and teachers. By Sreepriya Menon Sreepriya Menon is one of the Co founders of SWARI Foundation and head of HR. She is an alumni of lady Shri ram college, Delhi University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and National institute of mental and neuro sciences (nimhans) Bangalore. She works with individuals, families and organizations for mental health issues and user rights in the community. She also is the founder of The Good People Diaries which is an online platform to highlight positive news within the social sector. She participates in public events to raise awareness about mental health issues of various groups. She started OSTEM in March 2020 with her colleagues and volunteers to address the gap between mental health service users and providers during the pandemic via online platforms and to enable user participation in this process. She is also a practising therapist.