“Social and Emotional Learning” is all the rage in school these days, along with claims that it can help children to manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, as well as improve academic outcomes.
But what if those programs don’t go nearly far enough?
What if we could support our child in developing a sense of compassion that acts as a moral compass to not only display compassion toward others, but also to pursue those things in life that have been demonstrated – through research – to make us happy? And what if we could do that by supporting them in reading cues they already feel in their own bodies, and that we ordinarily train out of them at a young age?
Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Associate Director for the Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, tells us about his work to bring secular ethics, which he calls the cultivation of basic human values, into education and society
Learn more about Breandan’s work here:
We also mentioned the Yale University course The Psychology of Wellbeing, which is available on Coursera here.
Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion medication training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6(1), 1-15.
Frey, K.S., Nolen, S.B., Edstrom, L.V., & Hirschstein, M.K. (2005). Effects of a school-based social-emotional competence program: Linking children’s goals, attributions, and behavior. Applied Developmental Psychology 26, 171-200.
Lantieri, L., & Nambiar, M. (2012). Cultivating the social, emotional, and inner lives of children and teachers. Reclaiming Children and Youth 21(2), 27-33.
Maloney, J.E., Lawlor, M.S., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., & Whitehead, J. (2016). A mindfulness-based social and emotional learning curriculum for school-aged children: The MindUP program. In K.A. Schoenert-Reichl & R.W. Roeser (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness in education (pp.313-334). New York, NY: Springer.
Ozawa-de Silva, B., & Dodson-Lavelle, B. (2011). An education of heart and mind: Practical and theoretical issues in teaching cognitive-based compassion training to children. Practical Matters 4, 1-28.
Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L.T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., & Raison, C.L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 87-98.
Rovelli, C. (2017). Reality is not what it seems: The journey to quantum gravity. New York, NY: Riverhead.
Jen: [00:40] Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is on the topic of compassion. I actually need to thank Dr Tara Callahan, whom I interviewed way back in episode four of the show on encouraging creativity and artistic ability for bringing us this episode. She met today’s guest Dr Brendan Ozawa-de Silva at a conference and was kind enough to put us in touch. Dr Ozawa-de Silva is the Associate Director for the Emory University Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, where he’s responsible for Emory’s Social, Emotional, and Ethical learning program, or SEE Learning; a worldwide kindergarten through twelfth grade educational curriculum based on compassion and secular ethics. He received his doctorates from Oxford and Emory universities as well as master’s degrees from Boston and Oxford Universities; I think you’ve actually got more degrees than I do. His chief interests lies in bringing secular ethics, which he calls the cultivation of basic human values into education and society. I’m excited to learn more today about his work and the benefits that it has for children. Welcome Brendan.
Dr. de Silva: [01:51] So secular ethics means basic human values, so things like compassion, gratitude, sense of common humanity, a recognition of our responsibility to one another and to the environment. And if we look at the two words, the word secular means that we approach these ethics not on the basis of any one religion or ideology, but in a broad way on the basis of science, common Sense, common experience. So what we have in common with each other rather than what kind of separates us, which religion and ideology can do, but it doesn’t mean secular in the sense of anti-religious. So secular ethics doesn’t mean anything against religion, but it’s rather what we all have in common despite our religious national cultural differences. And then when we talk about ethics, it’s important to state that we’re not talking about ethics as a set of rules or principles that are being handed down by an authority that this is right and that is wrong; this is good and that iss bad, but really exploring the dimension of what contributes to individual and social flourishing. So what’s beneficial for us, what are the kinds of common values that we would share that will be beneficial to us. So we agree on those values politically and legally. For example, we have laws saying, you know, you can’t steal and you can’t murder people. And those reflect our common values independent of religion. So that’s what we’re approaching it. And the connection to SEL is that we believe that the cultivation of these basic human values is very linked to social and emotional intelligence and social emotional skills. So these moral emotions are actually social emotions, just emotions that involve how we relate to one another. So it’s a kind of different approach to ethics.
Jen: [03:40] Yeah. And as you’re listing off those components, compassion, gratitude, responsibility, individual and social flourishing, I’m going down that list thinking, Yep, I want that. I want that for my daughter. So that gives us a framework to think within and to me, that sounds. Yes. I want to know more about that. So can you tell us why this kind of learning is important for children? And specifically I’m interested in it seems as though not all of these concepts are a component of the existing SEL programs. And by SEL we mean social and emotional learning programs as they’re typically taught in schools.
Dr. de Silva: [04:15] Yeah. Well, I’d like to just very briefly give a story of myself when I was a child when I was growing up because it’s kind of a funny story and it kind of explains why I’m doing this. I remember when I was probably 10 or 11 maybe I first had these thoughts. Even earlier I was kind of thinking and I know what children think about this. Even at a much younger age, I was thinking about what’s important in life and what am I doing here and what am I supposed to be doing? What’s going to happen when I grow up? And I was asking these questions and wondering when in school we would actually be learning about these things. So I thought, well, they’re going to teach us. The adults are going to teach us about the meaning of relationships and loves and meaning in life and what life is about and all these things.
Dr. de Silva: [05:03] And I thought you know; we’re too young right now, so they’re going to teach us later. So maybe when we get to middle school, they’re gonna teach us these things and got to middle school and I said, no, they’re not teaching us that. And then I thought, well maybe in high school they’ll be teaching us those things and know it’s the same thing. Math, history, biology, you know, and by then I was old enough to realize that even looking at college that we would never be taught these things. So not only are we not taught them, but there’s no space in the school day to even talk about them or discuss them. But I think that as human beings, we all have a need to find meaning in life as you said, as parents. We always want the best for our children. We want our children to have happy lives and we know that there’s a connection between character and flourishing; being a good person, however we define that.
Dr. de Silva: [05:47] We know that there’s a relationship between that and leading a happy life. So why don’t we make space for that in education and maybe in previous times that’s a space that would have been held by the family or extended family, the community churches, but what we’re seeing in today’s pluralistic society is that increasingly these things aren’t talked about and so kids don’t have a space to talk about them and since all children go through school in some form or another, why not allow school to be the place where we do that. Social and emotional learning is a step in that direction because it creates a space in the curriculum and in the school day for kids to talk about emotions, talk about relationships, but SEL has stayed away from the kind of more thorny question of values and things like compassion and things like meaning because you know that’s moving in the direction of ethics and to some people that starts sounding like religion, but we think that there’s a way to talk.
Dr. de Silva: [06:49] Yeah, exactly. And we have a history of people trying to indoctrinate our kids in various ways and of course we should be very suspicious of that, but we believe that there’s a way of doing it, which is not about indoctrination at all, but about exploration. So our program is very much not about teaching children how to think or what to think, but creating a space where they can explore these questions for themselves to talk about their own anxieties, their fears, their hopes and these deeper questions of meaning so that they can kind of get a jumpstart on those things. And also we think it might be protective against some of the problems that we’re seeing among kids and in schools with regard to anxiety, bullying and just a host of various issues that we’re dealing with.
Jen: [07:33] Okay. Your anecdote reminded me of my own moment where I thought the grownups had it all figured out. I was in geography class when I learned about climate change and it was just before the 1992 Rio climate conference and my teacher told us about the conference and I thought, Oh okay, well the adults are going to go and figure out what to do about this and they’re going to come back and tell us and we’re going to do it and climate change will be solved. I believe that’s probably not what happened at the Rio conference or we wouldn’t still have climate change today, but yeah, so when that leads us to the broader issue of the fact that the grownups don’t always have all the answers and that can be uncomfortable I think for teachers and also for parents. And so what would you say to parents who are thinking, oh, I do not want to open this can of worms with my kid because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what the answer is.
Dr. de Silva: [08:22] I think that’s a great point. I think there’s a moment in every child’s life. Probably when they have that Aha moment, they realized that the world is a lot crazier than it should be and that means that the, the grownups have not figured all things out. I remember going to school in the seventies and eighties and being taught stop, drop and roll. You know, what happens if a nuclear bomb falls on you learning things like MAD; Mutually Assured Destruction. So if the Russians fire warheads at us in the States, then that’s no problem because we will fire warheads back at them and everyone will die. So yeah, you learn this, you hear these horrifying things as a kid and you realize, yeah, the adults don’t have all the answers but there’s no place in school to talk about that. And for a lot of kids sometimes there isn’t even a place at home.
Dr. de Silva: [09:07] So I think it is very important for parents to make that space and be courageous enough. It also takes courage from our teachers also to walk into this space where they know they don’t have all the answers. You know, we haven’t figured out our own emotions, our own relationships certainly, but just creating that space is so important and to allow children to explore that. Children have an incredible amount of wisdom on their own and it never ceases to amaze us that when that space is created, the things that they come up with and the learning that takes place just through the conversations. And we also find that parents learn a lot. So a lot of children who go through our program…we’ll bump into the parents and the drug store or at a yoga studio if it’s a school here in Atlanta for example. And they’ll say, you know, my kid was teaching me this about stress and teaching me this about what I can do when I get upset. And, and you know, was seeing me stressed out and saying, know mommy, you can take a few deep breaths now or you can push against the wall. You know, we teach them all these various techniques and those, they get deeper and deeper and deeper. And so the parents, you know, that’s the funny thing is that the parents can also learn, so if parents are open to it, it’s a great opportunity for growth for themselves and their kids and their relationship with their kids.
Jen: [10:21] Yeah. And you know, your curriculum addresses kindergarten through age 12, but I think it’s important to note that this isn’t something you have to wait until school age to start. Actually in an astounding moment of coincidence. I was just browsing Facebook before we got on this call and a friend of mine posted a discussion he’d had with his son who’s four and his son, they were just eating lunch. His son said what’s the best thing to do Papa? And he said, I think the best thing is to keep asking questions and his son said Oh, why? And he said, because if you keep asking questions you understand more. And with understanding you become more compassionate. And his son said what’s compassionate? And he said, what do you think it is? And his son said Well, compassionate is when you hear more laughs and more crying and, and, and he said, yeah, that’s right. When you hear more laughs and more crying, you’ll understand yourself and the people around you better and with that more love goes around and I just thought, wow, this kid is four years old and he’s already having conversations like that with his father. So shout out to my friend – you know who you; are not going to out you on the show, but yeah. So yes, we’re talking about a curriculum that’s used in school, but this is also relevant to kids younger than this, right?
Dr. de Silva: [11:31] No, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. It’s a grades K through 12 program, but children’s first learn about compassion from their home environment and from their parents and they first learned the sense of how to get along with others and how to interact with others in the home environment. So absolutely one can and should start earlier. And that little anecdote that you shared is exactly our approach. I mean, we want kids asking these questions. We see kids as little scientists, kids are little scientists, you know, trying to figure out the world and we can teach them one way and say this is the right way, but they’re going to learn pretty quickly that what we have taught them as the right way is only partially true and partially helpful and ultimately they’re going to have to find things out for themselves. So that attitude of questioning and exploring is very central to what we’re doing.
Dr. de Silva: [12:26] And it’s interesting because some teachers have…we’ve run several workshops over the past several years. We’re still in the pilot phase and the preliminary phase of our development, but we have about 460 counselors and teachers working with us; we’ve done trainings for around the world and are giving us feedback and some of the feedback that they’re saying is, oh, this is very different because we’re used to teaching kids, you know, this is right, this is wrong about math, about history, social studies, science. You know, and this is more exploratory and less definite and there are no right and wrong answers. But the thing is actually we should be teaching these other subjects in the same way also; a lot of the things that we teach in our history books and in our physics classes are wrong, are outdated, and they’re not actually, you know, physics is actually a lot more complicated than your high school physics textbook; history is a lot more complicated than the way we teach it. So that spirit of questioning. Yeah.
Jen: [13:22] I recently learned electrons do not orbit protons in shells and that’s what all the textbooks tell us. So you may think, how could the textbooks be wrong? You’re absolutely right. They’re wrong.
Dr. de Silva: [13:35] Oh completely. Yeah. I mean, uh, I’m reading a fascinating book on physics called Reality is Not What it Seems. It’s written for laypeople by Carlo Rovelli; he’s an Italian physicist. It’s a beautiful book. And if you read this book and your whole sense of reality is not shaken than you weren’t paying attention.
Dr. de Silva: [13:55] But it basically says that all the things we were taught in school; most of them are are completely wrong; our understanding of the universe and it’s actually I’m reading it for our program because we want to teach children to question and we also want to teach children about systems. Now preschool children; this might be on a very preliminary level, but one aspect of our program is actually systems thinking and that’s thinking in a scientific way about complexity.
Jen: [14:24] Okay, so I want to get into the weeds a bit here because I want to help parents understand what are some of the elements of this program that they can use to help their children with and where are they going with this. So if asking questions is one and not just the parent asking questions, but hearing the child’s questions and supporting that process. If that’s one area. What are some other types of topics that parents can do to help the sense of compassion and their children?
Dr. de Silva: [14:53] So one thing I wanted to say is that all our materials are free and available. So this is a worldwide program and if people go to our website, they can download the framework and pretty soon they’ll be able to download all of our learning experiences, what we call learning experiences also and, they can adopt them for their own use. So that’s one thing I wanted to mention and if people do kind of go and look they should be able to find a lot of practical resources and helpful resources. But I think that one of the important things is we begin the whole program with a discussion of what is kindness. Compassion is the term we use with older children; when we’re talking about very young children we just used the word kindness and what is kindness and how is it related to happiness. So we believe that as human beings we all seek safety and happiness and what’s good for ourselves and for those we love and we don’t want pain and suffering and heartache and you know, bad relationships and all these kinds of things.
Dr. de Silva: [16:00] And this is a basic orientation of life. This is something that we share even with nonhuman life, with animals. For example, you know, in the winter they seek warmth and food and safety and in the summer they want to play around in the sun and you know what I mean? That’s natural if you’re living being. But we are as human beings, we’re also social animals, so we need each other to be happy and to be safe. So in just discussing kind of these very basic things about what is happiness, what contributes to our happiness, what contributes to others’ happiness. So other people’s kindness contributes to my happiness and is actually essential to it. So it’s only natural that I should extend kindness to others also. You know, so we introduced that concept is reciprocity and we introduced that from a very early age and kids get this from a very early age that, you know, why should you help others because you’re going to need their help, and a world in which we help each other is a lot better than a world in which nobody helps anyone else. So kids get that very early on and we make agreements in the classroom and there’s no reason why parents couldn’t make agreements also with children that are similar, that are rooted in these ideas of kindness, what do we want for ourselves and therefore what would we want for others because we share this space, whether it’s a home or whether it’s a classroom.
Jen: [17:21] Okay. So when you say reciprocity as an adult, I understand what that means and it’s not necessarily a tit for tat kind of thing, but I’m just wondering…does a child see it as a, well, I helped you earlier and so you gotta help me now. How do you get beyond that? Is that an issue?
Dr. de Silva: [17:38] It is, yes. Well, I think that a lot of these are developmental issues, so children go through a stage…my friends who are developmental psychologist. I’m not a developmental psychologist, but my friends in psychology who studied development say that, you know, there are just phases the kids go through where they are self-maximizing and so sharing is not really top most among their priorities. And they do really interesting studies where they sell them kids, you know, when the kids don’t think anyone’s watching and distributing candy in a fair way and you know, there’s a certain age where the kids are much more likely to take a few more for themselves than distribute it evenly. There’s really nothing wrong with that. I mean, we go through developmental stages where we hit adolescence, teenage years. These are just natural stages. If a parent understands this within the context of development, I think it’s going to be a lot easier for them because the question is not to undo that developmental trajectory, but just keep reinforcing these ideas as the children go along and they will get them, they will get them and their understanding and their sophistication of it will go deeper and deeper and deeper.
Dr. de Silva: [18:49] So in the beginning it might seem like it’s a tit for tat kind of thing, but eventually it can be expanded that this person might not help me immediately, but they might help me later and eventually it gets expanded even beyond that, which is that this person who I’m helping might never helped me, but someone else might help me later or this person might never help me, but somebody else helped me in the past. And that’s enough, you know. So this idea of paying it forward even across generations, you know, I mean, as kids grow older, recognizing the way their parents would help them in infinite ways and then recognizing that that means they have a responsibility to future generations. If we encourage that way of thinking, it can become very vast. And you know, one of our assumptions in creating this program is that our society needs much more of this.
Dr. de Silva: [19:39] You know, we have a very independent, shortsighted view of well-being. So we think that people on the other side of the earth nothing to do with our well-being. Why should we help them? They could never help us. And that’s just not true and it’s actually that kind of narrow self-centered thinking, narrow self interest that we think is really at the root of a lot of the problems we see in society. So if we do think that we need to teach our children and encourage them to think in a more farsighted way, in a more expansive way, and they’re fully capable of doing that if they’re given the opportunity.
Jen: [20:13] Okay. And so when parents go to your website and you gave me the site compassion.emory.edu, is that the right site where they can go to download those resources? That’s right. Okay. And so what are they getting? Is it a series of conversation openers? What kind of resources do you have there?
Dr. de Silva: [20:29] Sure, right now at the present moment, we’re still in development. So what we have is we have our framework which is a document that kind of outlines all the various things we’re trying to teach in our program, how we teach it, why we teach it some of the evidence based in research for why we’re approaching it in this way in the fall go up on there is the actual curricula which are a series of lessons that teachers can do; some of those parents can also use. But really since we’re still in development, the full suite of resources is only going to be available when we launched the program publicly, which will be in March of 2019. So there’s not going to be that much there for parents right now unfortunately. But you know, we’re developing that and we’re also developing a series of online modules which will have videos and other kinds of training resources that people will be able to use. But again, this is all being prepared for a public launch in March of 2019. We didn’t want to launch the program until we had tested it out in multiple schools, in classrooms, in different places and in different countries.
Jen: [21:37] So nerdy me wants to know some more about that testing, so I’ve read a decent amount of studies on social emotional learning programs and some of them actually probably a lot of them don’t end up having results that are statistically significantly different from a program that’s administered to a control group where they just sort of sit together and talk about something unrelated to social and emotional learning for an hour and I’m wondering does that matter or should we look to Carol Dweck comment… she is the originator of the research on mindset, on growth mindset and when she heard that as study showed that it didn’t make a significant difference in economic outcome, she said, well, they just didn’t implement it right. So how do you go about testing these things to make sure they’re effective?
Dr. de Silva: [22:21] Yeah, that’s a great question. The quality of implementation is very, very important. And Research on social emotional learning is still quite preliminary. So social emotional learning has been around for about 30 years, but the research is still in a preliminary stage because schools are very difficult places to do research. So, you know, if you ask any psychologist, they’ll say, you know, I mean the best place to do research in your lab where everything is controlled and of course it’s completely artificial, but that’s the good thing about it. Once you go out into the real world, things are messy and schools are just about the places you can go. So I’ve done a few studies in schools and it’s um, I always vowed never to do one again. But here we are.
Dr. de Silva: [23:05] Yes. So I would say that the research is helpful, but I would say that the fact that the research isn’t showing statistically significant benefits, we can’t really evaluate that one way or the other.
Dr. de Silva: [23:18] We can’t say that the programs are not good because of that. Because we need to know how they’re being implemented. And sometimes a principal or an entire district will say, or an entire state will say, we’re going to do Social and Emotional Learning and suddenly thousands of teachers are just handed packets that have to do this. And you’ll be surprised.
Dr. de Silva: [23:37] Yeah! We shouldn’t be surprised that that’s not a terribly effective way, especially if they’re not trained, they’re not interested in it. The kids sometimes see this as a distraction from more important work and studies. I think that the thing that is undeniable is that, you know, we need to educate our children in social and emotional competencies and there’s a cost for not doing that. So we see this in many, many different ways. Employers, I mean this is much later in the developmental spectrum, but employers are increasingly saying we want a higher, some people coming out of college or out of high school who know how to get along with one another, who have the ability to cooperate, have the ability to manage their emotions, who are responsible, who have a sense of integrity, who aren’t just looking out for themselves.
Dr. de Silva: [24:26] And this doesn’t just happen magically, you know, if we’re not focusing on this issue at all in education, why would we expect our kids to have all those things? And I also mentioned the issue of anxiety. If we look at anxiety, depression, suicide; we’re really facing an epidemic among young people. I was at a conference recently, and someone was showing statistics on suicide among adolescent and teenage girls and the rate has tripled in just 12 years and I have many friends who were children of colleagues of mine, so their parents are professors and kids who were very, very bright who are dropping out of high school, not going to college, not able to deal with the stress of the school environment. So I think she had parents of younger children need to be thinking ahead that this is the environment their children might be going through, particularly if they’re going to public schools and particularly city public schools, that we are in a crisis mode and we have to…it’s our responsibility to provide whatever methods we can to children to navigate that space and that means navigating their emotions, navigating their relationships, and on a deeper level navigating their sense of meaning in life. You know, their attitudes. How important is it to be the best at everything? How important is it to be number one? You know, is it realistic to have this kind of attitude that I need to be a superman, superwoman and excel in all these different ways, you know, so if we’re not addressing those issues, I think we’re really failing young people and if the programs are not good enough and are not being implemented well enough, then that just means we need to do better. And that’s the motivation behind our program at Emory too is that we’re looking at all the SEL programs out there and there are now hundreds and hundreds of programs in the U.S.; different SEL programs and we’re saying we need to take a step forward and one of the ways we’re trying to do that is by going deeper and also going a bit broader. So we have added certain elements that we think are missing in existing SEL programs and we’re addressing those issues of implementation as well as we can also.
Jen: [26:39] Okay. So I want to push a little deeper on that and challenge just a little bit. I’ve read that some of these “interventions,” which is what they’re typically called short term programs, could potentially be replaced by drum roll…more unstructured, outdoor playtime, and that the outdoors part is important because parents exert so much control over the home and what happens in it and teachers exert control over the classroom and what happens in it, but the outdoors is sort of this nebulous, not really controlled space and that the unstructured part of that means we’re not taking the kid out and saying, okay, we’re going to go and find snails and draw them, but we’re just going outside and seeing what happens and it gives the children an opportunity to develop games and develop their own rules and see what works for them and Oh, that person looks really upset. They don’t want to play and the game, doesn’t work without them, and what do we need to do to fix that? And all those kinds of skills that develop when they have to encounter these problems and solve them for themselves. What do you think about that?
Dr. de Silva: [27:57] Yeah. I think our discussion led to the question of scale. So the smaller scale the situation is, I think the more unstructured it can be because you have parents or teachers who can kind of just provide enough guidance to resolve a conflict and to kind of bring about the learning and the kids can learn on their own. And I think that’s very, very valuable. When we get to say school environments where you have thousands of kids in this school, this becomes much more difficult to do. So I’ve seen this… I think just can work on a small scale, but one of the things about education is that there’s so much variety across the U.S. As you know, our schools are so different and they have different resources. They have different types of students, different types of teachers, different facilities. And then when you go internationally, things become even more varied. So we don’t see our program as the answer, but we see it as a resource that’s there, but there are much, much larger structural issues that need to be addressed and that what you just said is pointing to one of them, which is that our approach seems to be like trying to cram more into the school day and we’re not seeing better learning outcomes, I think as a result of that. So it’s almost like we need to take a step back and really rethink just what are we doing in the first place.
Jen: [29:16] Okay. So one of the articles that you had sent me for prereading said, and I’m going to quote, “young children may have an innate ability to tune into their bodies signals as they grow older. They get messages from the outer world to turn off their natural sensitivity.” And I thought, oh, did I miss the window? Did I already do something to turn this thing off? What kinds of messages are these that we’re sending to our children? And what more productive messages should we send or tell them instead?
Dr. de Silva: [29:42] So that’s a great question. We take a multitiered approach to the cultivation of resilience and emotional intelligence in children, and we start with the body and the nervous system and sensations. And we actually draw a lot of this work from research that’s happened in trauma care because one of the interesting things about trauma is it disrupts our connection with our body and with sensations because the nervous system has experienced a threat to survival and then kind of recalibrates itself accordingly. And we have to kind of ease it back. But what’s interesting is that this is true not just for people who have suffered from trauma, but it’s true of really anybody who has a body and has a nervous system because we’re always experiencing threats, threats for us are not just physical threats, but also social threats, meaning just, you know, not meeting someone’s expectation or threats of social rejection or judgment.
Dr. de Silva: [30:40] So, we all have experienced these things. And the interesting thing about the older parts of nervous system and things like the autonomic nervous system is that it exists on the level of sensations. And if we start to pay attention to our sensations…they actually tell us our inner sensations inside our body. They tell us the state of our autonomic nervous system, which is really interesting. So if we look at our breathing, if we look at our heart rate, if we look at tension in the body, any sensations that we notice inside the body, we can categorize them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and unpleasant sensations are sending danger signals to our autonomic nervous system and saying, hey, you know, things might not be okay, but pleasant sensations and neutral sensations. If we focus on them, they actually create a sense of safety. And so in teaching very basic skills about how to pay attention to our body and develop body awareness, body literacy, we’re actually learning about the way our nervous system as a whole is kind of navigating the world.
Dr. de Silva: [31:43] And that can be really, really helpful. Kids are very, very sensitive to sensations. And you know, parents definitely know this, you know, and little babies cry when they have sensations that they don’t like or their bodies rubbing up against something that they don’t like or they’re uncomfortable in their bodies, but over time we kind of tune in less and less to our body and we learned to ignore those sensations and they’re actually giving us a lot of information. So we believe that if we first started paying attention to the sensations in our body, they tell us a lot about whether we’re sensing safety or danger, what’s going on, we can then regulate our nervous system better. And then that serves as a great foundation for developing emotional awareness. Because when our body is dysregulated, it’s much more easy for our mind to become dysregulated. And then as we develop more emotional awareness, that helps us with social awareness, how we’re interacting with others. We gain insight to our own emotions; that gives us insight into other people’s emotions that helps us cultivate more empathy for them because we understand what’s happening inside them emotionally instead of just treating them like they’re crazy. And so it builds up from there.
Jen: [32:54] My mind is going absolutely crazy making connections with previous episodes we’ve done. So we did an episode on risky play lately and in the research on that, I learned that children actively seek out that edge between the pleasant and the unpleasant sensation, the excitement and the fear and they’re very adept at finding it and walking along that edge and sometimes they fall and sometimes they don’t. And our job is to support them in exploring that edge rather than saying, don’t do that, you’re gonna hurt yourself. So that was one example of a physical thing and then we did another episode on modeling emotional regulation and how parents sort of feel as though they can’t let their child see them angry, you know, I don’t want to smack my child so therefore I’m just going to say that I’m not angry even though I am. And what that must lead the child to do is, you know, they obviously see you’re angry, if my precious vase got broken or whatever. My daughter can see that I’m furious and I’m sitting here with clenched teeth saying “I’m not angry.” And my daughter, I imagine from what you’re saying, what she learns is I can’t trust my gut, I can’t trust what I see in my mom’s face and therefore she must be right because she’s my mom. She’s saying she’s not angry. My gut must be wrong, and so I must not trust it on this. And are there other elements where I contrast it as well? Does that kind of process sort of ring true for you?
Dr. de Silva: [34:17] Yeah, yeah. I think those are great kind of teachable moments because if the parent in that moment, and this is not easy, I’m not pretending it is easy, but if the parents say has practiced, you know, to some extent self regulation awareness themselves, awareness of their emotions and their own bodies themselves, then you know, the parents might have the option of saying to the child, well, I am angry. I am upset right now, but this is how I’m going to deal with it. I’m not going to deal with it by hitting you. I’m going to deal with it in this way. I’m going to do this thing that helps me calm down. And then we’ll talk about it.
Dr. de Silva: [34:55] Yeah, yeah, because then the parent is teaching that you can have emotions, you can notice them, honor them, express them, but then also deal with them in a constructive way rather than a destructive way.
Dr. de Silva: [35:09] And that’s a very important lesson for children to learn because the ability to deal with difficult emotions in some cases inhibit the behavioral response that that emotion is provoking, like lashing out. That is really, really important. And that there’s this famous marshmallow study which you might have talked about in some of your earlier episodes showing that that ability to, you know, hold back from an impulse is with all sorts of positive benefits later in life. And it really makes sense. It only makes sense because if every time you get angry, you shouted somebody or hit somebody, you know, you’re not going to last long in a workplace or, or in a relationship or anywhere.
Jen: [35:47] So just as a reminder to listeners that study was a researcher put kids in a room with a marshmallow and said, if you don’t eat this marshmallow, you can have three marshmallows when I come back in five minutes and how many kids were able to resist that temptation for five minutes was really predictive of their executive function skills and whether they were able to control their emotions even though in a lab it’s not very realistic situation.
Dr. de Silva: [36:11] Yeah. Yeah. But I mean it’s, there’s so much face validity to this, you know, we know that young children who can’t inhibit their emotions in any way whatsoever, and they’re just running around, you know, kind of just lashing out whenever they feel like it are going to struggle later in life that you have. You have to learn that one way or another. But we talk about, and just in terms of the parent getting to the point where they can do that, we use an analogy was kids that we call it the spark and the forest fire and we say, you know, when a forest fire is raging, even several fire departments can’t put it out and it just burns itself out. And it can be very destructive. It’s just out of control. But when the forest fire is just a spark than even a child can put it out and there are many ways of putting out and our emotions are like that.
Dr. de Silva: [36:58] So the key is not suppressing the emotion, but recognizing it early and then having the freedom to do what we want with it. If we only recognize that anger when it’s full blown. And of course this happens very fast. So if you know your child just broke your exquisite vase, this is going to happen really fast, but if you train in doing it than even those fast moments, they almost appear to slow down and this space opens up. And so this is one of the things that we teach children, is that they can learn to watch their emotions, to watch their minds, watch their bodies and catch the spark before it becomes a forest fire. And if parents learn how to do that better then they can teach that to their children also.
Jen: [37:43] So let’s talk about who owns emotions. My daughter has got…I don’t know if she’s fond of saying it, but she likes it. She’ll say, you made me very frustrated, or you made me very angry and part of me is so proud of her for recognizing that and being able to say it to me and part of me wants her to understand that those are her emotions and things that she controls and yes, I might have done something that makes her frustrated, but the frustration is her response, is there something I can do to help that process along?
Dr. de Silva: [38:11] Yeah, so it’s a great question. I mean I think that…so one of the things that we’re trying to teach is emotion regulation and part of it is understanding that the spark and the forest fire also happens along a timeline, so there’s some kind of trigger. There’s some kind of experience that’s the initial trigger and then there is an appraisal or a judgment of that and then there’s this emotional reaction. If we noticed that emotional reaction, we can have awareness about it and we can choose how to regulate it or how to behave or what to do. If we have no awareness, then it can just build and eventually it kind of burns itself out. But then we have to deal with whatever consequences happen. So I think teaching that timeline and that ability to regulate emotions is very empowering for children because your daughter in in some ways is right.
Dr. de Silva: [39:05] I can’t say she’s completely wrong. Yeah. I mean, our emotions are triggered by face and that isn’t kind of completely within our control, right? We can’t just decide not to be angry or you know, I would love to decide, well, I’m just never going to be angry or jealous ever again. That’s not gonna happen. So people are going to do things that annoy us definitely throughout our whole lives. But learning that there’s something I can do about once that emotion is arising, there are things I can do about it that’s very empowering. And that’s where these techniques come in. I can take a few breaths, I can go for a walk, I can drink a glass of water, but in order to do any of those things, I first have to be noticing that spark; that flame. If I don’t notice them, that I’m just carried along as if it’s completely against my will.
Dr. de Silva: [39:52] I’m not in control of myself really. I wish I had a better answer. That’s definitely one of the things we’re exploring is, you know, we do scenarios where we asked children; we read them stories or the teachers read them stories of kids like them going through a day and then asking, you know, asking them first to notice in another child, where’s that trigger? Where’s that spark? And they can notice it right away. It’s always easier to notice another people to know ourselves. And then we asked them, what could this other child be doing? And then they have learned all these techniques so they learned first by watching someone else and then they do it themselves. I mean, so, you know, there’s so many wonderful children’s books and movies and so forth. So even just having a conversation with your child, like, Oh, what could that child have done?
Dr. de Silva: [40:47] Yeah. And we also teach kids practices of just observing and watching their mind, which we called meta-awareness or metacognition, and this is increasingly being recognized as a very important skill for children to develop. They have metacognition or awareness. It’s not something they need to create from scratch. So if you ask kids, you know, hey, what are you thinking about right now? Or what are you, what are you feeling right now? They have that ability to look at their own minds, but we don’t teach children to practice that as a skill. We even as adults, we don’t practice that as a skill. So we believe you can practice that as a skill. You can just sit there for moments and just watch your mind and the better you are at watching your mind, the better you are at not reacting instantly to what’s happening in your mind and in your body. So these practices of body awareness and emotional awareness are skills that can be cultivated over time.
Dr. de Silva: [41:46] Yes. Yes. Right. Exactly. So it is. It is, yeah. There are forms of meditation that are just about that, but you know, we believe that those techniques, uh, they don’t have to be practiced in a religious way at all. They’re just basic practices include attention training practices. These are actually attention trading practices, paying attention to your body, paying attention to your mind and um, they definitely can be used and there’s a lot of meditation research showing that these are skills that can be practiced and they even result in measurable changes in our brain, including measurable changes in cortical thickness. You know, the brain, you know, appearance more and more just like a muscle that actually grows depending upon what we practice. So that’s very exciting and encouraging.
Jen: [42:30] Okay. So moving more from looking at the individual to looking at more than one child. And another of the articles that you sent me opened with the statement: “Teachers spend a considerable amount of time mediating disputes between students.” And I think every parent of preschool is who’s listening to this show right now is thinking “teachers, but I think they spend a lot of time mediating disputes? They should come to my house!” And I’m wondering if there are specific techniques or things that you would say to parents who have more than one child who just find themselves constantly mediating these disputes between children. What tools can we give these children so they’re not at each other’s throats constantly?
Dr. de Silva: [43:21] Yeah. Yeah. Because all the skills that we’re trying to incorporate into our program are building up to that. So one of the things I think that we look for in education as teachers or parents might be looking for this is to kind of the kind of silver bullet. Like if I just do this one thing, everything is going to be fine.
Dr. de Silva: [43:41] And you mentioned meditation and mindfulness; there has been a trend to introduce mindfulness into schools and I think mindfulness is a good thing, but some people just think, well, if you’re, if everybody just did this then there would be no conflict and everything would be perfect. We believe that you have to develop a whole host of capacities because there’s nothing more complex than the interaction between two different people. There’s nothing more complex than a human being, and so you put two of those together and that’s why relationships are so hard, but we think…so there’s several different skills.
Dr. de Silva: [44:15] So one is just the body awareness, right? When we get into conflict, our bodies are actually responding with sensations and if we know how to notice those and regulate our body, our ability to communicate with other people enhances dramatically because conflicts are tense situations and our bodies respond, as I mentioned to social threat, just like physical threat, so your body, if it’s a tense conflict, your body is literally gearing up for a physical altercation and that can be very unhelpful sometimes, so noticing that, being able to regulate the body, the emotional awareness, of course, because a lot of emotions come up in any conflict situation, so noticing those sparks and being able to deal with them. We also teach something that we call mindful dialogues, which we’ve borrowed from elsewhere. It’s a known technique, but it involves listening in a nonjudgmental way, so we have children practicing in pairs, sharing things, asking a question to the other student and then just listening without interrupting, without commenting on it, without responding, but just listening and just the act of listening can be very, very profound.
Dr. de Silva: [45:26] What almost always happens when we do this is that the person who was just speaking and having the other person listen talks about what a amazing experience it is to just be able to talk and have somebody listen, and knowing that that person isn’t going to jump in with a rejoinder or turn the conversation to themselves or whatnot. So you know, the art of listening is something that we’ve kind of lost because listening… The other person speaking is just an opportunity for me to think about what I’m going to say next.
Dr. de Silva: [45:58] So these are all know, empathy, compassion. We talked earlier about reciprocity. These are all things that if children are building up awareness of all these different things at the same time, then the way they’re going to handle conflicts is going to be very different.
Dr. de Silva: [46:14] We also do perspective taking, so switching the roles. What if you know you were in that person, why do you think they were saying things to the way they were saying them? Why do you think they were doing things the way they were doing them? A lot of times we don’t even stop to think this. We’re just reacting to what the other person is doing and we’re not even taking a moment to think about why they might be doing what they’re doing, so emotions arise in context and once we realize how our own emotions arise in context, I talked about the emotion timeline, so emotions arise in connection with an appraisal of the situation. So we appraise the situation in a certain way, positively or negatively, and then our emotion arises. When we see another person acting, we can say, okay, they’re doing this behavior.
Dr. de Silva: [47:01] What’s their emotional state that’s prompting that behavior and what’s their appraisal that is prompting that emotional state? And if we follow that line of reasoning, we can think, oh, you know, I can understand why they’re doing this thing. They thing they might be doing might be harmful, but I can understand and even little kids can do this. They can understand like, you know, why is an animal running away from another animal because it’s afraid that’s the emotional state because it’s appraisal is one of danger, right? Why is this person shouting at that person? Maybe because they’re afraid or angry and maybe that’s because they’re sad about something else and maybe that’s because something bad happened to them and it’s remarkable how even very small kids can engage in this very sophisticated reasoning that even as adults we very seldom do, but that’s a skill that we can practice and so we really believe that if kids are students who are practicing these skills than the way they handle conflicts is going to be very different.
Dr. de Silva: [48:10] Or climate change. But anyway. Okay, so I want to bring this up to a higher level just as we wrap up here. As I was writing the questions for this episode, I actually received an email from the Yale Alumni Association and the headline article, that email was about a class called Psychology and the Good Life which had enrolled 1200 students, which was a record and so they actually put it up on Coursera. So if anyone wants to check it out, you can go find it there. And so Professor Laurie Santos’ message in that course was that human happiness is fueled more by simple acts of kindness by meditation, gratitude, exercise and sleep and then by high salaries and grades. And my first thought was “how ironic it is that most of these kids’ parents paid so much money. I spent a lot of time having their kids about grades so they could go and listen to that lecture.” But then I thought parents today are spending a lot of time worrying about getting their kid into the right preschool and then the right schools so they can get the right grades and go to the right college. And get a “good job,” and then “be happy.” So what advice would you leave us with for parents who see themselves starting to get on that treadmill? What should we tell ourselves?
Dr. de Silva: [49:20] So that’s a great question. There’s a whole discipline that’s kind of emerged called positive psychology that’s looking at happiness in life satisfaction and what contributes to it. And they use that term, the treadmill; the hedonic treadmill, which is that we think that, you know, well, if I had more money, I’d be happier if I had a little bit more success or fame or praise or status, you know, these are the things that bring happiness. But in reality, after a certain point, after my basic needs are met, having more money, more status, more fame, more praise, more material possessions doesn’t bring more happiness. And there’s a whole lot of research about that. There’s also research…I’m suggesting that children, not very young children wouldn’t be thinking about this, but even adolescents and teenagers who believe that the keys to happiness are material tend to need more material gains like money and so forth to reach the same level of happiness as children who don’t rate those as very important.
Dr. de Silva: [50:22] So in other words, we can find happiness from different sources, but material wealth by itself doesn’t seem like a very good guarantee for happiness. So, you know, I think it’s a great question for parents to ask. Parents want their children to be happy above all else, so they’re going to try to create the conditions to maximize their children’s chances for success and happiness and leading a happy life. So it’s very, very important for parents to reflect on this, that the material conditions of their children’s lives getting a good job, having a good income are only one part of the picture and they might not even be the most important part of the picture. So, and this is something for our whole society to think about because we focus so much on the economic side of things, the material side of things, and in popular culture we focus so much on praise and fame.
Dr. de Silva: [51:17] Social media is all about, you know, how many likes and views you get and how many friends you have and followers and these are not a solid foundations for happiness at all. So what is a much better predictor of happiness are things like being able to make good decisions in your life, being able to handle relationships. So this has to do with navigating your emotional and social life and we’re really neglecting that in our schools, in our societies. And if we just paid a little more attention to that, I think we’d be doing future generations a much better service. So it’s really just a, it’s just a shift in orientation and where we’re placing our values based on what we want. So in some other countries, you know, things are even more competitive than here in the US if it’s possible.
Dr. de Silva: [52:12] I would say India for example; admission to the top universities is virtually impossible. And you have parents actually telling their children in middle school and high school, if you have an opportunity to cheat and get ahead, you should do so.
Dr. de Silva: [52:32] Otherwise you’re not going to get in. You need every advantage to get in because there’s so much competition and so much at stake. So in other countries, as you know, in Japan and India and elsewhere, the university that you get into determines your whole life course. You can’t get into the top university in the country and not have a great job. In the States, you can. And of course there’s a correlation in the States, but it’s not as strong as in some of these other countries. So everything is focused on these school entrance exams. Everything’s focused on that. And the parents believe so strongly that that is the key to happiness for their children. And they’re telling their children to sacrifice character and their moral development in order to get ahead. And sadly, I think they’re doing their children a great disservice because their children might end up going to great universities and getting great jobs. But that’s not a guarantee for happiness at all later in life. I mean, I think we all, you know, you shouldn’t see people who are rich and famous who are not leading happy lives. So we need to think about that more and and talk about that with our children more.
Jen: [53:42] Well, thank you so much for being so willing to delve into this with us and address the thorny questions that there aren’t always really great research answers to. I’m so grateful and I’m excited as well by the conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my daughter about her questions and things that she’s interested in and how to give her tools and skills that will help her later in life and now as well. So thanks again Brendan.
Jen: [54:08] So all of the materials that Brendan has referenced today can be found on his website, compassion.emory.edu. And we’ll definitely send out a reminder early next year once that that selection has been built out and uh, there are lots more resources there, but that framework that he mentioned is there right now. And all the references for the show along with that link to his website can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Compassion.