Stop expulsions: Empathize and teach

As reported in “Suspending Preschoolers Doesn’t Work: How Adults Can Intervene“:

[E]xperts and advocates now argue that suspending a 3- or 4-year-old, no matter how bad the behavior, is a bad idea.

“Expelling preschoolers is not an intervention,” according to a policy statement issued earlier this year by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Rather, it disrupts the learning process, pushing a child out the door of one early care and education program, only for him or her to be enrolled somewhere else, continuing a negative cycle of revolving doors that increases inequality and hides the child and family from access to meaningful supports.”

Instead, use gentle redirection and teach them techniques for managing big feelings.

And, help the teachers and caregivers empathize with the children.

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Diversity enriches us all

From “White Students on Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color“:

The societal advantages of more teachers of color become clearer when considering the racial socialization—or the processes by which people develop their ethnic identities—of white adults, including the parents who may stumble in communicating racial understanding to their children. A Public Religion Research Institute study on “American Values” circulated last summer, following the shooting in Ferguson, showed that 75 percent of white Americans have all-white social networks. This self-segregation could help explain the racial divide over Michael Brown’s death and why it was seemingly so hard for many whites to understand what transpired in Ferguson: Their worldview was restricted to mostly white friends and family. And in a 2014 study researchers found that “the messages that white teens received [from parents regarding race] were contradictory and incomplete,” concluding that schools are a crucial link in building “productive and genuine relationships” between whites and people of color.

Per Matthew Kay, the first black teacher for one Philadelphia high school student:

by interacting daily with people who come from different backgrounds, white students who harbor stereotypes and prejudgments may be able to chip away at those convictions. …

In his day-to-day dealings with students, Kay also fights the widespread, centuries-old narrative that black men are driven by anger and frustration. “I am affectionate and caring … I think it’s important that [the students] see we have the capacity to love.”

Underpinning it all, Kay said, are his close relationships with students and his ability to offer them a safe space to investigate and reflect on any racial privileges they enjoy without being made to feel morally deficient for having white skin.

However:

Thomas M. Philip, an education professor at UCLA whose work focuses on racial ideology and teachers… warned that putting the onus on teachers of color to carry the burden of discussions on larger historical and political issues carries significant risks, ranging from exceptionalism and tokenism to individualizing an institutional responsibility. …

Teacher diversity, Philip stressed, must be accompanied by systemic practices that support all educators in constructively navigating issues of race, racism, and racial justice. To do otherwise, he said, is to allow some to abdicate their role in engaging the same issues deeply and profoundly. “The unique strengths and perspectives of teachers of color are more likely to be beneficial for students if all educators, particularly white teachers and administrators, embrace the responsibility to work for racial equity and justice.”

The benefits and burdens belong to all of us.

Better learning through the careful consideration of differences

In “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter“, Katherine Phillips highlights numerous findings illustrating the benefits of diversity.

On the financial benefits:

business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list… [and] found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011,… [and] found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

On creative problem-solving and decision-making:

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. … The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity.

In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. … When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective.

professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. … Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern.

Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did.

Phillips concludes that diversity promotes hard work and creativity through greater information-sharing and perspective-taking.

When peers improve decision-making skill

In a study of 760+ fifth-graders described in “Group learning makes children better decision-makers, study finds”:

Children who had worked in collaborative groups… were better prepared to take on the role of decision-maker about [the moral dilemma in the story], the researchers found.

These children were more proficient at three key aspects of decision-making: recognizing more than one side of a dilemma, considering a range of reasons to support differing viewpoints, and weighing the costs and benefits associated with different decisions, according to the researchers.

These children appealed to a significantly greater number of moral principles and practical considerations when drawing conclusions about [recommended actions], the researchers found.

Students in the direct instruction condition performed no better than a control group of uninstructed students.

Reducing Implicit Bias

Chris Mooney summarizes important research on measuring and reducing implicit bias:

The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants “read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.” In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were roughly three-fourths white; no participants were black.)

Other variations on this idea were successful too: making nonblack people think about black role models, or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with black teammates against a team of white people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.

There’s also “epistemic unfreezing”, in which “subjects [were] pushed to compare and contrast the two cultures, presumably leading to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences”, with these results:

This experimental manipulation has been found to increase creativity. But surprisingly, it also had a big effect on reducing anti-black prejudice. In one study, Tadmor et al. found that white research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture.

Learning about differences through structured comparisons can help reconcile differences.

Letting children choose promotes prosocial behavior

As described in “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior“:

[S]haring when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light. Perceiving themselves as people who like to share makes them more likely to act in a prosocial manner in the future.

Previous research has shown that this idea — as described by the over-justification effect — explains why rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children come to perceive themselves as people who don’t like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so. Because they don’t view themselves as “sharers” they are less likely to share in the future.

Developmental psychologists Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir found that compared to children who were given a non-costly choice or who were required to share, preschoolers given a costly choice were more likely to share again at a subsequent opportunity.

My thoughts:

  1. I would be interested in an analysis comparing the effect of the conditions on the children who did not share– that is, collecting baseline data on children’s initial propensity to share, and then comparing how the interventions affected them across the range of initial tendencies.
  2. I wonder how well this would apply to long-term planning and diligence (e.g., completing homework, practicing a difficult skill, doing chores).

The results do suggest that choice can be a powerful mechanism for promoting positive habits and attitudes, something which I think parents and schools could harness more productively. That choice can potentially foster empathy and perspective-taking is very encouraging.


Full reference: N. Chernyak, T. Kushnir. Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613482335

Empathizing with actions above appearance

In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:

[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:

When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.

Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:

[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:

People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.

[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.

[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.

[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.

Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:

Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.

Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.

Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.

What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.

The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.

They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.

By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.

Less identity, more ideas

Once again, “we would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling… along any dimension by which we divide humanity.”

From Tom Jacob’s “America’s Increasingly Tribal Electorate“, describing political scientist Lilliana Mason’s research:

“behavioral polarization”—anger at the other side, activism for one’s own side, and a tendency to look at political arguments through a biased lens—is driven much more strongly by that sense of team spirit, as opposed to one’s views on public policy.

According to her:

the only way to reduce the anger and bias would be “to reduce the strength or alignment of political identities.”

Yet I remain hopeful that, in spite of the dangers of the backfire effect, we can find ways to separate ideas from identities, and share knowledge both dispassionately and compassionately at the same time. As before: “Most of all, we should put wrongness back in its place– linked to the idea, not the person,” or the identity.

The invisibility of belonging and the salience of difference

Many years ago, long before I knew much of anything about social science research methods, I conducted a small-group activity for my fellow teacher colleagues for an in-service workshop. The gist of it was simply for everyone to note the ways in which they were in the majority or the minority with respect to the rest of their group. Although I never did any formal analyses of the data, it appeared as though people were more aware of the ways in which they were different from the norm than of the ways in which they were in the norm. That is, they listed more characteristics along which they were “different from the majority” than “same as the majority.”

This surprised me, since I expected that people would notice all the ways in which they were just like the norm and how a handful of individuals were different—reinforcement that they belonged to the dominant group. I can even propose an explanation for this based on psychology research I know now, noting that people use similarities to recognize differences. But if the results I saw from this little activity were to be believed, people noticed how they were different, moreso than how others were different.

Looking at it now, with slightly older and more jaded eyes, I suppose this egocentrism isn’t so surprising: People are afraid of losing their dominant status and are quick to notice where those privileges might be at risk. That seems to be the same phenomenon at play in Norton and Sommers’ recent article on perceptions of racism.

If only it were easier to demonstrate that societal benefits are not a zero-sum game, that in fact to help others really is to help oneself. It’s puzzling that people can be so keenly aware of how easily their advantages can slip away, yet not realize that constructing a society where everyone is protected is precisely how they can guard against this.


M. I. Norton, S. R. Sommers. Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011; 6 (3): 215 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406922

Supporting imaginative play

I came across this article when looking for a suitable reference in my last post, and I thought it deserved its own summary for all the information it contains. Educators and parents are constantly seeking concrete descriptions and recommendations for how to help their students and children develop, and this article is helpfully specific in describing the characteristics of mature imaginative play and techniques for supporting it. Below I summarize the main points in each category.

Characteristics of mature play (what to look for and encourage):

  • Imaginary situations
    • Assigning new meanings to people and objects
    • Focusing on abstract rather than concrete properties
    • Inventing new uses for familiar objects
    • Describing missing props with words and gestures
  • Multiple roles
    • Assuming multiple roles, including supporting characters
    • Practicing the actions and emotions of the role rather than their own
  • Clearly defined rules
    • Delaying immediate fulfillment of their desires (and thereby developing better self-regulation)
  • Flexible themes
    • Incorporating new roles and ideas from other themes
    • Negotiating plans across themes
  • Language development
    • Us[ing] language to plan the play scenario, negotiate and act out roles, explain “pretend” behaviors to others, regulate rule compliance
    • Modifying speech intonation and register, vocabulary to code-switch between real and pretend speech
  • Length of play
    • Staying with same play theme across multiple sessions over days
    • Creating, reviewing, revising plans
    • Elaborating on imaginary situation, integrating new roles, discovering new uses for props

How to support imaginative play

  • Intervene sometimes:
    • Beware of intervening so much that the play loses its spontaneous, child-initiated character and changes into another adult-directed activity.
    • Do intervene when children’s play remains stereotypical and unexciting day after day to help kids expand the scope of their play.
  • Create imaginary situations:
    • Provide multipurpose props that can stand for many objects (which also promotes cognitive flexibility).
    • Combine multipurpose props with realistic ones to keep play going and then gradually provide more unstructured materials.
    • Show the children different common objects and brainstorm how they can use them in different ways in play.
    • Encourage children to use both gestures and words to describe how they are using the object in a pretend way.
  • Integrate different play themes and roles:
    • Use field trips, literature, and videos to expand children’s repertoire of play themes and roles.
    • Point out the ‘people’ part of each new setting—the many different roles that people have and how the roles relate to one another.
  • Sustain play:
    • Help children plan play in advance by asking them to record their plans by drawing or writing them. This may help stimulate them to create new developments in their play scenario.

(Italicized text represents direct or near-direct quotations; parenthetical comments represent my own added interpretation.)


Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.