Cultivating Kindness and Compassion in Children

by Kristina Ponischil, December 8, 2014

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

On Friday December 5, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl addressed the growing body of research supporting the importance of promoting children’s social and emotional learning (SEL), especially within the classroom. Her public lecture titled “Cultivating Kindness and Compassion in Children: Recent Research and Practical Strategies” delved into some of the SEL initiatives occurring in Canada and the US, and explored questions around the roots of empathy, whether empathy and compassion can be taught, and best practices for promoting happiness and altruism in ourselves and the children with whom we interact.

Dr. Schonert-Reichl is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology and Special Education at the University of British Columbia. She began her professional career first as a middle school teacher and then as a high school teacher for youth “at risk.” For over 20 years she has been conducting research in the area of the child and adolescent SEL and development with a particular emphasis on identifying the processes and mechanisms that foster positive development, such as empathy, optimism, and altruism.


What happens when you give children the opportunity to talk about how they feel and how they believe others feel? The Roots of Empathy, an evidence-based classroom program developed in 1996 by Mary Gordon, aims to answer that question. The program brings an infant into K-8 classrooms to help students learn about human emotions and development, and has shown significant effects in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Dr. Schonert-Reichl noted that within the classroom, children shouldn’t merely be focused on

Why now?

Recent research suggests that children today are less empathic and more self-absorbed than they were a decade ago. Empathy involves being able to identify emotions, understand and explain emotions, and respond appropriately to those emotions. Increasing societal risk factors and challenges such as poverty, stress, bullying, and mental illness make it more difficult for children to develop high levels of empathy. Stress, especially, is highly toxic in the brain, leading to increased levels of cortisol (a hormone that modulates stress physiology). This can negatively affect the prefrontal cortex, which controls self-regulation and executive functioning. Thus, highly stressed children may find it more difficult to effectively understand and regulate their own emotions, thus diminishing their capacity to develop empathy for others. Furthermore, stress is contagious, and when you are involved in networks of about 15 stressed individuals or more, you are likely to be stressed as well. Research even shows links between teacher stress and increased anxiety and depression in students (Milkie & Warner, 2011).

What now? Lessons learned from recent science

If you went to the gym and exercised once, would you expect immediate results or for any positive gains to last long-term? Of course not! We must also think about social and emotional fitness in the same way. Qualities like self-awareness, empathy, peaceful problem solving, and self-regulation need to be learned and practiced over time in order to develop consistent behavioral gains. When we consider promoting resiliency, Dr. Schonert-Reichl emphasized focusing on children’s strengths rather than deficits, and favoring prevention over intervention. To set children up for success, we must equip them with the right tools ahead of time (like a life jacket) instead of waiting for crises to occur (like throwing a life-ring when someone is already in the water).

In terms of SEL, Dr. Schonert-Reichl quoted Dan Goleman, author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, who said that “The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.” Research shows that only about 20% of success can be predicted by one’s IQ, so we must look beyond children’s academic achievement when predicting their likelihood of success later in life. One study showed that when 3rd graders were assessed on dimensions of pro-socialness as well as academic achievement, levels of pro-socialness in 3rd grade better predicted academic achievement in 8th grade than 3rd grade academic performance.

There are five areas of SEL to consider (as identified by CASEL – Collaborate for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning):

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
  2. Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  3. Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
  4. Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  5. Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

In British Columbia, SEL is an intentional part of school curriculum. During the 2013 – 2014 academic year, 90% of school districts listed SEL and/or self-regulation as a top priority (compared to only 37% from 2010 – 2011).  By focusing on SEL, these school districts are embodying three proposed cross-curricular competencies, each with a number of sub-domains:

  1. Thinking competency: critical thinking, creative thinking, and reflective thinking.
  2. Personal and social competency: positive personal and cultural identity, personal awareness and responsibility, and social awareness and responsibility.
  3. Communication competency: language and symbols, and digital literacy.

Our brains are malleable and research on neuroplasticity supports the notion that empathy and compassion can definitely be taught. Promoting SEL in the classroom can lead to student gains such as increased social and emotional skills, improved attitude, and up to 11% improvement on achievement tests. Children also see reduced risks for failure such as decreases in conduct problems, aggressive behavior, and emotional distress (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).  

An experiment

Take a moment to pause and reflect on something you are truly thankful for this week.

How do you feel? Did you know that practicing gratitude can actually increase your levels of happiness? Sonja Lyubormirsky, researcher and author of The How of Happiness, found that only 50% of our happiness can be attributed to genetics/temperament. While 10% can be attributed to circumstance, 40% can be attributed to intentional activity that we control. By engaging in activities like expressing gratitude, random acts of kindness, counting your blessings, imagining your best possible self, and using your strengths in a new way, you can develop positive habits that promote higher levels of overall happiness.

These findings hold true for children as well. Layous et al. (2012) found that students who engaged in random acts of kindness experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance than students who did not practice random acts of kindness. Pro-sociality not only improved children’s personal well-being, but also positively affected their perceptions of those around them. Furthermore, one of Dr. Schonert-Reichl’s studies found that volunteering once a week for 10 weeks significantly reduced the risk for heart disease and increased levels of empathy amongst a sample of adolescents (Schreier, Schonert-Reichel, & Chen, 2013). Lastly, Warneken and Tomasello (2013) found that children as young as two years old have a propensity towards altruism and will naturally help out strangers, even when no reward is involved.

5 ways to promote empathy and compassion in children

To sum up, Dr. Schonert-Reichl suggested the following five strategies to promote empathy and compassion in children:

1. What not to do: rewards!

When given rewards (such as toys), children actually help less than when no rewards are given or when only verbal praise is given. Rewards may undermine the positive feelings we naturally experience when we help others (over justification theory), which can diminish a child’s desire to help in the future in the absence of an external reward.

2. Recognize the capacity children have for empathy and sympathy (we tend to underestimate them constantly).

Look for opportunities to practice restoration in relationships. If a child hurts another child, instead of scolding the perpetrator, have him identify how the other child must be feeling and think of ways he could make the hurt child feel better.

3. Encourage children to engage in opportunities to help others and talk (reflect) about the good feelings that come from kindness.

Think back to the positive gains children experience as a result of the Roots of Empathy program. Foster these types of opportunities for the children in your life.

4. Maximize support and minimize punishment.

“Every child requires someone in his or her life who is absolutely crazy about them” – Urie Bronfrenrenner. Show you care by acknowledging your own mistakes with your children, demonstrating forgiveness, and remembering that children will learn more from your actions than from your words.

5. Help develop a caring and kind identity (instead of a saying, “That was a kind thing to do,” say, “You are such a kind person”).

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build the youth for our future” – Franklin D. Roosevelt. Use every opportunity you have to build up your child’s sense of self-worth by validating their identity as a compassionate human being.

For more information about Dr. Schonert-Reichl’s work, visit

To learn more about the mindfulness training we currently offer at CCFW, please visit our events page.

Download lecture slides here


Educate the Heart:

The Doorman:

Experiments with altruism and children:

Kindness through their eyes:

academics but also encouraged to explore who it is they are going to be. In order to cultivate this type of environment, schools must be very explicit in how they “educate the heart.” Within the past decade, we’ve seen the science to support this method of education and the concept of SEL in the classroom is becoming more widely implemented.