Start Empathy

Math, Science, Literacy, and Empathy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Neon Tommy - Creative Commons

Post written by Sharon Lazich for Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative, a whole child partner organization.

In February President Obama laid out an ambitious agenda to invest in our young people, calling for early childhood education for every child in America. In his own words:

"Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own."

The president is absolutely right that the sooner a child begins learning, the further he or she is predicted to achieve professional and personal success. However, it's important not to limit those skills to science, literacy, and math. Emotional intelligence is critical, too, and should be woven into the rich tapestry of a student's education.

Studies increasingly link social and emotional intelligence with career and life success—and these must be cultivated early in a child's development. For example, we know that a child who masters empathy at the age of four is less likely to bully ten years later, and that, for students, having one supportive relationship with an adult outside the family can be the difference between success and failure when they grow up. This evidence is not anecdotal either.

Joshua Freedman, one of the founders of the Six Seconds EQ Network and author of At the Heart of Leadership, is a worldwide advocate for this integration of what he dubs "head + heart + hands." As stated on the Six Seconds website, "The research is abundantly clear: social and emotional factors are the drivers or limiters of learning." As such, if President Obama is serious about investing in education, emotional intelligence needs to be a part of that framework. "Often people assume compassion and cognition are somehow mutually exclusive. In my experience as a teacher, and now based on 15 years of research with tens of thousands of adults and children, and as a parent, the story is abundantly clear: skill with emotion is essential for academic success—and cognitive insight is a vital part of emotional intelligence as well. True success comes from using the whole brain and putting that spark into action. Head + heart + hands."

Thankfully, there are already organizations cultivating empathy in young people as early as three to five years old that are eager to share best practices and the research needed to continue developing newer and better programs. Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon's Roots of Empathy and its sister organization Seeds of Empathy both aim to foster social and emotional competence as well as build early literacy skills in their students. And the results are promising. According to Gordon, "Children who have participated in Roots of Empathy programs are kinder, more cooperative, and more inclusive of others and less aggressive and less likely to bully others."

At Start Empathy, we're building a movement to make empathy and related skills a priority in early education—and showcasing how it can be done. Because we should educate our kids not just to find jobs but to navigate life's relationships with confidence and care, to be leaders, and to work collaboratively to solve the world's toughest challenges. It's in all of our interests—and our collective responsibility—to make sure every child in America develops the skills to thrive in life, starting in preschool.

As the president states, "[L]et's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance."

Let's start with empathy.

Main image attribution: Neon Tommy, Creative Commons

Sharon Lazich is a social media strategist with Start Empathy. She is a recent graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service where she studied Latin American Government. Lazich is also the founder of social media consulting firm, SML Solutions, where she works with politicians and campaign managers to integrate their on- and off-line strategies. This article was originally featured on the StartEmpathy Blog in February 2013.

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