Developing Compassionate Empathy in Gifted Children
Empathy is a critical emotion to develop in our 21st Century as AI, robots, and other forms of technology shape our world. Though hard to measure, there are indications that the modern world is becoming increasingly empathetic. Despite how it may appear, today’s world is less violent than early civilizations that engaged in tribal warfare, indifference to others, and hostility to outsiders. Empathy builds trust along with positive connections among humans and is good for emotional health, all needed goals for our modern age.
Gifted children often exhibit empathy as they engage in positive ethical behavior and maintain high moral beliefs. As educators and parents, we have an obligation to help gifted young people nurture these beliefs and behaviors and find ways to apply their need to empathize in meaningful ways.
Daniel Goleman identified three types of empathy in his 2007 article on this topic.
Those three categories are:
- Cognitive empathy: a knowledge and understanding of someone’s feelings
- Emotional empathy: perceiving and caring about someone’s feelings
- Compassionate empathy: utilizing the first two types, but also taking actions of support
It is the 3rd type of empathy that I believe speaks to what we do in gifted education. Not only do we want students to feel and acknowledge empathy toward others, we also want them to apply their problem solving and critical thinking skills to positively impact situations that are causing distress for others. We need to provide opportunity to use students’ positive feelings of concern regarding people affected by local and global problems, so that they have a constructive place to put these emotions, so that they do not develop feelings of frustration, fear, or apathy, and so that they are contributors to creating a future world that will benefit others as well as themselves.
Here are a few ways that students can develop compassionate empathy.
- Research local and global concerns that people are facing today and select one or more that personally interest you. Become educated in the problems and solutions currently in place and engage in ways to alleviate the effects of that problem. For example, you may have a student who is interested in cleaning up the oceans and can assess the current and future success of all the ongoing cleanup efforts.
- Participate in ongoing efforts in your chosen concern of interest. For example, if you are concerned about infrastructure needs in your community, what groups or organizations are currently working on the problem? How might you help or support ongoing efforts already in motion? How might you start a media campaign to inform and engage people? How might you help find needed funds? And so forth.
- Create your own solution to a current problem that you care about. Perhaps you feel that current efforts are moving in the wrong direction or are not as effective as they could be. For example, you may feel that the current plan for deterring bullying in your community is ineffective and would like to create a new approach that is more inclusive of all the reasons bullying might occur and targets a broader audience, using multi-media components.
- Take a course that provides a structure for engaging in Compassionate empathy. Specifically, in our SIG programs we always have courses that provide places for students to do this. A few that come to mind for 2019 are The Youthful Face of Power for 11-12-year-olds, Social Entrepreneurship and Generation Z: Aspire to Inspire for 13-14-year-olds, and Global Human Rights: The Power of ONE for 15-17-year-olds.
Regardless of the method, course, or project, we want our gifted students to channel the empathy they naturally have for their fellow human beings into productive (compassionate) action that has the multi-level goal of caring for others, feeling self-actualized, and creating a better world that is built for the greater good. The readers of this blog surely have many ways that they have worked with empathetic gifted children. We invite you to share your stories and ideas with us as well.