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Schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic

One of Adam Lanza's high school friends said he was "probably a genius." Another student recalled him as "a very bright kid." And he was said to have corrected students' Latin homework when he was 14 years old.

Concurrently, Mr. Lanza was a fish out of water, a misfit, an oddball. He had tremendous difficulty relating to his classmates, was labelled as stiff, shy and dysfunctional.

As investigators scramble to piece together a profile of the man who mowed down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and uncover the reasoning that led him to do it, many are wondering what could have been done to prevent him.

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While most of American is jostling over issues like gun control, improving mental health care, and reducing violence in media, we're missing an indispensable element – why schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the feelings and conditions of another person. Or as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it, "Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize."

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy has three layers. The first is emotional contagion, where people are hit by a flood of emotions during a climactic event. The second layer is feeling for others. We do this through "body-mapping" – trying to "recreate what we have seen others do." And the third layer is "targeted helping" – where people attempt to ease their emotions through altruism.

Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What's more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before. There is a growing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and educators that bullying and other kinds of violence can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age.

Primarily, children need to learn how to control and understand their feelings and emotions. We need to place children in capacities to practice and model empathy for themselves. Learning how to step into someone else's shoes is hard, but without the personal immersion in the process, the experience will be a complete waste.

One program that is devoting itself to this is Roots of Empathy, started by Canadian educator Mary Gordon that has now reached more than 325,000 children in 10 countries in their 16-year legacy. A baby and its mother or father visit a school classroom 27 times during the course of the year. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit, and post-family visit). Students are asked to carefully observe the interactions that occur between the child and parent as well as their mood, and over time slowly become attached to them. In the process, they are learning emotional literacy, a term Ms. Gordon defines as "the ability to find our humanity in one another." Later, the students express what they have learned in other subjects.

It's remarkable to see how babies remake these kids. In a wonderful piece for the New York Times, after observing Roots of Empathy classrooms, David Bornstein writes, "Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up." After conducting controlled studies specifically pinpointing "proactive aggressive students" – your playground bullies – Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, found that 88 per cent of these children decreased this form of behaviour over the school year compared with the control group where only 9 per cent did.

Roots of Empathy is typically for schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade. I can't see a reason why this program can't be implemented in high schools around the world. Even the most bruised and battered students will succumb to the power of a baby.

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Ms. Gordon often says, "Empathy can't be taught, but it can be caught."

Could a program like Roots of Empathy have ultimately prevented Adam Lanza from mowing down innocent children and adults on a December morning? We will never know. But what we do know is that if we spawn an empathetic society, if we lend our hearts and souls to those who are hurting inside, and if we bring lonely and ignored people into our circles of friendship, then the number of families who lose a loved one from an act of violence or bullying will be largely extinguished.

Nikhil Goyal is a high-school senior at Syosset High School in New York. He is the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School.

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