• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 31st March, 2014

School lessons in empathy lead to lower levels of aggression

strong>Aggressive behavior in schools is a problem that can seriously disrupt teaching and learning for all students, not just those that are hostile or engage in fighting. Spanish research suggests that a socio-emotional learning (SEL) program can help to reduce aggression among youth by increasing their levels of empathy. The link between empathy – the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings – and aggression is well documented. A lack of empathy during childhood and adolescence has been linked to bullying and mental health problems, notably depression. Adolescents who display aggressive behavior may have low emotional intelligence (EI), and find it difficult to identify and regulate their emotions effectively. Adolescent boys tend to display more anger than girls and engage in fighting and other overtly physical behavior. Aggression exhibited by girls tend to be less direct, expressed though behavior such as as social rejection of peersConversely, in terms of emotional intelligence, girls generally appear to display more reasoning and emotional components of empathy than boys. Research suggests that a greater disposition towards empathy helps explain why young women engage in less bullying behavior than young men. In theory, therefore, programs that improve socio-emotional learning and empathy among young people should not only lead to lower levels of aggression, but also have a more marked effect on boys than girls. There has, however, been little research to investigate the scope for intervention among adolescents and none, until now, outside the United States.Researchers at the University of Malaga and University of the Basque Country have sought to address both these issues by examining the impact of a two-year SEL intervention on student aggression and empathy in eight Spanish secondary schools located in three different cities. Altogether, 590 adolescents aged 11 to 17 took part in the study; with 369 randomly assigned to take part in emotional intelligence training sessions and 229 to a control group participating in weekly tutorial lessons prescribed by the Spanish school curriculum. Testing INTEMO The SEL program, known as INTEMO, was made up of 12 one-hour sessions delivered over six months in each of the two years. The curriculum was delivered by psychologists and consisted of emotion-focused activities, including games, role-play, art projects, group work and reflective activities. One important aim was to equip adolescents with strategies to manage their hostility and aggression, and approach challenging situations in a more peaceful and thoughtful way.Students were assessed before and six months after the program using questionnaires designed to measure physical and verbal aggression and also different aspects of interpersonal reactivity, including ‘perspective taking’ ‘empathetic concern’ and ‘fantasy’ (the tendency to identify with fictitious characters). The results found that after taking part in INTEMO, students exhibited significantly lower levels of verbal and physical aggression, hostility, and anger than those in the control group. There was no statistically significant gender difference.However, when it came to measuring empathy, improvements were chiefly evident among young men. Thus, levels of ‘empathetic concern’ had fallen among males in the control group, but not among those who took part in INTEMO. Scores for ‘fantasy’ traits (linked to social dysfunction, including certain violent behaviors) were significantly higher among young men in the control group than the program participants. There was also a decrease in ‘personal distress’ among those who took part. Gender differences in empathyDiscussing the lack of any equivalent patterns in the empathy results collected from young women, the researchers note that their scores were already higher than those for young men before the intervention took place. They consequently had less to gain from the empathy-building aspects of the program. Despite encouraging results, there are several limitations to the study. These include the lack of any suitable measurement for emotional intelligence abilities among Spanish-speaking adolescents. This meant the study was unable to assess how far their results were due to improvements brought about by INTEMO in the students’ emotional intelligence. The researchers highlight the potential value of evaluating the program over a longer follow-up period than six months and testing it with greater teacher involvement in delivering the curriculum. They also suggest that gender differences be acknowledged more explicitly, adjusting programs so they target and improve outcomes that are unique to each sex. ***********Reference: Castillo, R., Salguero, J.M., Fernandez-Berrocal, P. & Balluerka, N. (2013). Effects of an emotional intelligence intervention on aggression and empathy among adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 883-892

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