Mindfulness and the development of empathy in social situations

Rowan Maria, IB Diploma Programme graduate, Domuschola International School, Philippines

This article investigates the effectiveness of mindfulness programmes in the development of empathy in social situations among Primary Years Programme (PYP) students. The results and information referenced are based on a thesis by a former IB Diploma Programme (DP) student, which is an IB diploma graduation requirement.

A few months ago, I was a high school senior faced with the challenge of selecting a topic for a thesis which culminated my secondary education. Being a former IB Diploma Programme student, I remembered that maintaining a learning-life balance is essential for both personal and professional development. Consequently, I became curious about whether younger students in the Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Programme underwent curriculum with a similar emphasis towards personal development. Intrigued, I focused on the Primary Years Programme to learn about the community involved, their values and how they are distilled.

The IB learner profile aims to nurture internationally minded students through a set of ten attributes. One of these is “caring” with the caption: “We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.” A keyword “empathy” is “The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (Dictionary.com); a value carried over to the IB’s commitment of service to others and to inspire positive change, as empathizing with another one’s feelings is a fundamental step in achieving interpersonal understanding and sensitivity.

It was the concept of empathy that I saw brought to life through an initiative at an IB World School in the Philippines called Mindfulness Month—it is a month-long programme conducted by the Primary School Guidance Counsellors of Domuschola. The general objectives of Mindfulness Month are as follows:

  • to define and understand empathy
  • to learn skills on how to develop empathy
  • to develop a whole-school approach in promoting the concept of empathy
  • to prevent further bullying incidence by allowing them to experience different.

Extract from Mindfulness Programme of Domuschola, an IB World School Primary School Guidance Counselling Department

Further, the programme aimed to encourage empathetic behaviour among upper primary students (grades 3-6) through practicing various mindfulness strategies such as self-reflection and examining social situations to determine the most appropriate social responses.

One activity during Mindfulness Month introduced students to exercises involving the group’s division due to perceived differences such as personal preferences. Following the division, the supervising counselor discussed and presented different techniques to support students in accepting others’ differences. Some of these techniques included meditation, breathing and active listening.

Using this framework, my thesis aimed to evaluate whether such programmes generated noticeable changes in students’ empathetic behaviour and developed personal significance for students through the internalization and application of knowledge and skills towards social situations.

The thesis followed a two-stage study. The first stage was a self-reported survey requiring teacher advisers to gauge their homeroom students’ general empathetic state and identifying the most empathetic students. Students recognized as “most empathetic” underwent a counseling session alongside other selected students in their grade level for an informal focus group discussion about empathy led by the researcher and supervised by a Primary School Guidance Counselor.

The focus group discussion aimed to determine the students’ understanding of empathy, where they learned the concept, its significance and what influenced their empathetic behaviours. Additionally, there were also discussions regarding what they remembered from Mindfulness Month.

A trend among both surveys and focus group discussions were the positive responses towards Mindfulness Month and its intentions, along with the desire for it to be taught more often. However, the effectiveness of the programme was questionable for some faculty and students, citing extracts such as: “There was no change in the empathetic state of the students. In my perspective, developing empathy to students won’t change immediately after the week or days of the implementation. A program like this should be done on a regular basis so it will be successful, though changes might be seen over a period of time.”

Despite the occasional negative feedback by some of the responses, most of them recognized noticeable positive changes brought by Mindfulness Month. To exemplify, a class advisor shared that Mindfulness Month: “Actually affected the students of grade 5 especially if they had conflict. The presentation used and the activities presented to them were very interactive and they were able to apply it to their situation.”

Regarding whether the mindfulness programme had a personal significance for its participants, there were some insightful points of consideration from the students regarding the significance of exhibiting empathy and the impact of this. When asked why empathy is essential, one student replied: “If you are not kind like cause like pretend you are older and like working in the office, you need to be kind to other people so you can compromise easier.”

In this IB World School, Mindfulness Month not only supported a school-wide approach to promoting the attributes of the learner profile, but it also highlighted approaches that could be implemented in situations where empathy is crucial, such as bullying.

Furthermore, the results suggested that the majority of respondents recognized its intentions as contributing to the holistic development of learners, as advocated by the guiding principles of the IB. However, the success of the programme was also variable in the internalization of the information given, hence why it has been suggested that Mindfulness Month is done more frequently. As a final thought, the research process served as a personal point of reflection for my own behaviours and how each action has its own consequence, something I am now mindful of as a university student involved in countless social interactions.

References:

Empathy. ​Dictionary.com

IB learner profile. International Baccalaureate Organization. 2013.

Rowan Sta. Maria is a former IB Diploma Programme student who studied at Jakarta Intercultural School, Indonesia and Domuschola International School, Philippines in 2018. He currently studies a Bachelor in International Business at IÉSEG School of Management, France with interest in Human Resource Management.

 

 

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