Summary of Dr. Stuart Shanker’s Keynote Presentation, Self-regulation Summer Symposium, July 2015.  

A focus on self-regulation can support the four main pillars of education: literacy, numeracy, social/emotional learning and safe schools. With respect to safe schools, the question is not simply preventing harm, it is also about creating environments in which children feel emotionally safe.

Part of this involves helping children develop self-regulation skills in the social and prosocial domains. But the effect sizes from social and emotional learning programs designed to teach prosocial behaviour are disappointing. Part of the problem is that many children are experiencing stressors in the prosocial domain, stressor that interfere with their ability to empathize.

Key Question: Is empathy and other prosocial behaviour innate to humans or is it a construct of civil society?

Some have argued that there is a violence gene and that some children have it worse than others. One prominent psychologist says that about one third of kids show violent tendencies and, while some grow out of or can be socialized out of those tendencies, a minority will remain violent. Thus, the only thing we can do is knock it out of them – either through harsh discipline or by expelling them from school.

In contrast, Dr. Shanker’s view is that research shows that the human brain is wired for empathy, so if a child is not displaying prosocial behaviour then something is interfering with it, and that something is usually stress.

How do we know that humans are innately empathetic?

Primate research

Jane Goodall, who spent many years living with and researching chimpanzees. At the time were seen as the primate that was closest to humans. Goodall observed loving maternal behaviour in chimps. This supported the idea that, if chimps might be innately prosocial, thus it was possible humans might be innately loving. But then Goodall started witnessing infanticide and warfare in chimps. That shook the perception that humans are innately compassionate and people started to think that perhaps humans are innately vicious after all, an idea that goes back to the philosopher Hobbes.

However, it turns out that chimps are not the closest primates to humans. In fact bonobos (primates whose proper name is bilia) are the closest to humans among apes. Bonobos have a way of diffusing aggression (sometimes with intimate sexual behaviour). They can also sense that a person is trouble and will do things like stroke someone’s arm as a response. These discoveries rekindled the idea that humans are innately compassionate and empathetic.

This dovetails with other observations of human behaviour. For example, one-year-olds will try to cheer up their upset mothers. That’s not true empathy. It is a precursor, a baby’s limbic system trying to respond to the distress of others. But it suggests that our brains are wired for empathetic behaviour.

Big idea

Empathy is the glue that held our species together.

In the last ten years new research findings have shown that empathetic people do better in life. They are also healthier, get fewer colds and have better immune system function Jorge Moll showed that when we engage in kindness we get a shot of oxytocin. In other words, we’re not only biologically primed for empathy we get rewarded.

This leads to questions. If prosocial behaviour feels good, if you get this neurowallop and surge of energy for being empathetic, why doesn’t everybody do it?

Why do some people lack empathy?

In the past, people thought lack of empathy was the result of maltreatment or, in some cases genetic defects. For example, some experts thought that “bad” moms, who didn’t display empathy, had a genetically induced deficit in producing oxytocin, a hormone that supports social behaviour. The solution to this deficit seemed to be, “Let’s just give them a shot of oxytocin.” But that didn’t work. Now we know that the real problem is that something is blocking the release of oxytocin and other neurochemicals associated with the reward system.

What could be blocking a mom from being a sensitive caregiver? Stress.

So now we need to know how is stress interfering with a natural biological instinct? It’s partly that the mom is in fight or flight, but there’s more. Too much stress puts us into a “presocial brain” where we are unable to read social cues and respond with appropriate prosocial behaviour.

The stressors can vary from person to person. In one study involving adults with autism, when subjects looked at pictures of a person looking them in the eye the fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain involved in face and body recognition, was shut down. That’s because the eye contact was a stressor. But when the subject was   shown pictures of faces where the eyes were averted the fusiform gyrus was switched on. Thus, removing the stressor allowed the brain to work the way it needed to in order to process all the visual information from the picture.

So, if we think about the case of a stressed out teen mother who is not responding sensitively to her baby, if you give her info about infant development and sensitive parent, that will most likely add to her stress. What you need to do is reduce her stress so she will be more able to see, read and respond to her baby’s signals.

How stress interferes with empathy

Stress shuts down our ability mind-read. It also gives the mind a negative bias that distorts your view of reality. You begin to see danger even where it doesn’t exist. If a teenaged mother’s stress levels are high enough she may actually start to see her baby as a threat. In the late 1970, American child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan started a program in which were able to switch a child’s attachment status from insecure to secure simply by reducing the mother’s stress.

Therefore, we don’t need to ask a child to be empathetic, but if he isn’t empathetic we need to ask why. What stressors are interfering with the child’s ability to do something his brain is wired to do?

What is it that derails some kids in this journey?

Essentially, children learn empathy by being treated with empathy. But there are exceptions. Some kids can’t learn prosocial because stress is blocking their ability to learn about empathy.

In each domain of self-regulation there is a stress unique to that domain. The stressor that is unique to the prosocial domain is somebody else’s distress. When somebody else is in distress, that’s when you’re supposed to be empathetic. But if their distress is stressful to you, then you are unable to respond with empathy,

With bullying, the extra stress of someone else’s stress tips the bully into fight or flight. This happens through unconscious transmission of information from the limbic system. The result in aggressive behaviour that is a reaction rather than a conscious choice.

Case example: 11-year-old boy with violent behaviour. It turned out that the boy was misreading social signals. He would perceive that other child was threatening him, even though it wasn’t true much of the time.

But what do you do in the short term when a child is out of control, other than sedate him. In that moment you can’t reason with him or teach him. That part of his brain is shut off. You can’t tell him – if you continue to make bad choices this is where you will end up.

The only thing you can do in this moment is to send the limbic message, “I am not a threat, I am a source of safety.”

So the first thing you have to do is make a kid feel safe. Yes, you have to figure out what is going on – what the stresses are and you do have to get kid to learn that there are limits and consequence. But you can only do that when he feels safe.

Research Examples

Psychologist Adrian Raine found that criminals and psychopaths had differences in their brains. But he also scanned his own brain and found some of those same differences, yet he was not a psychopath. He began to ask, why did I turn out like this? The answer is that he had a series of “interbrains” throughout his development – parents, coaches and scout leaders who always made him feel safe and secure. That enabled him to develop his capacity to deal with the distress of others.

In New Zealand’s Dunedin longitudinal study they found that children with the long allele version of the 5-HTT gene (aka, “the Depression Gene”) could absorb an awful lot of adversity without triggering depression. But people who had the short allele version of 5-HTT were at much higher risk for depression. However, if a child had the short allele version but grew up in a warm nurturing environment in which the child felt emotionally and physiologically safe, the gene worked differently. Essentially it “stayed turned on. That enabled the brain to produce serotonin, which help the child stay calm and alert.

Summing Up

The challenge for educators is that kids are living in a world where they get the message that the world is unsafe. So they feel unsafe and then we ask them to exercise self-control. That won’t work. In order to contribute to safe schools and a safe society children have to go from being one who is being regulated by others to the one who regulates others. This starts with create feeling of safety when a child walks into the school. If children feel safe they will be able to learn and use prosocial skills.