I think there’s a glaring hole in our nation’s public school curriculum. I’m talking about an imaginary missing course called “Social Dynamics 101″. Since it’s my imaginary course, I get to come up with an imaginary syllabus:

  • The importance of listening and how to be a good listener
  • Asking questions – showing an active interest in other people
  • Making eye contact
  • How to be polite (and why)
  • Spotting bullies and queen bees and how to avoid falling into their traps
  • Your most important challenge at school: choosing friends wisely
  • Recognizing and dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination
  • Appropriate and inappropriate use of new technologies (texting, facebook, twitter)
  • How to deal with a crisis

Our kids never formally study how to interact well with other people, how to make good choices, and how to deal with problems. Some might argue that those skills are best taught in the home or in some form of religious training. But I believe these skills are fundamental to success in our society, and are just as important as math, science and language arts. If we’re truly committed to equal opportunity for all, shouldn’t we teach these important skills to every young person in our country?

In her fifth grade year, my daughter’s class participated in a fascinating program from Canada, called Roots of Empathy, in which a new-born infant is brought into the classroom once a week and the kids get to interact with the baby and observe first-hand how a child develops. As reported in a New York Times article on this program, studies have shown that Roots Of Empathy significantly reduces bullying:

In a study of first- to third-grade classrooms, Schonert-Reichl focused on the subset of kids who exhibited “proactive aggression” – the deliberate and cold-blooded aggression of bullies who prey on vulnerable kids. Of those who participated in the Roots program, 88 percent decreased this form of behavior over the school year, while in the control group, only 9 percent did, and many actually increased it. Schonert-Reichl has reproduced these findings with fourth to seventh grade children in a randomized controlled trial. She also found that Roots produced significant drops in “relational aggression” – things like gossiping, excluding others, and backstabbing.

In light of 1) the recent rash of bullying, violence, hate crimes and suicides among young people, 2) the proliferation of powerful new, and often misused communication technologies, and 3) the success of programs like Roots of Empathy, maybe it’s time we started teaching our kids how to get along with each other.