Expanding cultures of compassion in early childhood education

Research shows that practices that support compassion are an important part of a well-functioning organization. However, we have only little knowledge of how educational communities such as early childhood education centers build and develop their compassionate cultures.

Missing one’s parents, getting hurt, longing for friends, feeling bad due to name calling, or being excluded from play activities—unpleasant and painful experiences and events—are part of everyday life in early childhood education. Although we cannot (and even sometimes should not) prevent children from going through unpleasant experiences and events, we—children and adults—certainly have the opportunity to decide how to respond when we become aware of such situations: whether we ignore the suffering or take action to alleviate the pain, that is, to act in a compassionate way; comforting, helping, sharing, including, and protecting.

In order to understand compassion in any of its forms, we argue that it is important to understand the cultural means of achieving compassion and the social organization of the joint activity that constitute the local cultures of compassion. In the case of our investigation, this means looking at three things in particular. First, how the joint activities are accomplished and how duties regarding them are divided and shared between adults and children. Second, finding out what constitutes the material and cultural tools, artifacts and spaces used in these activities. Third, how the local rules and values come to play a part in the way compassion is enacted in Finnish early childhood education.

The basic idea of our approach is that we further elaborate and develop the practice perspective with ideas from the “politics of compassion” and cultural historical activity theory. Our approach includes the idea of expanding the circles of compassion. In general, people tend to limit their compassion to their loved ones. However, it is imperative that our human compassion extends beyond our closest circles and even national borders. We need to expand our ‘circles of compassion’ to encompass all people, animals and even biodiversity; in doing so, we can create a global culture of compassion.

We have empirically studied compassionate cultures in two participatory intervention research projects:

Constituting cultures of compassion in early childhood education (CoCuCo)

We studied compassion as a socio-culturally mediated activity in a cultural context of one preschool in Finland. Studying compassion in naturalistic social interactions we learned informative cultural differences in compassion related to vocabulary, scripts, and rules, that govern how compassion should be expressed. We also learned how policy objectives and organizational structures might either foster or impede compassion. Working towards cultures of compassion, we designed inclusive spaces, spaces where: dignity and safety are norms; diversity is recognized and accepted; and everyone feels encouraged, supported, and included. Furthermore, our study dealt compassionately with children under school age in their everyday social interactions. The project produced new scientific knowledge about cultures of compassion and their development. It was funded by the Academy of Finland, 2016–2020.

Expanding circles of empathy and compassion in early childhood education (LAKE)

In this study, we explored practices that strengthen children’s and adults’ social-emotional competences to encounter diversity in heterogeneous early childhood settings. We especially focused on empathy and compassion. In the project, we observed daycare centers and detected structures and practices that were interpreted as supporting the expansion of ‘circles of empathy and compassion’ in early childhood education and care. A pedagogical model was developed in the project to support educational communities in reflecting and developing their cultures of compassion through in-service training (see Rainio et al., 2020). The project was funded by the Finnish National Agency for Education, January 1, 2019 – June 30, 2020.

See more on the project site, and here.