The importance of empathy

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Like nursing, early years is a profession that demands compassion, says Dr Geoff Taggart

We hear and read a lot in the media currently about hospital nurses apparently lacking compassion. Because compassion is usually thought of as empathy with another's suffering or distress, it is perhaps understandable that nurses should be considered as exemplars of compassion. Yet this is also demonstrated in work with people who are not necessarily in pain (such as old people) but who nevertheless are vulnerable.

Babies and young children are clear representations of vulnerability and it is therefore not surprising to see key-workers in settings everywhere acting not only with care but with compassion. The difference from care is that the compassionate person has a kind of dual perspective: he or she perceives the vulnerability but also the fundamental dignity and individuality of the human being in question.

For example, when a child is frustrated that he cannot play with the toy he wants to, and does not possess the language to negotiate this, a practitioner does not only gently comfort and reason with him because she needs to head off a potential tantrum. She does so because she can recognise and empathise with the frustration and can have patience to hold and contain this upset.

All over the UK, there are calm and assured practitioners like this whose colleagues say they exude 'presence' and intelligent sensitivity. Such people have taken the principles of the 'unique child' to heart and would no sooner talk about 'SEN children' or 'the EAL child' than a nurse would talk about the dodgy kidney in bed 16.

There are several reasons why this reframing from care to compassion is important. First, it would help us and policy-makers to see that the interpersonal work of early childhood practice is gender-neutral and moral, rather than female and biological. Rather than being 'women's work' arising out of their supposed natural ability to care, such work is akin to that of ministers, nurses, counsellors and social workers, involving a heightened ethical and empathic responsiveness for the purpose of alleviating vulnerability.

Second, the emphasis on ethical practice, rather than just 'caring' practice, helps us to advance the claim of early years work as a profession. As nursery chains multiply, merge and become more like multinational companies with a pressure to please shareholders, there is a danger that the role of early years practitioner becomes just one of the burgeoning jobs in low paid and low-skilled generic 'customer care', ranging from call centre operative to airline cabin crew. These people no doubt act professionally but do not necessarily work in a profession since one of the hallmarks of a profession is that it addresses a social need (teachers – education, lawyers – justice, doctors – health, etc). We are all dependent and vulnerable at some point or another in being ignorant, sick or unjustly treated and this is where a professional comes in. But whilst tired executives in first class may need care, it is doubtful whether they are worthy of compassion and the assistance of a profession.

By contrast, early years practitioners, by supporting young human beings with compassion and assisting in cultivating a healthy society, have more claim to this status.

Third, compassion is strongly correlated with secure attachment. A range of 21st century evidence shows that people with a secure attachment style are more affectionate, forgiving, benevolent and humanitarian. We also know that attachment styles tend to be replicated across generations. With this in mind, early years workers can be seen as 'agents of compassion', sowing the seeds of positive dispositions in children simply by offering them opportunities for securely attached relationships.

Last, this reframing allows us to see the sheer exhaustion and burnout of early years practitioners as symptoms of 'compassion fatigue', similar to that experienced by health care or relief workers with daily experience of alleviating the suffering and dependency of others. Patients receive care if their wounds are tended to and they receive medication but they also value compassion very highly.

Ironically, it is this compassion, rather than this more basic care, which causes cumulative stress to workers because of the involvement of empathic emotions. Similarly, practitioners in a nursery may feed and change babies and young children in a perfunctory performance of childcare, whilst it is the 'emotional labour' involved in such interactions which 'counts', having the potential both to generate secure attachments for the child and induce compassion fatigue in the practitioner.

These points highlight that compassion is something which is abundant within early years settings as much as hospitals. In seeking to preserve it, we can perhaps learn from the way that the nursing profession has been (mis)treated. For nurseries, the most obvious threat is from government proposals to allow settings to allocate more children per member of staff. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be a patient in a ward with overstretched nursing staff knows how short compassion is in supply: basic care may be administered but little else.

Dr Geoff Taggart is a lecturer at the Institute of Education: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science at the University of Reading

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