October 19 2021
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For more than twenty years now, the notion of altruism, defined as selfless concern for the good of others, unites and inspires Karuna-Shechen’s benefactors, beneficiaries, volunteers and teams. It is also at the heart of our educational programs in India and Nepal to provide a positive education. While schools are still closed there due to the Covid crisis, our teams on site, in collaboration with local teachers, are adapting to sanitary conditions in order to provide their full support to children deprived of school.
The question of emergence and development of altruistic behavior has long raised questions. Are you born altruistic, or do you become one? In one of his articles, Matthieu Ricard mentions a recent research that brought some answers.
Altruism is said to appear in children from an early age. They begin to show selfless helping behaviors between 14 and 16 months, and at 18 months have the same average reaction time as an adult to spontaneously help someone. They are able to provide so-called “instrumental” and “empathic” aids, that is, they can both sense and understand other people’s desires and emotions. This is made possible by the onset of empathy right after birth.
Indeed, from their first weeks of life, children are endowed with this ability to feel others’ emotions. This aptitude, necessary for altruistic behavior, will develop continuously until the age of six, when the general concept of empathy enters.
This early manifestation of prosocial behavior, before parents began to instill rules of sociability, has been seen all over the world. Those attitudes, arising without any learning or cultural transmission, are therefore innate to every child. Similar behaviors have even been observed in monkeys, meaning that altruism naturally appeared in our common ancestors millions of years ago.
However, if children possess innate altruistic qualities, the environment in which they will grow up and the stimulation they will receive will be decisive to develop these qualities. Therefore, the role of parents and school will be essential.
Parents’ educational behaviors and practices are indeed essential in a child’s development. The way parents act, among themselves, with others and of course with their children, will greatly influence the latter. Witnessing adults’ prosocial behavior can lead children to altruism. Experiments have also shown a positive correlation between the parents’ level of empathy and that of their children. Then, from a purely educational point of view, a benevolent parent-child interaction, combined with an education with clear, stable and justified limits that the child understands, contributes to develop their empathy.
Outside family, school has a great responsibility in reinforcing prosocial behavior. Allowing children to integrate into a group dynamic and create social bonds will lead them to increase their empathy. Then, the stimuli teachers put in place allow these behaviors to better develop. In the long term, this benefits in the evolution of cognitive functions, that is, a person’s ability to receive, process and use information about their environment.
School is a privileged place that allows one to cultivate altruism, without necessarily providing any teaching on it.
Karuna has been running educational programs in India and Nepal for many years. Aware of the importance of education during all phases of a child’s development, our teams support students from kindergarten to high school.
Since the summer of 2020, these programs have had to be adapted to the health context generated by Covid-19. With the closure of schools, a homeschool system has emerged.
In India, our local representatives travel daily to our intervention villages. In addition to providing children with reading, writing and drawing materials, they organize fun activities with groups of 4 or 5 students. This allows children to learn, play and exercise in compliance with health measures. Thus, in the state of Jharkhand, 2,760 children from 92 villages were able to continue to receive regular stimulation.
Mother of one of the children benefiting from the program, Bina Devi testifies: “The children were bored because all the educational centers are closed. Parents have to go to work and are therefore forced to leave them all day long alone at home. So they felt very lonely. But, the moment your local representatives started visiting and doing various activities with them, they stopped being bored. Sometimes the kids will even ask your staff to stay a little longer because they want to keep on playing with them. It makes them happy, and so are we! ”
Also, in the state of Bihar, our second area of intervention in India, distributions of educational materials were organized following the first wave of the pandemic. Once the situation improved, and upon government permission, our teams were able to reopen schools and welcome children in small groups. Unfortunately, the second wave that ravaged the country forced our staff on site to close schools in April, and they remain closed since. As the health situation seems to be stabilizing, our teams are doing everything they can to allow the reopening of schools for children.
In Nepal, our program involves sending teachers once a week to pupils’ homes to provide them with presence, homework and school materials. Throughout this process, Karuna supports teachers through training and the provision of teaching tools. This program enabled many children at primary level to continue to receive education. Unfortunately, the health situation is still worrying in these countries, and the reopening of schools is yet unknown.
To address the situation, we just launched in Nepal a pilot project of homeschooling for kindergarten children. This project started in June and will last between 3 and 5 months depending on weather conditions.
This new program aims to involve parents as much as possible in the education of their children. For this, the 12 teachers participating in the program distributed and explained how the “Home Based Pictorial Activity Book”, published by the Nepalese Ministry of Education, works. With this book, parents can help their children receive the fun and creative education so important at their age.
Ranjana Lama is a community mobilizer for education projects in 2 public schools in Kavre district, Nepal. Since the closure of the schools, she goes from home to home to do tutoring for the youngest. On this occasion, she also proposes keys to parents to create an environment conducive to learning at home. She shares her experience: “This crisis has brought out a lot of solidarity. Thanks to a convergence of efforts by parents, schools and associations like Karuna, students can learn from home. This has even allowed family members to grow more interested in learning. I see my students growing and learning better and better every day!”
The true interaction between teachers – parents – children taking place benefits the 225 students who participate in this pilot project!
Both innate and learned, altruism is a quality deeply rooted in human nature. One of Karuna’s missions is to put in place educational programs that allow children to express their full potential. The crisis the world is currently going through does not spare our areas of intervention, but by adapting the association’s projects, our teams in the field continue to provide as many children as possible with a benevolent education.
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