What has empathy got to do with it?

Monday, 11 November, 2013
Distell Group Limited
The Anna Foundation, like many other NGOs working with impoverished rural children, wants to improve their future chances by enhancing their academic, sports and life skills. Part of what makes this Cape-based organisation so successful is the emphasis it gives to emotional intelligence, using the powerful tool of imagination to teach the almost 700 young people within its orbit.
That's why Uné Conradie feels so validated when she sees pre-schoolers on the programme expressing empathy for one another. One of 52 Anna Foundation educators working with the kids, who span Grades R to 12 and are organised into age-appropriate groups, she says: "Empathy is learned behaviour and when children come from homes where understanding and compassion are not always extended to them, it can be difficult for them to acquire such skills."

Yet she recounts a recent incident, where a group of Grade R boys, all growing up in extreme poverty, were gathered for story time. "One little boy, who is known as Bul, was clearly unwell so a couple of the boys in the group asked if we could read one of our books about a character called Bul because they thought it might cheer him up.

"In a middle-class environment, where children are well-fed and clothed and taught to be considerate to others, this would be quite unremarkable. But in a situation where kids live on the edge, in overcrowded environments, with very few resources, where parents are often absent or if they are home, they are abusive or exhausted, impatient or despondent, this is extraordinary. That these children could look beyond themselves, observe someone who was suffering and think to make an obviously caring gesture: that's beyond remarkable!"

The Anna Foundation's three Rs programme (Reading, Running and Righting) is designed to lessen the impact of the extreme socio-economic disadvantages rural children face. It focuses on education (with Reading embracing all school subjects), sports (where Running serves as the reference for all sporting activities) and life skills and values (“Righting” youngsters so they develop self esteem, respect for others and conduct positive relationships in all areas of their lives).

The foundation is funded by a variety of trusts and corporates, including the Distell Foundation. 

Conradie says while most observers of its work can relate to the need for the academic and sports input to boost performance, they are not always as easily able to gauge the value of the "softer" skills imparted by the programme.

A drama major from Stellenbosch University who now uses drama as an educational tool, she says parents respond very positively when you explain how academic and sporting interventions can be a springboard to a better future. "But it isn't always that clear to them at first how qualities such as listening (as opposed to merely obeying), observing, patience and empathy can also give them a head start in functioning successfully in the world.

"It's difficult for the children at first too. Many of them lack the language skills and the confidence to engage in imaginative play through drama as a way of learning how behaviour can change what happens in certain situations.

"We spend the first year building trust and a sense of self, playing in rudimentary ways. We might start with rhythm, teaching children to use their bodies to make rhythms, clapping their hands, clicking their fingers, stamping their feet or drumming their heels. Then we use found objects to make other rhythms and sounds.  We want the children to experience a sense of success in these activities, and a delight, so they are motivated to learn more until we reach the point that they are routinely comfortable to sing and dance with each other and then to do so in front of an audience.

"Once they feel they are in a safe, contained environment, where their contributions are acknowledged and valued we move into drama-based games. As they become more creatively confident, they are more readily able to improvise and tell and enact stories."
She and her colleagues also use puppets, books and stories to build the imaginative resources of the children.

"In the beginning, they tend to know only two emotions: happiness and anger, but steadily we widen their awareness. We teach them to identify other emotions: disappointment, embarrassment, jealousy and anxiety but positive emotions too, and to explore how and why they happen. Then we show them a variety of emotions and the outcomes these can elicit. An aggressive reaction can lead to a fight but one of understanding can create positive feelings. We show them that they do have choices and that through their behaviour, they can influence outcomes in many cases."

For a society as scarred by violence as ours, the importance of these interventions cannot be overestimated. 

She stresses that the programme's three Rs are taught in tandem and that all its facets are equally important. It is intended as an holistic intervention to create better educated and better rounded children. "Drama and imaginative play are part of a wider curriculum and as with all the other elements of the programme, we work to a very structured syllabus, so there is consistency." 

The organisation has its roots in a farm school in Mpumalanga, where in 1995, founder Anna Brom, a young remedial teacher, saw the urgent need to give support to children from isolated, under-resourced and underprivileged schools. Now based in the Cape with offices on the beautiful Stellenbosch farm Rustenberg the Anna Foundation operates across farming communities in the Boland, Robertson, Tulbagh, Lutzville, as well as Moorreesburg.

It works with farm children after school, it works with schools and also with children's homes and collectively accesses some 700 children. The programme also devotes resources to training facilitators, while giving them the opportunity to advance their own literacy and numeracy skills.

Anna herself has never stopped learning. Trained locally and in the Netherlands in psychology and remedial education, she has since studied entrepreneurship to better build the growing organisation and take along her supporters. She is also a highly regarded and popular motivational speaker.

Her motivation is contagious. Conradie's next step is to study for her Masters in Drama Therapy.

As the country gears up for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence on November, 25, organisations like the Anna Foundation have an important role to play in empowering youth and creating a new generation of South Africans with the emotional resources to stop talking with their fists.