Humane Education as an Intervention for the Development of Empathic Skills in Children

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Existing research has established a possible link between behaving violently toward non-human animals and toward humans. A form of empathy education, Humane Education (HE), attempts to increase empathy toward non-human animals, with the expectation that these empathic skills also transfer to interactions with humans. The present study was conducted for eight consecutive weeks with 43 children (7.5-10 years of age), predominantly Latino, randomly assigned to treatment and control groups.

Humane Education as an Intervention for the Development of Empathic Skills in Children

Jorge Belloso-Curiel

Faculty Mentor: Professor Stephen P. Hinshaw


Existing research has established a possible link between behaving violently toward non-human animals and toward humans. A form of empathy education, Humane Education (HE), attempts to increase empathy toward non-human animals, with the expectation that these empathic skills also transfer to interactions with humans. The present study was conducted for eight consecutive weeks with 43 children (7.5-10 years of age), predominantly Latino, randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. The treatment group was exposed to a weekly curriculum for 20-30 minutes involving discussions on various issues regarding pets, wildlife, and animal treatment. Pre-and post-assessments include self-reports and teacher report scales. According to the self-reports, a significant difference emerged in empathic attitudes toward non-human animals between treatment and control groups after the eight-week intervention. However, teacher reports did not show a significant difference between treatment and control groups. Age (but not gender) effects were also noted. Implications for prevention of aggression are discussed.


Preventing youth violence is one of the most significant issues many communities are facing. Well-publicized crimes committed by children and adolescents have led mental health professionals to speculate that empathic awareness may be needed to supplement the already complex system within which a child develops, one that may be missing and would help reduce violent behavior. Empathy is the ability to sympathize or to view the other’s emotional perspective (Eisenberg, 1992; Feshbach, 1987; Bryant, 1982). Empathy is believed to be a necessary base for prosocial behavior (Eisenberg). This research suggests that taking another’s perspective decreases egoism and permits a child to better able construe, possibly feel, and respond appropriately to the pain and suffering of others.

Aggression in Children

Researchers have shown that aggressive and violent behavior can be taught (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Bandura, 1973). Thus, there is reason to think that if physical aggression can be induced, then it can also be prevented by teaching children strategies and tools to deflect such behavior such as teaching them skills promoting empathic attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg, 1992; Feshbach, 1987; Hearold, 1986; Yarrow, Scott, & Waxler, 1973).

Cruelty Toward Non-Human Animals

The mental health field has become increasingly interested in how cruelty against non-human animals may affect human behavior. Animal cruelty is defined as the "willful, infliction of harm, injury, and intended pain on non-human animals" (Kellert & Felthous, 1985). Cruelty and aggressive behavior toward non-human animals is also categorized as socially unacceptable, intentional or deliberate, and unnecessary (Ascione, 1993; Vermeulen, 1993; Baenninger, 1991). Bowlby believes that the way children learn to treat animals is correlated with how they later treat people (Kellert & Felthous). There may even be some evidence that cruelty toward non-human animals is a universal negative outcome characteristic of a troubled child. Margaret Mead posited, based on her observations of diverse cultures, that people who as children had been cruel against non-human animals were more likely to be cruel toward humans (Mead, 1964 as cited in Baenninger, 1991). Although Bowlby’s and Mead’s conclusions were derived from observations, not controlled studies of observations, their comments have paved the way for contemporary scholarly interest in animal cruelty and how it affects the human mind and behavior.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV, 1994) uses cruelty toward animals as one of the means of assessing a child with possible conduct disorders. Conduct Disorder (CD) is defined as a "persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others and major age-appropriate social norms or rules are violated" (American Psychiatric Association). Besides cruelty toward animals, other behaviors include cruelty toward people, fire setting, and forced sexual activity. These externalizing abnormal behaviors seem to be a symptom of maladaptive development. Children who develop CD are at a higher risk of developing Antisocial Personality Disorder/Behavior in adulthood than people who do not develop CD during childhood (Hinshaw, 1994).

Research Studies Looking at Cruelty Against Non-Human Animals

Studies have shown a correlation between cruelty toward non-human animals and interpersonal violence (Kellert & Felthous, 1985; Felthous, 1980; Felthous & Yudowitz, 1977; Hellman & Blackman, 1966). One such study compared three groups: aggressive, incarcerated criminals (that is) those incarcerated for violent crimes against people, non-aggressive incarcerated criminals, and a third group of men, the control group, who were not in prison or had no prior history of violence toward humans (Kellert & Felthous). Of the 152 participants studied, 25% of the aggressive criminals had, as children, committed several (five or more) acts of cruelty towards non-human animals, whereas only 4% of the non-aggressive incarcerated individuals and no one in the control group had this history. The cruelty ranged, according to the answers provided by the participants in this study, from tearing off a live bird’s wing to purposely drowning a kitten.

Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas (1988), found that of the twenty-eight men incarcerated for sexual homicide, 36% had a history of cruelty against non-human animals in childhood and 46% during adolescence. In a different study, researchers discovered that almost 50% of the sixty-four participants who had been convicted of rape and 30% of the incarcerated child-molesters were cruel toward non-human animals in their childhoods or adolescences (Tingle, Barnard, Robbins, Newman, & Hutchinson, 1986).

Increasing research in the field of psychopathy as well as anecdotal data from the media, indicates serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Alberto DeSalvo, and Ted Bundy often engaged in cruel behavior in childhood and/or adulthood, torturing and killing non-human animals (Agnew, 1998; Beirne, 1995; Adams, 1994b). The Federal Bureau of Investigation also uses reports of animal cruelty in analyzing the threat potential of suspected and known criminals. In addition, animal abuse is more common in families in which domestic violence exists (Ascione, 1993) such as partner abuse (Deviney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983), child physical abuse (Deviney, et al., 1983), and child molestation/sexual abuse (Hunter, 1990).


Etiology of Violence Toward Non-Human Animals

There is no clear reason why children and adults, in general, practice cruelty toward animals. This aggressive behavior is as complex as trying to answer why violence occurs. Many of the researchers who study violence against non-human animals and interpersonal violence do not attempt to explain violence against non-human animals in depth. However, those who do imply an association between committing animal abuse and a lack of empathy (Ascione, 1992; Broida, Tingley, Kimball, & Miele, 1993; Agnew, 1998).

Humane Education

Children with highly developed perspective-taking tend to be less egoistic. Past studies have explored children’s attitudes toward animals and how this relationship between children and non-human animals may be an important factor in helping foster and direct a child’s propensity for compassion and nurturing (Fogel, Melson, & Mistry, 1986). A new form of empathy education is emerging as a promising preventive intervention to increase prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Humane Education is based on an expanded conceptualization of humane behavior, and its purpose is to teach children to empathize with — by imagining the perspectives of — non-human animals. In this structured curriculum, the children are exposed to a variety of hypothetical situations involving non-human animals in their native and domesticated habitats and in human interactions

In one study (Ascione, 1992) involving first, second, fourth, and fifth graders evenly distributed to control and treatment groups, the results varied depending on the age of the group. For example, the younger group of children did not differ significantly from the control group. However, there was a significant distinction in the fourth grade children in the treatment program in comparison to the control group. The HE curriculum seemed to increase their level of empathy. Although the program is promising, research in this area is relatively new. (For a more comprehensive review of past HE studies, see Ascione, 1997).

Generalizing Empathy from Non-Human Animals to Humans

A study conducted by Malcarne (1981) found that exposing children to HE did indeed transfer empathy to humans. However, this HE study was problematic in that did not include pretests for assessing empathy for humans or non-human animals. Ascione’s study (1992) did find a significant and positive correlation, although moderate, between attitude and empathy. In addition, in Ascione’s one-year follow-up (1993), it was discovered that the fourth grade treatment group’s empathic attitudes toward humans and non-human animals remained higher than the control group’s attitudes. Thus the generalizability remained intact a year after the intervention. This follow-up study is significant because it is the first display of a long-term maintenance of empathy from a HE curriculum.

Present Research

My research hypotheses are:

H1: Children exposed to the HE curriculum will increase their empathic attitudes towards non-human animals in contrast to children who have not been exposed to the treatment

H2: Children exposed to the HE curriculum will increase their empathic behavior towards humans






The children who participated in the study were from an all day summer program held by an after-school program located in Berkeley, California. The year round school focuses on recreational and leisure activities, and, though academics are also emphasized, they are not the priority. The majority of children who attend the after-school program are Latino.


Forty-three children from the program participated in the eight-week study, 21 boys and 22 girls ranging between the ages of 7.5-10 years. This age was targeted because the self-assessment questionnaire used in a past Humane Education study by Ascione (1992) was developed to be used with 8 to 12 year olds. Because the sample size was small, the age of qualifying participants was lowered to 7.5. The mean age of the participants was 8.8 years with a median of 9.

This is the first study of its kind in which the majority of participants were children of color, primarily of Latino descent. The specific breakdown is as follows: Latino-American 79%, African-American 9%, Asian-American 3%, European-American 9%. Previous studies involving HE involved subjects who were mostly from Euro-American background.

The children were randomly chosen for treatment and control groups. Random assignment was made separately from each of the qualifying three classes to equalize age and gender within each group. The final distribution was 22 students in the treatment group and 21 in the control group.


Both groups were given pre- and post-questionnaires with Likert-type questions in order to assess their empathic attitudes toward non-human animals. The Intermediate Attitude Scale (IAS), was used to measure such attitude (Ascione, 1988). There were thirty-six self-declarative statements on the assessment, the subjects of which ranged from pet care to wildlife situations. For example:

    1. Pet animals should not be allowed to roam around free in their neighborhood.

    2. It’s exciting when you see a galloping horse fall down on a t.v. show.

    3. I would like to spend some of my time telling people about the problems that face an endangered animal.

The children then had to circle one of four possibilities: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Scores range from 36 to 144, the higher the score, the more humane the attitude. The declarative statements were read out loud to all the children in small groups of two to four children. The children also had the opportunity to read the questions that were placed in front of them. The IAS was previously tested for reliability and validity (Ascione, 1992). The reliability was a coefficient alpha of .70. The measure was administered in approximately 15-20 minutes.

A teacher pre- and post-assessment was used to measure each teacher’s opinion of the child’s empathic behavior toward adults and classmates. There were twenty-three questions on the questionnaire. Some of the questions were that the child:

    1. Goes to the help of someone who has been hurt

    2. Takes the opportunity to praise the work of less able children

    3. Offers to help others who are having difficulty with a task

The teacher had to choose one of three possible choices: doesn’t apply, applies somewhat, or certainly applies. The range of possible scores was between 0 to 92, and the higher the score, the greater an association with empathic behavior. The empathy measurement was created by Rachel Ebling (1998), a graduate student in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, to measure empathic behavior in a group of children participating in a separate and different intervention for another study. Because the data from the scale are continuous, correlations were conducted to measure agreement between raters. Correlation coefficients ranged from .7 to .76, and they were all significant at the .05 level. Thus, the scale alpha was .95. External validity for the camp with children diagnosed with ADHD was defined by looking at the association between empathic attitudes (e.g. an IAS-type scale) and empathic accuracy, measured by a child’s ability to identify emotions in a film clip. The correlation between these two variables was not quite significant (r=.182; p=.056). This may have been because the number of participants (N=80) used for the analysis was smaller than the number of participants for which the study was originally designed. The correlation may become significant when more subjects are added.

Treatment Procedures

The treatment group was exposed to a HE curriculum similar to Ascione’s (1992). The curriculum involved discussions of various topics related to non-human animals: pet treatment, pet overpopulation, and wildlife. Each session began with a review of what was discussed the previous week.

In the first week, all participants in the intervention were simultaneously exposed to a one-hour session conducted by a Berkeley Humane Society Humane Education teacher. The educator brought a live rabbit, conducted question and answer presentations about the lives of certain wildlife, and presented a video and posters about the proper care and treatment of domesticated animals. During the visit, each child had the opportunity to touch and pet a rabbit.

The following weeks involved weekly gatherings with a large group (all 22 children in the treatment) group as well as small group gatherings (three to four children). Each meeting was approximately 20 to 30 minutes in duration. During these weekly meetings, the topics discussed included animal habitat and how non-human animals might feel under given circumstances.

For six of the eight weeks of the study, the children spent ten to fifteen minutes watching video presentations of issues related to Humane Education. Video segments included interviews with marine biologists, camera operators, photographers, and others who discussed their experiences with wildlife. The children were encouraged to ask questions, given suggestions, and prompted to respond to what they viewed in the video.

In addition, during the last week the children read part of Kind News, a newspaper distributed by the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education (NAHEE). NAHEE aims to increase a child’s awareness of animal and environmental issues. The children participated in one session of this type in small groups of three to four per group. Reasons for spaying/neutering one’s animal companion were discussed, and a Humane Society of the United States photograph of euthanized domestic animals was shown to support the importance of animal birth control.


In order to test significance of the difference, I conducted a one-way ANOVA on the difference scores for each measure. For the IAS, the group difference in scores was significant, F (1, 42)= 27.7, p< .01. The pre-assessment means of the IAS were 105.2 and 106.4, respectively, for the control and treatment groups. Their post-assessment means were 103.8 for the control group and 116.5 for the treatment group. The IAS showed a significant effect of the experimental manipulation such that the eight-week intervention increased mean levels an average of ten points, whereas the control group’s score decreased one point, showing no change for the control group (see Table 1). The standard deviation was 9.21.

However, in the teacher assessments, there was no significant effect between treatment and the control groups [F (1, 42)= .104, p< .75]. The control and treatment groups’ pre-assessment means were 49.9 and 53.9, respectively. For the control group the post means were 57.0 and for the treatment 59.2. There was no systematic difference between these two groups from the onset of the intervention until the end of the intervention.

While there was no difference due to gender, there was a significant difference due to age. Table 2 shows a positive correlation with the intervention as younger participants scored higher on the IAS. Even though the older children (9 to 10) from both groups scored lower than the younger children (7.5 to 9), the older children in the treatment group did score higher in comparison to the control groups’ older participants.














Teacher Assessment












Table 1: Intermediate Attitude Scale and Teacher Assessment mean scores for all subjects









Treatment age: 7.5-8.5





age: 7.5-8.5





age: 9-10





age: 9-10




Table 2: Intermediate Attitude Scale mean scores by participant age



Teacher Assessment





age: 7.5-8.5










age: 9-10





age: 9-10




Table 3: Teacher Assessment mean scores by participant age


An eight week group intervention designed to foster empathic attitudes towards both non-human animals and humans yielded a clear increase in positive attitudes towards non-human animals, as revealed by the self-report questionnaire responses of the present sample of children. The current study’s findings support previous findings showing that a Humane Education curriculum can be effective. However, the teacher appraisals of the children’s empathic attitudes and behavior towards peers showed comparable levels of improvement for intervention versus control participants, suggesting that the intervention did not generalize to observable behavior change, as reported by teachers. A possible explanation for this finding is that there may have been a teacher bias, as only one teacher assessed each child. In addition, this result may have also occurred due to a Hawthorne-type effect; that is, the teachers were aware that the children were being measured for an increase in empathy. Thus, it may have been more beneficial to have used multiple informants to attain a more accurate account of the children’s behavior. However, at the time of the study, this was not feasible due to constraints with finances, resources, and time for intervention to reveal changes in observable behavior. Another possible explanation for the difference with these findings and previous findings showing significance between an intervention and transference toward humans is the limited time spent with the participants in the treatment group.

Additionally, the different results in the self-report questionnaires between younger and older participants may indicate that in general, older children may decrease in empathic attitudes toward non-human animals (Table 2). However, the intervention may have helped the treatment participants maintain or slightly improve their empathic attitudes toward non-human animals. The teacher assessments demonstrate, as shown in Table 3, no difference between the age groups except for the older participants in the treatment and control groups suggesting the intervention did not generalize to observable behavior change. As mentioned earlier, these findings may be as a result of teacher bias.



Future Directions

This study supplements existing research on the topic of empathy within diverse populations. This study may be relevant in addressing preventative intervention strategies with this particular population of children who were primarily Latino.

Although most studies looking at cruelty toward non-human animals used a retrospective design, it may be more insightful if in the future more researchers attempted to employ a more comprehensive prospective longitudinal approach to studying this at-risk symptom. There is a need for more longitudinal studies comparing normal and abnormal attitudes and behaviors and interactions with non-human animals such as with companion animals. In sum there seems to be a correlation between cruelty against non-human animals and interpersonal violence.

As Humane Education is studied further, the methodology will become more sophisticated. An effective HE program seems to require, as exemplified in past studies, an intervention encompassing a curriculum of longer duration and frequent exposure. There is also reason to believe that in addition to increasing empathic attitudes toward non-human animals, a Humane Education program, when conducted frequently and with longer duration, can also generalize toward humans.

Children’s attitudes about the care and treatment toward non-human animals have significant impact on their human interpersonal relationships. Therefore, it seems natural to teach children successful methods of interacting with them. If these empathic skills are incorporated successfully into their development, it is not unreasonable to think these skills will carry with them and transfer to other aspects of their lives.


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