Cultivating Prosociality in Children: The Potential of Kindness- and Compassion-Based Meditation

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

Prosocial behaviour contributes to children’s positive social development, wellbeing, and academic success. Interventions designed to enhance prosocial behaviour implemented early in development may positively impact the trajectory of children’s development, leading to better individual and societal outcomes, and reducing the burden on mental health services. Kindness- and compassion-based meditation (KCBM) is a family of meditation practices that aim to cultivate prosocial qualities such as empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviour. Although there is much research on mindfulness with children and young people, the potential for KCBM to improve prosociality in children is relatively unexplored.

The studies in this thesis aimed to explore how prosociality functions in children, and the potential for KCBM and kindness- and compassion-based interventions (KCBIs; interventions aiming to cultivate kindness and compassion) to support its development. Specifically, the studies aimed to critically evaluate and synthesise existing research on the effects of KCBM with children, to explore how young children conceptualise kindness, to examine the effect of emphasising an aspect of common humanity on in-group bias in prosociality, and to assess the acceptability and feasibility of implementing and evaluating a KCBI in schools.

To meet these aims, four studies with differing methodologies were used. First, a systematic review was conducted to synthesise research on the effects of KCBM on wellbeing, prosociality, and cognitive functioning in children and adolescents. Second, children’s understandings of kindness were explored through qualitative thematic analysis of paired interviews using puppets with 33 5-6-year-olds. Third, the impact of emphasising an aspect of common humanity on in-group bias in sharing and perceived similarity was explored using quantitative analysis of a resource allocation paradigm using stickers with 45 7-9-year-olds. And fourth, the acceptability and feasibility of implementing and evaluating a KCBI alongside a control activity with 30 9-10-year-olds was assessed through qualitative thematic analysis of focus groups; opt-in, retention, and measure completion rates; comprehension of measures; focus group participation; and data collection time and burden.

The results suggested limited, but promising, positive effects of KCBM on children’s wellbeing, prosociality, and cognitive functioning. Young children were found to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of kindness than previous literature would suggest. Emphasising an aspect of common humanity did not have a significant effect on in-group bias in sharing, although children who heard neutral instructions shared more with their in-group than out-group with a p value near significance, whereas no such bias was observed in children who heard instructions emphasising some of the characteristics they have in common with the potential recipient. Emphasising this aspect of common humanity resulted in the removal of an in-group bias in perceived similarity, and an almost doubling in the number of children who made unbiased egalitarian responses (giving half their stickers away to both their in- and out-group). The implementation and evaluation of a KCBI in schools was found to be acceptable and feasible, and analysis of focus groups provided recommendations for improvement. Across all three empirical studies, the theme of friendship and social interaction and its relation to prosociality was important. Children were able and willing to engage in the research process across the variety of methodologies. The novel puppet interview technique was particularly successful in engaging children and may be useful in other areas of developmental research.

This thesis contributes to the field by providing an account of prosociality that includes children’s voices, a critical summary of existing research on KCBM with children, specific guidance for the development, implementation, and evaluation of KCBIs with children, and recommendations for future research in this relatively new field.
Date of Award1 Jul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorPatrick Smith (Supervisor) & Paul Chadwick (Supervisor)

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