Empathy is the root of social and emotional learning

Timothy Hoss calls empathy education “the missing link in our work with young people.”

The principal at Northport Middle School in Northport, New York, believes school districts are too preoccupied with quantitatively identifiable and measurable academic outcomes—instead of connecting kids to each other and the world around them in a way they can understand.

That’s the way education consultant Thomas R. Hoerr sees it, too.

“Who you are is more important than what you know,” says Hoerr, author of The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. “And while we know it would be hard to argue with something like that, the curriculum doesn’t reflect it. School boards in particular need to come out strong and say, ‘Not only are we preparing good students, but we’re preparing good people.’”

With social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives becoming standard practice, more attention is being placed on teaching empathy—helping students understand and accept someone else’s perspective and experience—at a time when the impacts of technology and social media demand it.

Studies show that when young people have empathy, they display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, better communication skills, a lower likelihood of bullying, less aggressive behaviors and emotional disorders, and more positive relationships, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

With the amount of time educators spend with their students each day, they’re in a prime position to help with noticing and rejecting stereotypes, respecting and valuing differences, managing difficult feelings, and other barriers to empathy.

But advocates contend that despite the benefits, the focus in schools too often remains on high-stakes testing and college readiness.

“Nobody’s going to quote your scores on empathy in the newspaper, but they sure are going to quote your scores in how you compare with other districts in reading and math,” says Mary Forde, chief pupil personnel services officer at Greenwich Public Schools in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Managing Emotions

Forde’s district uses the Second Step program in 11 elementary schools and three middle schools to help students understand and manage emotions, be aware of how others feel, and develop other SEL skills. Plans to add an SEL program at the high school level are underway.

What many don’t understand, Forde says, is that “when students are happier, calmer, and have more respect for the people around them, they’re in a much better position to learn. You just have to keep reinforcing that case.”

In Grambrills, Maryland, an incident in the school cafeteria at Arundel High School—in which a senior’s satire set off accusations of racial intolerance—led to a series of public meetings. At one of them, a parent asked principal Gina Davenport if she was going to teach tolerance. Davenport had no interest.

“You tolerate chemotherapy in the hope it’s going to cure your cancer. You don’t tolerate your neighbor,” she explains. “I wanted to teach empathy and acceptance. I wanted people to get to know each other for who they are, not make judgments based on something superficial or what they believed to be true.”

So in response, Davenport created a semester-long course called Community Citizenship for ninth-graders, in which they delve into the stereotypes they’ve held and build relationships with their peers. The course began in September 2017, and soon caught the attention of Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Starting in the 2019-20 school year, the course will be called Global Community Citizenship and offered at the district’s 12 high schools and three alternative centers. On top of that, the superintendent has made the course a graduation requirement.

Davenport points out the necessity of teaching empathy skills at a time when school violence—including threats, bullying and hate crimes—is on the rise.

At Arundel High School, the number of freshman referrals for disrespect, disruption or insubordination has decreased by roughly 25 percent from 2017 to 2018.

“We live in an imperfect society, but it’s a lot easier to prevent violence than to stop it once it gets started,” Davenport says. “The kids talk about how this has helped them form relationships—not just with other students, but with teachers. They are learning to ask for more information before making assumptions.”

Getting Faculty on Board

Changing children’s behavior is just one part of the equation. School districts should keep in mind that teachers may need to go through an adjustment as well.

“Districts need to be cognizant that they’re working to change adult mindsets and beliefs,” notes Nancy Sarra, superintendent of the Consolidated School District of New Britain in New Britain, Connecticut. “Some folks understand right from the start, but at the same time there’s a whole generation of teachers who went to school to learn to teach content, not to teach social/emotional learning. It doesn’t happen in a year, and it doesn’t happen in two. It’s about ongoing messaging.”

To that end, after a year of planning, the district launched New Britain University at the start of the 2018-19 school year. The professional learning initiative, for those who teach kindergarten through 10th grade, is focused on whole child development. Along with instructional strategies that increase opportunities for academic discourse, sessions focus on topics such as strengthening students’ social efficacy.

At the same time, the district is in the process of revising its code of conduct and report cards to reflect what it considers key attributes of success, one of which is empathy.

While anecdotal evidence shows the strategies are working, data from the Consolidated School District of New Britain’s partnership with the Ana Grace Project proves that its emphasis on empathy is having a demonstrable effect.

Founded in memory of Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, a victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the project partners with schools and other organizations to promote love, community, and connection. Smalley Elementary School recorded the most impressive results: In-school suspensions plummeted from 442 in 2012-13—two years before the partnership began—to 14 in 2017-18. Out-of-school suspensions dropped from 94 to 14 over the same time.

Getting faculty on board is a pivotal piece in empathy education, says Hoerr, the education consultant.

“They’re not going to be perfect, just like their students aren’t going to be perfect,” he says, “but they need to be role models.”

This is a critical point, given that empathy isn’t taught in traditional instructional ways.

“Rather than being taught, it’s caught—and it’s caught experientially,” says Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, an international organization that offers empathy-based programs for children. “There are no flash cards. Saying that the theme of the week is empathy is beyond ridiculous.”

"We All Mater"

Gordon, a social entrepreneur, educator, author, parenting expert, and child advocate, says she “created Roots of Empathy in a rage on my way home” after working with a 16-year-old domestic violence victim. She asked herself question after question. “How do you build a society where we can understand one another? Where we can understand ourselves?”

That was in 1996. The nonprofit organization, with international headquarters in Toronto, now runs programs in 12 countries, and will be adding 15 more countries over the next four years. Programs in the U.S. are mainly in elementary schools in Washington, D.C., New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Seattle.

The program’s main attraction? Babies.

To develop emotional literacy, mothers visit classrooms with their babies on a regular basis. Students observe the baby’s experience exploring the classroom, while a trained facilitator leads them in a discussion about feelings and emotions. Melissa Soltani, program manager for the Roots of Empathy program in Seattle, says she starts getting phone calls in February and March, with people saying, “‘I’m going to have a July baby! Can I please volunteer?”

Since 2000, Roots of Empathy has been evaluated in both comparative and randomized controlled studies designed to measure behavior changes in students. Key findings from those studies and independent research include an increase in both cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as a decrease in aggression.

The program made a significant impact in the life of a boy with severe autism at Lundy Elementary School in Lowell, Oregon. The boy, known for hitting without provocation—and showing no emotion while doing so—erupted with joy when baby Esther repeatedly looked around the classroom and then smiled directly at him. He kept saying, “She smiled at me! She smiled at me!”

Northport, where Hoss is principal, works with the nonprofit Teaching Empathy Institute, which creates empathy-based programs throughout New York’s Hudson Valley. Director David Levine visits sixth-graders at Northport for three days each fall, using activities and songs to help develop emotional intelligence.

“I don’t think a person can be whole until they can understand what others are experiencing,” Hoss says. “To have exposure to it—to have it as part of a culture—is incredibly important. Our school is not perfect for sure; it’s run and attended by humans, and therein lies a great challenge. We love what we do; we work hard to be good at it, but we don’t always get it right. Who can?

The school has initiated a “High Road Challenge” to encourage good decision-making. English Language Arts teachers, meanwhile, use books, short stories, articles, and short films for units on empathy, weaving in academic concepts such as plot, conflict, theme, character traits, point of view, and perspective.

In addition, a picture of every student hangs in the cafeteria.

“It shows that everybody is part of this collective, communal space,” says Hoss, adding that the efforts have resulted in fewer disciplinary referrals, especially during lunch, recess, and unstructured times. “We all matter.”

Empathy-Happiness Link

Social cohesion is inextricably linked both to academic and psychological safety, according to best-selling author Shawn Achor. The positive psychology expert’s Orange Frog program has helped schools around the country teach empathy, compassion, and other science-backed tools for sustainable peak performance.

Over the past three years, for example, the program has been instrumental in moving Schaumburg Community Consolidated School District 54, in a suburb of Chicago, from the 73rd percentile of academic achievement statewide to the 95th percentile.

Too often in today’s climate, success is defined by how we stack up against other people, says Achor, a former Harvard University researcher and teaching fellow: “You spend your first 22 years of life in school, measuring success on individual statistics. You take tests alone, otherwise it’s cheating. But then, as an adult, for the rest of your life everything is about being interconnected. If you ignore others in pursuit of happiness, you significantly hamper your ability to sustain happiness in the long run.”

That’s why global organization Ashoka developed the Start Empathy initiative, a network of educators, social entrepreneurs, and others who want to cultivate in young people the will and the skill to solve social problems.

One of its partner schools—what Ashoka calls Changemaker Schools— is Riverpoint Academy in Spokane, Washington, which weaves empathy across its culture and curriculum. Using makerspaces to learn about science, engineering, mathematics, the arts and humanities, and entrepreneurship, students have designed a patent-pending stylus that can be gripped easily by people with cerebral palsy. A team of students developed a cookstove that also powers cell phones—a huge need in third-world countries—and were invited to present their invention at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in late 2018, students organized their own field trip to World Relief Spokane, where they went through a three-hour simulation of the immigrant and refugee experience.

“We want to graduate individuals who can see the world and not just their reflection in the world,” says Principal Moleena Harris (no relation to the journalist). “We’re all interconnected, and we need to take care of one another.”

Paul M. Rogers, a team leader with Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative, contends that school boards are in a “powerful position” to help spotlight these types of emergent leaders.

“Empathy isn’t just nice. It’s imperative to thrive in this rapid, crazy world we live in,” he says. “When you start with empathy being the best way forward, really great things can happen.”

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