Watching through my office window at recess, I see and hear all kinds of interactions between students while they are playing. Kindergartners are speaking a unique language involving imaginary unicorns, fourth graders playing knockout basketball with whoops and cheers after each shot, and evolving conversations around a four-square game.
During these games, students become confused about the rules, get knocked down or feel frustrated when the games don’t go their way. Often, I do see students explaining to a friend the rule that has changed, offering an encouraging word to a friend, or helping someone who is fallen.
These positive interactions between students are ones we intentionally teach, encourage, and expect from Graland students. Signs of empathy have been documented as young as 8-10 months of age, but the quantity and quality of empathy skills can vary dramatically from one child to the next.
Direct teaching and modeling of the skills begin with our youngest students at Graland. Preschoolers are encouraged to use a name for their feelings, observe the face of their friend to see if they look happy or sad. Lower School teachers discuss with students about the intent and impact of their actions, tone, and words.
Conversations in middle school advisory groups work to build empathy skills by through sharing personal experiences of adversity and growth. Presentations about empathy are part of lower school and middle school assemblies, where acts of kindness and stories of support are often highlighted through Hidden Heroes and UpWords speeches.
The Service Learning Program at Graland also develops these skills through student-centered, authentic and on-going activities which allow students to experience other points of views. Service learning is more than a one-time event. It is about empowering students to ask questions, identify a need, and begin to put themselves in the positions of other people.
Reading books can also increase a child’s sensitivities to others and help develop empathy. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article by Susan Pinker, “Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day.”
Research has shown that the benefits of empathetic thinking flow into adult life too. Students who demonstrate empathy consistently have shown to have greater success personally and professionally, higher levels of overall happiness, and more success in leadership positions.
As with any developing skill, empathy doesn’t happen overnight. It requires parents and teachers working together. When we help a child find the words to talk with someone who is hurting, deliver food to those in need, or shovel snow on a neighbor’s sidewalk, our children begin to learn and understand empathy. Children can make impressive gains in empathy develop through the middle school years when given the skills and experiences at home and school.
Nan uses her master’s degree in educational psychology to support young students and their families in finding the best path for a positive elementary education. Outside of school, she hikes, reads and spends time with her grandchildren.