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Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning

The secret to learning self-awareness, cooperation, and other “social and emotional learning” skills lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises.
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Boy Hugging Mother photo by Studio 1One/Shutterstock

Photo by Studio One/Shutterstock.

Each week, in hundreds of classrooms around the world, elementary school students sit cross-legged in a circle, surrounding a baby clad in a onesie with the word “Teacher” on the front. Over the course of a year, students learn to label the baby’s feelings and to interpret his or her actions. They learn to look beyond language to identify underlying emotions, whether joy, fear, frustration, or curiosity. In so doing, they learn to understand their own emotions and those of others.

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They’re in a program called Roots of Empathy, part of a growing education trend broadly referred to as “social and emotional learning” (SEL), where children—and often their teachers and parents—learn to manage emotions, and to develop the skills required to establish relationships, de-escalate and resolve conflict, and effectively collaborate with others. Kids burdened by loss, anger, and feelings of rejection need, proponents suggest, a way to regulate those emotions.

A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises.

Mary Gordon is Roots of Empathy’s founder and president. (Full disclosure: She and others mentioned in this article are people with whom the author has worked extensively through Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.) In her words, “You can’t teach empathy. You unleash it.”

In the months after 9/11, New York City school officials were concerned about the psychological impact of the attack on the city’s schoolchildren. Dr. Pamela Cantor, a renowned child psychiatrist, was asked to join a team to assess that impact. She discovered that most of the children were traumatized less by what they had witnessed that day than by the violence and deprivation they faced every day growing up in poverty. She found schools ill-equipped to educate children with such intense needs.

It's the Poverty InfographicToday, one in five U.S. children—by some measures, one in four—is growing up in poverty, placing the United States second only to Romania in the child poverty rate among developed nations.

Decades of research in neuroscience have revealed that poverty has a marked effect on students’ ability to learn.

Under stress, the brain triggers a surge in cortisol, a hormone that produces the “fight or flight” response and inhibits the ability to absorb new information and to connect emotionally with others. Stressed children are anxious, tuned-out, emotionally volatile, and have diminished energy, stamina, and memory. The result is a vicious cycle: Students experiencing trauma at home come to school unprepared to learn and unable to forge trusting relationships, leaving them more isolated and subject to failure, which further increases stress levels.

Together with a team of educators, Dr. Cantor began developing an approach designed to target the key factors driving stress and chronic failure in the high-poverty schools she’d visited. Her decades in the field had taught her that our brains are malleable, particularly in childhood. With the right training and support for teachers and staff, no student was beyond reach.

The result eventually led her to found Turnaround for Children, which today works to provide what Dr. Cantor calls a “fortified environment” for teaching and learning: one capable of mitigating the stresses of poverty by connecting kids growing up amidst trauma with counseling and support and equipping teachers with a set of practices that promote positive relationships between children and adults.

The Fresh Creek School in Brooklyn is one of 10 New York City schools currently partnering with Turnaround. Opened in 2011, the school is about a half-mile from the New Lots stop on the L Train—worlds away from the microbreweries, hipsters, and leafy parks of Brooklyn’s more gentrified neighborhoods. Of the school’s roughly 200 students, about 10 percent are homeless. Many more hail from households trapped in poverty—their parents incarcerated or struggling to find work.

In the school’s first year, teachers had difficulty maintaining basic order; some repeatedly sent kids straight to the principal’s office. Lacking knowledge of outside resources, they were ill-equipped to meet the kind of student needs that would confound all but the best-trained social workers.

Tyler had long struggled in school. He was prone to severe tantrums and was accustomed to life in the principal’s office.

When he arrived in Akilah Seecharan’s fourth-grade classroom at Fresh Creek this past September, things began to change, thanks to a new partnership between the school and Turnaround.

In many high-poverty schools, up to 60 percent of children experience stress levels that can impair functioning.

Seecharan understood that Tyler had trouble managing his emotions, and she understood the reasons for that struggle. Tyler is one of four children growing up in a single parent household. His story is, in a sense, unremarkable—mirroring the daily struggles of kids growing up in poverty across the country. His outbursts, and the impact of those circumstances on his development, are likewise shared by thousands of students like him.

She and Tyler worked out a signal that he could use any time he felt his temper rising. Wordlessly and without interrupting the rest of the class, Seecharan would give him permission to take a walk. The agreement put Tyler in the driver’s seat: in effect, he had permission to calm himself down.

In many high-poverty schools, up to 60 percent of children experience stress levels that can impair functioning. Dr. Cantor understood that addressing those needs was the work of every teacher and administrator, not just one or two guidance counselors.

For one period each week, Seecharan and other teachers at Fresh Creek receive intensive training and feedback in techniques to improve classroom management, defuse disruptive behaviors, and help students learn to better communicate and cooperate.

Yet even the combined efforts of everyone within the school may not be enough. Dr. Cantor found that teachers frequently spent most of their time focused on the roughly 15 percent of students experiencing the most acute symptoms of trauma, whose disruptive behavior threatened to derail the rest of their class. By connecting schools with local mental-health care providers, Turnaround ensures that those children receive the help they need.

Today, Tyler is working one-on-one with the school social worker, and he and his family receive free mental health services from the Institute for Community Living, the school’s local mental-health-care partner.

As a result of the partnership with Turnaround, “I have a better pulse on where students are,” says Fresh Creek’s principal, Jacqueline Danvers-Coombs. “We have far fewer incidents in which students come to the principal’s office simply because teachers don’t know what to do. There are systems that have been put in place that are just part of how we are doing things now.”

Turnaround is part of an effort to wholly reengineer schools to respond directly to the unique psychological and emotional needs of young people growing up in poverty. It holds vast implications for how we train teachers, for how we approach school culture, and for the very way in which we design a school.

Like Roots of Empathy, Turnaround for Children reflects a growing recognition of the role of empathy in fostering effective learning environments and healthy child development.

Empathy has long been seen as key to effective teaching. Addressing the host of unmet social and emotional needs that students carry into the classroom demands that teachers be able to look below the surface and understand what’s driving a particular set of behaviors.

It’s not just teachers who can benefit. According to a recent Harvard study, cultivating empathy among students has been linked to a variety of desirable outcomes, including positive peer relationships, better communication skills, and fewer interpersonal conflicts.

Yet the study’s authors found that the stresses caused by trauma—including feelings of inferiority, envy, and depression—can act as obstacles to empathy. Children confronting acute stress may struggle to take on others’ perspectives, not out of an inherent lack of ability, but because of the way stress impacts the brain.

While Turnaround makes no attempt to “teach” empathy directly, its efforts to remove the obstacles to empathy help to create the kind of environment that naturally encourages acts of empathy.

Increasingly, schools themselves are taking up the charge and working to cultivate empathy less through what they teach than by how they teach.

Kathy Clunis D’Andrea teaches 4- to 6-year-olds at Mission Hill School in Boston. Founded by celebrated education pioneer Deborah Meier, Mission Hill is one of 21 Public Pilot Schools in the city, established expressly to serve as models of educational innovation. Situated in Jamaica Plain, a mixed-income neighborhood, the school has a diverse student body; roughly half of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Mission Hill was founded with the goal of helping students develop “democratic habits of mind”: the capacity to step into the shoes of others and to listen to and examine other viewpoints with an open mind; to evaluate evidence, and to understand the many possible consequences of a particular action; and to grow up to be—to quote its mission statement—“smart, caring, strong, resilient, imaginative and thoughtful.”

Mission Hill photo by Dani Coleman

Kathy Clunis D’Andrea teaches at Mission Hill, a public elementary school in a low-income neighborhood in Boston. Mission Hill demonstrates what’s possible when adults commit to meet the full range of needs—intellectual, social, and emotional—that children bring to school each day. Photo by Dani Coleman.

In the fall of each presidential election year, Clunis D’Andrea and her students study a theme called “Who Counts,” examining voice: who is using their voice and how, and whose voices have historically been silenced. To kick off the unit, she asks students how they would use their voices if they were president.

Some answers reflect the interests of a typical five-year-old: One student declared that he would give hot dogs to everyone. Others provide a glimpse into their world outside the classroom: “I would make it possible for people to not lose their homes,” said another.

As a group, the students decide how they want to use their voices. In 2012, Kathy’s class decided to take on three projects to educate others about recycling, tree-planting, and endangered animals. They wrote a public service announcement on planting trees in collaboration with PBS for the show Arthur. They worked with a local organization to plant more than a dozen trees in the schoolyard, and started a recycling program at the school. They shared their message with other elementary schools, a group of high school students, and the mayor.

Unlike many of its peers, Mission Hill has never held an anti-bullying rally or hosted a motivational speaker on the subject. There are no classroom minutes allotted to teaching emotional literacy, self-regulation, perspective-taking, or cooperation—the hallmarks of many traditional SEL programs. And yet the kids in Kathy’s classroom demonstrate through daily deed a high capacity for emotional intelligence and hone an array of the kinds of skills not measured on standardized tests: learning to listen and work collaboratively, to take on others’ perspectives, to share across lines of difference, to resolve conflicts, and to empathize.

On the surface, it seems a far cry from Roots of Empathy and Turnaround for Children—from bringing babies into classrooms, or training teachers to respond to the pernicious effects of trauma.

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While each was born out of different circumstances and each employs different strategies, all are attempts to change the very hard-wiring in the brain, influencing how children interact with one another and how they view themselves, how they play on the playground, and how they behave years later. They have less to do with what students are taught than  with the relationships between children and adults, teacher professional development, school-wide disciplinary practices, and the underlying culture of a school.

Thanks to the work of Mission Hill, Turnaround for Children, Roots of Empathy, and others like them, we now know children growing up in poverty will flourish given the opportunity and the tools. And we know that, for today’s high-poverty schools, cultivating empathy and other social and emotional learning skills—and creating the kind of fortified environment that nurtures them—can have a profound impact on every other measure of school success.


Lennon FlowersLennon Flowers wrote this article for Education Uprising, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Lennon is a writer and social change strategist. She is the co-founder of The Dinner Party and most recently served as Community Director for Ashoka’s Start Empathy. She’s written for Forbes, Elephant Journal, Open Democracy, EdWeek, and GOOD.

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