Empathy Series Article #4: “Empathy Strategies Initiative”

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know your students because it really creates a space where students feel impelled to speak up and engage in the lessons. I also feel that my students were challenged in a supportive way.”
– 6th grade Advisory, Female Teacher

“This quote encapsulates perfectly what many teachers and other instructional school staff (including counselors) have said about the Empathy Strategies Initiative I’ve had the pleasure of leading throughout the 2017-2018 school year. The strategies were iteratively developed by staff at Making Caring Common; we drew on literature and already existing programming in empathy, social-emotional learning, character, and moral development, as well as lessons learned from implementation science and school climate research.

Based on the research, several things stood out: 1) there are far more empathy-based resources provided to elementary schools than to middle schools and least of all high schools, 2) many of the resources are standalone, sequenced programs that require considerable time, training, and effort, and 3) much of their effectiveness depends on their comprehensiveness, which can be a high burden for many districts, schools, and staff.

As such, the initiative was strategically designed to provide middle and high school staff with a toolbox of “light lift” strategies—each comprised of five 15-minute lessons to be done once a week—that they would have the autonomy and flexibility of choosing throughout the year in order to meet their and their students’ needs. Some strategies focus more on addressing barriers to empathy (e.g., Confronting Stereotypes, Listening Deeply), some are more explicit on broadening perspectives (e.g., What Would You Do?, Take a Stand), and some are directly focused on filling the empathy-action gap (e.g., Random Acts of Kindness, Everyday Gratitude). All strategies, however, strive to emphasize the importance of noticing and valuing others, respecting differences, finding commonalities, and building relationships.

When we launched the initiative, we were most curious about take-up and effectiveness; that is, what strategies seem to be most popular and appealing to staff (and why), and what factors suggest impact (for teachers and students alike)? While we already have some clear answers, we’ve also learned some unexpected things. For instance, while fidelity of implementation is important, integrity of implementation—or how staff tailor and infuse the material into their classes—is essential. The content, and sequencing of lessons, is of course important, but so is the ability to read any given situation and tweak things as needed, based on the day, class dynamics, specific class content, etc.

Perhaps to best summarize the point above, I’ve realized that empathy education is as much about teaching students to put themselves in others’ shoes as it is about putting ourselves in theirs, and making students feel valued yet vulnerable and challenged. Some of the most consistent feedback I’ve received or heard from teachers and other staff is that they’ve been thrilled–and surprised–to see how much their students have opened up, even sharing really personal things that they may have otherwise felt shy or stigmatized to reveal. In doing so, relationships felt more authentic, more meaningful, and students seemed to think more about their impact on others. Encouraging honest, personal reflections and meaningful, respectful connections is very much what empathy is about, and though we still have a long way to go, we feel encouraged that even the “lightest” of strategies can make positive contributions to middle and high school classrooms.”

By: Milena Batanova, Research & Evaluation Manager | Making Caring Common
Harvard Graduate School of Education

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