Something I’ve been reflecting upon quite a bit lately is empathy. In our quest to help students become learned, strong and capable individuals, it appears our culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathatic. Beyond the research on empathy, common sense and experience tells us kiddos who are more empathetic do a much better job in embracing failure, because there is little ego involved in their tasks. Setbacks while disappointing are rarely seen as a failures, and viewed as a learning experience about an approach that does not work for the task at hand.
The process of teaching or guiding students towards being more empathetic appears to be a two-fold, creative process. First, we must help students recognize and understand the continuum of how their seemingly ordinary everyday behaviors influence others. This leads to the second part; helping them recognize their ability to become empowered to help themselves and others. Notice the word help with both of these- that falls upon us. A key question for each of us to consider individually: Do I have the ability to parlay empathy into the learning experience? This is the creative modeling necessary by adults.
In the early years, we lay the foundation for responsible citizenship. Children learn kindness, respect, and empathy—internal strengths that connect them to others. You can't just talk about these feelings and expect understanding; kids need to experience them. Many programs like scouts, church groups, and service clubs are places children learn and experience these positive values. But these ideas being reinforced in programs and home may not be enough. These have a place in our school communities.
Character education in the early years helps build strengths like honesty, responsibility, fairness, and compassion— internal assets that lead to happiness and well-being. These are the kinds of human qualities that foster responsible citizens, children who grow up to donate to food drives, recycle their trash, or help during a times of need.
Just like businesses require innovation and the ability to respond to change, so do communities. By the time children reach adolescence, their brains are capable of understanding complex issues and exploring the root causes of problems. In order for democracies to thrive, citizens must question and respectfully debate how to improve society — how to change established systems that are inefficient or unjust.
Service-learning, particularly as our students progress into their high school years, offers young people unique opportunities to link what they learn in the classroom to real world situations in their communities. Often, these experiences push them out of their comfort zones to see the world in new ways. Opportunities abound to move beyond the school walls to learn and serve together. These experiences are often transformative for youth and teach them how to think critically about the world around them.
In our connected world, it is empathy that may be our most powerful human characteristic. It is wonderful. It is listening with intent. Empathy provides opportunities for experiences to become innovative citizens, people who see beyond surface causes and effect change in their communities and beyond. These kinds of citizens question why people are hungry, debate solutions to clean energy, or investigate the relationship between race and poverty. This is the type of learning I want in our schools.