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Empathy: the Key to Social and Emotional Learning

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Educators are aware that social problems like poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, violence, and family trauma can affect how students learn when they come to school. Though teaching subjects like math and literacy are the biggest part of their job, in many cases they're also called on to attend to their students' emotional health as well, incorporating social and emotional skills.

“Science is starting to show that there is a very strong integration between social and emotional skills and learning,” said Vicki Zakrzewski, education director of the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, which studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being during a recent Forum radio show. “Some scientists believe that cognitive achievement is 50 percent of the equation and social and emotional skills are the other 50 percent.”

Some school districts are taking that idea seriously and integrating the research into teaching practices. Oakland Unified School District, for example, is piloting a program called Roots of Empathy in 20 schools across the district. The program teaches students how to be empathetic by bringing a baby and the baby's parent into K-12 classrooms. The students are asked to think about the baby's experience as it explores the classroom, while a trained facilitator helps them name the baby's feelings and emotions. Focusing on the baby and its vulnerability allows students to practice empathy, making it easier to identify their own emotions in the future. As they become more self-aware they're better able to develop respectful and caring relationships.

“It’s a launching pad for the children to apply the understanding of emotion and perspective taking that they've learned through this little baby to themselves and then the bridge to understanding how their classmates feel,” said Mary Gordon, who founded the program. Gordon says that when children learn to be empathetic they naturally behave less aggressively. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have documented her claim that when students develop emotional literacy they can begin to talk about their feelings, frustrations and anger without acting out. She’s implemented her program in schools across the U.S. and Canada, in rural, suburban and urban settings and says it works everywhere.


“We have to be able to understand our own experiences emotionally to have a better relationship with others in the world and also to engage deeply in dialogue, to take other people’s perspective and examine our own,” said Tony Smith, superintendent of Oakland Unified School District. He’s aware that his city is plagued by race and class divisions as well as high levels of violence, which have left many students traumatized and angry.

[RELATED READING: How Parents and Schools Can Help Build Kids' Emotional Strength]

“Many of our young people don’t have the capacity to struggle productively with other people around their ideas and not shut down if they're feeling uncomfortable,” Smith said. He believes that by building emotional skills, his students will be able to focus more on learning and become more socially successful. “There’s a lot of work to do around building the emotional capacity to be a deep thinker,” Smith said.

“Giving students a safe caring classroom won’t necessarily mitigate all the trauma they've experienced, but it will help them develop a secure attachment with the teacher, and they need that strong attachment with an adult to feel safe exploring the world,” Zakrzewski said. That freedom to explore is at the center of what many consider to be deeper and self-directed learning.

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