“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  It’s a familiar phrase once offered as an unfortunate playground defense to resolve social conflict. The inaccuracy of this statement is even more apparent now, given the reaches of social media. When we have 24/7 access to destroy a reputation or respond impulsively, empathy is crucial.

Social-emotional skills, including empathy, are required to experience connectedness. And science shows the quality of our connections are reliable indicators for improved health outcomes. (1)  If we aren’t healthy, then we aren’t positive contributors to society. Dismissing social and emotional wellbeing diminishes physical health.

Given its weight, we should be developing, practicing, and reflecting empathy with our youth daily. The earlier we integrate a skill, the sooner we own it. Empathy improves the human experience, empowers compassionate leadership, and shapes our world for the better. What skill should be more important when teaching our youth? Still, it is surprising to find counters to this assertion. In my research, I have read many comments that suggest we are “watering down” the U.S. educational system when we prioritize social-emotional learning (SEL). These people are missing the forest for the trees.

Dismissing social and emotional wellbeing diminishes physical health.

Mounting evidence urges us to implement quality, systematic SEL instruction regularly. Beyond direct SEL instruction, we should be looking for effective opportunities to embed empathy practices within the standard school day. Occasions most readily available through the programs that tend to experience first-round cuts – the arts. In relating to an artistic work, authenticity requires that we search our own experiences, no matter how different, to come to a place where we can find that similar emotion generated in our hearts. It is here that we experience empathy.

When a teacher mentors their students to approach the arts through authentic perspectives, the shared experience naturally lends itself to empathic practice. Writing, studio art, drama, and music inspire thoughtful and creative communications within the school community. Through well-balanced teaching, each craft brings unique openings for personal growth, inclusion, and tolerance.

Art is expression, an opportunity to share, feel, and try on emotion.

Art is perspective, a chance to see the world through varied presentations.

Art is exposure, an opportunity to endure vulnerability.

Empathy is grounded in kindred emotion and doesn’t require identical experience. I was struck by a poignant reflection by a youth actor as I recently watched a documentary on the history and making of “Fiddler on the Roof.” At one point, they interviewed high school actors in student renditions of this production. One young woman perfectly captured the power of art as a tool for developing empathy. A Black girl raised a Christian; here, she was playing the role of a White girl from a strict Jewish community. Instead of disconnecting due to her limited surface similarities, she embraced the role and found ways to connect with the character on a deeper level. She described how this character became a part of her through this experience, one she carries with her through today.

While compelling, this example is also accessible, simply requiring us to recognize the value of this learning and advocate for funds to support the effort. Consistent SEL provided in concert with ongoing, relevant practice reflects our commitment to educating the whole child, understanding that to do anything less is to sacrifice their best.

How does your school district invest in social-emotional learning for students?

Not sure? Consider asking administrators:

  • Which curriculum does the district use for SEL?
  • Is it a continuous or a condensed curriculum?
  • Who leads the instruction, how often and at which grade levels?
  • Is the district offering all teachers professional development in SEL?

Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear about how educational communities are evolving and tackling this challenge!

SOURCES: (1) Harding, Kelli. The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness. Atria Books, 2019.