One part of my job that gives me a great deal of satisfaction is the whole-group instruction I do around social and emotional skills. Typically, when I have a student, like Peter, for whom perspective taking and managing strong feelings are the largest challenges they have in the classroom, I work with the whole class to built more of that toolbox.
And this year, an actual Toolbox is involved. TOOLBOX distills the basic social competencies necessary for interpersonal success–self-calming, considering how others feel, hearing differences of opinion, choosing words carefully, letting little things slide, etc. etc. etc–into 12 specific “tools”, each with visuals and gestures and pithy little mantras, introduced in a series of small suggested lessons and practiced over time with reminders and prompts. It gives our school site a universal vocabulary for conflict resolution and social intervention, and it gives my students more specifics than ‘calm down’ and ‘be good’.
The first three Tools go well, for my second graders. The “Breathing Tool” is the foundation for all subsequent lessons, as children learn the specifics of diaphragmatic breathing and connect it to the idea of listening to their bodies before they take action. “Quiet/Safe Place” teaches students to visualize, within themselves, a place of calm and comfort. We spend a lot of time constructing these individual mental worlds, with Teacher Beth pushing gently back against stocking them with candy and fart jokes and Disneyland rides. When you’re a young child, it seems, a place that feels good to you must be exciting –it takes awhile to appreciate the value of just peace. The “Listening Tool” is hugely important, especially for the particular group of learners I’m working with in Toolbox this year. All of it makes sense, and they immediately understand it. “We listen to others with our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds:” the kids don’t yet have the full nuance of that, but they get the big idea.
Next up, Empathy–standard dictionary definition is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I like what Wikipedia adds to that definition–that the understanding comes “from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” The tool that represents it is a level; to represent it in gestures, you lift both hands and balance them, updownupdownupdown and then even, making it clear that both sides have weight. The tagline we recite is, “I care about others, I care about myself.”
There is research to support the idea that empathy is innate, but there is also…um, the playground, which shows it needs developing. Intervening with a group of 7 year old boys who have, for the fifth time in 4 recesses, ended the play period with at least one child crying or bleeding, I ask them, “Be honest–how does it feel to you to play games where people get hurt?” One child tells me, “I kind of laugh when people get hurt.” I ask him, without judgement, “Why do you think that is?” and he responds, “It’s tough, where I come from.” I tell that precious child, “We can’t let it be tough at this school. Not like that.”
To teach the tool of empathy, we tell kids about the idea of someone ‘walking in my shoes.’ I open the binder that I borrowed from the other second grade teacher, that she copied from the binder that the principal bought one copy of, and I go through the suggested lesson plan. Have three actual different pairs of shoes, adult sized so that everyone can actually step into them. Have kids take turns, putting on the shoes.
I’ve seen what happens when there are three things for these twenty children, even when their socks are on. And three possibilities, I think, is not enough.
What I did, instead (and next time, I might do real shoes also) was print out pictures of ten different people from the knee or ankle down. A ballet dancer. A business person. Muddy boots for a construction worker. Tiny shoes that a toddler was being helped to put on. A kid’s signed ankle cast that a doctor’s hand was touching. Holey, beat-up shoes that were probably the stock image for a charity on homelessness or poverty. Clean basketball shoes, tearing up a slick court. Another and another, until I had what I felt was a representative sample–something more manageable than all the shoes in the world.
We sat in a circle with the cards in the middle, face down. Breathing Tool for a moment to ground ourselves, eyes closed briefly to get ready to imagine. Once it was quiet and calm enough to begin, I asked one child to start a card around–to look at it briefly and then pass it on. A little time passed and another child was asked to start another card, and then another, so that nobody had to wait too long for a picture. As we did that, each time, I asked the kids to think . “What might this person be like?” “What might this person like, or not like?” “What might be a hard thing that this person has to do?” “What might be a feeling that this person might have?” Some kids furrowed brows and approached this with discipline; other kids just laughed at the ‘smelly’, broken shoe. It did not, to be honest, go quite as smoothly as TeacherBeth might hope, and there was one moment when I lost my cool. “Ezra, that shoe belongs to a PERSON. Would you laugh at him like that? Then DO NOT LAUGH NOW.”
Afterwards, I asked the kids to vote with their hands, like we often do when I want a choral response but don’t want the noise of it. Thumbs go up if the answer’s ‘yes’, and if the answer is ‘no’, I have them wave hands quickly, inside and out (because I have kids show agreement and disagreement with one another’s ideas, it’s important for me to avoid thumbs-down). I asked the kids if their thoughts were the same for each pair of shoes that they saw, if they thought the same thing for most of the shoes, or different things, if they thought, each time, that “this person’s just like me.” Then, I asked them if each person was important. Some of the kids voted no, at first, and I told them, “Yes. Each person is important. Because we are all important. And empathy helps us to really see that.”
I ended that portion of the lesson under absolutely no illusion that I’d made much of an impact yet–the idea was simply to get the thing started. After spending some time with the more abstract idea of the lives of folks they don’t know, I had students work at their desks about people they DO know–each child made a ‘caring circle’, with the names of the people (and pets!) who are closest to them. I circulated the room, asking them to tell me a little more about those people, trying to help them think more deeply about them. It isn’t natural for young children to spend much time in contemplation of the inner lives and feelings of others, because for kids, the most immediate and natural reference point is automatically the self. Piaget, one of the most foundational experts in child development, posited that when children passing through the pre-operational stage (roughly ages 2-7) are asked to reflect on the perspectives of others, they innately assume other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same as the child does. When we try to resolve social conflicts on the yard, we must work patiently and with diligence to open up each child to the perspective of the other. And I think it’s significant that our most common empathy question isn’t, exactly, “how do you think Sarah feels about ___?” It’s, “How would YOU feel if x happened to YOU?”
The research, and my own practice, shows that empathy can be taught– we can move children from seeing just themselves, to seeing themselves and the circle they care for, to broadening that circle to include other people they don’t yet know and love. I take the shoe pictures and mount them on a poster, with the same prompts:”What might this person be like?” “What might this person like, or not like?” “What might be a hard thing that this person has to do?” “What might be a feeling that this person might have?” It is an optional idea bank for writer’s workshop, for students to choose a perspective and examine it through telling a story or writing their thoughts. For next week’s lesson, I will begin by having each student spend 30 seconds thinking deeply and in silence about someone in their caring circle, imagining that person and feeling warmth for them–a kiddie-light version of lovingkindness meditation . And then, I will read them Enemy Pie , in which spending time with someone is enough to make an enemy a friend. Week in and week out, we’ll work on our Empathy Tools.
I draft this post on Friday, and leave it just at the words above, trying to think about a personal connection I can make before I publish it–a way that what kids are learning in class translates into how we adults live our lives. I think about a challenge a friend and I are having right now, with understanding one another and the choices that we make. I think about the political sphere. I think about my housing co-op.
And then, it is Saturday night, and I get on a subway to go to a party.
When the train stops at a station between two major cities, shots are fired within one of the cars.
Fifteen feet away from me, behind me and past sliding doors, a man dies, and another man jumps out and takes off running. In my car, we don’t see all of this as it happens–I see the aftermath later. But first, there are seven minutes when a handful of the people on my car scream and run, but the rest of us pull each other down to the ground, huddling below the seats, afraid that it is terrorism. Only knowing that we live in a major urban center, that we are riding a major transit system, that this seemed exactly timed for when the doors were opening, and that the last time in our state that a gun made the news for firing in a crowded space, the gun didn’t stop firing until dozens were dead.
Minutes pass in near silence; I press my face against the bottom of the seat and don’t look up, breathing deliberately in and out, quietly repeating to myself the one word I use when I’m with a kid in absolute crisis. Okay. Okay. Okay. It’s okay, I am telling the kid when I do this–I see what you’re experiencing, and I don’t reject you for it. It’s going to be okay, I am telling him–this is something we’ll manage together and then figure more things out. I am giving myself a message here that is almost the same, but different. This is happening right now, so it has to be okay. This is happening right now, and soon, however it ends, it will be over. I breathe, and I huddle, and I tell myself, okay.
And in the minutes between the first set of shots, and the second set that doesn’t come, there is time for me to do so many kinds of empathy–to care about others, to care about myself. I think about whether there is anything I can do to be safer than I am, right now, and I realize that there isn’t, at this moment. If a gunman comes in here, I think…if a gunman comes in here and starts firing, I will gesture-prompt the people near me, and more than one of us can move at him, but right now, he’s not here, and I don’t want to move. I think of all the people I care about; I reach out to a few of them, quickly, by text. Two minutes pass and a few of us sit up. There is suddenly more screaming; middle doors fly open and more people run through and we hit the ground again. The person beside me whispers to ask if I am calling 911, and I shake my head–because first, it feels too vulnerable for me to put my hand up to my head and speak aloud in this train car, and second, I can’t imagine that 911 doesn’t already know. That, I realize later, is an empathetic failure: I am so deeply in my own perspective, and the perspective of the others in this train car, that when the train operator’s voice comes over the loudspeaker minutes later, it utterly shocks me that he asks, ‘Did something happen?” A couple brave people stand up and move to the paging system, telling him that shots were fired, and another person says that he saw a man run, and gradually, as this conversation unfolds, as the person next to me stands up gingerly and walks to the next car over, I realize that it’s safe for me to sit up.
Eventually, the people in my car and I make our way downstairs, to the station gates. They have closed, with all of us still in here; “It’s a crime scene”, says one traveller, and the station agent asks that witnesses come forward. Behind me, two young men are milling in the crowd, speaking loudly. One says to the other, “Man, we were in the wrong car. We didn’t get to see anything.” And I turn to that man as though he is Ezra, as though he is smirking with a card in his hand. “NO. A man is dead. Another man killed him. Don’t say you are upset because you didn’t get to see that.” I turn quickly away before I say anything else, before I let them see more than I need them to see of my anger. I move past the bystanders who gave first aid and CPR even when they knew it was probably hopeless, past the people who looked out for other people on the train cars, past the people who are crying silently like I am as we walk. Out of the station and into the night, onto a bus and towards people that I care about: the strangers from my train who are walking out with me stay close to me, and to each other, until we finally part ways. Over the next several days, I will hold two ways of being in my opposite hands as I regather myself in the presence of my loved ones. I will measure how brutal and disconnected the world seems right now against what these moments and their aftermath showed me about strong human connection–and how it seems most greatly needed precisely in the situations where it’s obviously not there.
“I care about others, I care about myself.” Something to work on; a tool to keep using.