Written By: Hans Appel
“Empathy is the root of humanity and the foundation that helps our children become good, caring people. But the Empathy Advantage gives them a huge edge at happiness and success”
-Dr. Michele Borba, Author of “Unselfie”
Dr. Tim Elmore, from growing leaders says that the average student today has as much anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s. In an increasingly anxiety ridden society it’s scary to know that Borba’s research indicates that as anxiety goes up empathy goes down. In fact, just since 2012, empathy has dropped 29% in college age students which came on the heels of a 40% drop in empathy among college students between 2000-2010. This frightening inverse relationship between anxiety and empathy makes sense; if students are more stressed, worried, and anxious about their own lives, its harder to focus on what’s going on in other’s lives.
Award Winning Culture welcomes ongoing critical examination of a school’s current educational practices, and intentionally infuses relevant Whole Child strategies into the school’s ecosystem.
It’s no surprise that empathy is a key soft skill that Whole Child focused schools are actively teaching. Thanks to programs like Character Strong, empathy is becoming a point of emphasis in the same vein as core subject areas (Math, Science, ELA, etc.) have always been. By zeroing in on empathy, kindness, and service, Character Strong’s servant leadership model of social emotional learning and character development offers a powerful and necessary #FutureDriven approach to education. Indeed, in an ever changing, unstable world filled with technology, fear, and a me-first mentality, empathy and kindness seem to be a revelatory anecdote to hate.
Our Award Winning Culture (AWC) Podcast students are some of our strongest leaders at Wildcat Nation. These students lead daily efforts in making kindness normal at Enterprise Middle School and help set the standard for positive school culture. Frankly, in 18 years of education, some of my brightest, most talented high character leaders are found in my current AWC podcast group.
As we began training and practicing podcast techniques and strategies this past summer, empathy was obviously a key skill we focused on. Because we knew empathy would play a key role in interviewing authors, speakers, athletes, and other passionate leadership experts around the world, we isolated this skill with some additional practice. Thankfully, we’re a Character Strong school, so these students are used to receiving regular teaching on these soft skills in weekly Advisory time and additionally, in their leadership classes. Since implementing Character Strong, 95% of staff surveyed said they have observed students demonstrate greater empathy towards one another.
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Just to give you an idea on the skill level that we’re working with, specifically in our AWC podcast crew, here’s an example of a random act of kindness that one of them created this fall. One of my 7th grade leadership podcast students came up with an incredible idea this summer. He arranged to put a handwritten note, Wildcat Nation info, and candy into every incoming 6th grade student’s locker, before the year started...as a sort of...welcome to Wildcat Nation! You can just imagine the gleeful SURPRISE that these students had while struggling to learn how to open their middle school locker for the first time, on a sweaty August day, only to discover, an ENCHANTINGLY thoughtful surprise inside. Parents were overcome with joy! And it wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t our leadership teachers’ or another adult educator’s idea. As we all know, often times the best demonstrations of kindness and empathy come from the students themselves.
But one of our podcast students took the locker note idea to EPIC proportion! Below you’ll find a note that a 7th grade student put into her old 6th grade locker with the statement: “If you need someone to talk to my locker # is…” The ability for this student to imagine how it felt to be an incoming 6th grader: MAGICAL! The two students (who are in VERY different social circles) later connected and have maintained their connection throughout the year. As a reference point, when I put this out on social media, nearly 100,000 saw this post. Many educators, parents, and even students replying with how they wanted to do something similar in their own schools.
Let me assure you this was not an assignment, or adult coerced. In fact, this only came to adult attention after the 6th grade student reported to her teacher that “I’ve just experienced the most wonderful thing...look at this note I got in my locker.” But empathy at Wildcat Nation isn’t just happening from our leadership students. Check out what graffiti looks like here:
This is a piece of toilet paper that was left in a stall for another student to find. Upon seeing this item last year, Dr. Borba commented on our social media page: “just caught your bathroom graffiti, LOVE IT! You’re doing amazing stuff in creating an empathetic culture.” [Coming full circle we’re excited to have had Dr. Borba on a recent episode of AWC, which will come out soon].
As we suspected, our podcast students excelled at this form of communication during face to face practice and then transferred these skills to live, in person interviews almost immediately. They were adroit at making connections, reflecting feelings, paraphrasing and restating answers, tracking, and ultimately applying this in their debrief sessions, at the end of each podcast.
However, it also became clear that there was a sizable difference in empathy skill set between in person interviews and phone interviews. While our students were exceptional face to face, their empathy ‘superpowers’ seemed to suddenly be muted or neutralized. They struggled with recall, validation of perspective, they had fewer reactions to funny comments or touching stories over phone calls. Their responses seem much more limited to things like: “thanks for sharing” “that’s great” “awesome” vs. a more meaty and personalized demonstration of understanding that they executed face to face.
Some clarity became evident when we moved toward some video Skype and/or Zoom session podcasts. Suddenly, students could visually connect with the person they were talking to, in a way that traditional phone, doesn’t allow. While Skype and Zoom didn’t allow for the FULL human experience; empathy and connection were MUCH more on par with this podcast group’s typical arsenal of relationship skills.
One exception to the empathy deficit during phone calls was observed in an interview with John Push Gaines. Ironically, our students had a prior experience and connection with Gaines dating back to last spring at a SERVUS conference. [SERVUS is Washington State’s premier student leadership conference. Each year, over 5000 students and educators around the state gather to learn from leadership experts]. Their responses, tracking, and even comfort level seemed as if Gaines was in the room with them.
This really got me thinking...
It makes sense that a previous connection might enhance their ability to empathize with an individual. In other words, if I know a person already, then I tend to need less nonverbals than I might otherwise require for understanding. If we already have a relationship (of some sort) it’s easier to overcome the inability to see each other and still be able to demonstrate effective empathy. It’s probably why we do much better on social media, email, or phone with friends or family, than we do with someone we do NOT know well. Have you ever noticed that you’re better at recognizing tone over email from a loved one than from a stranger? How often do we misinterpret things over text with friends and family? Imagine how much MORE pronounced our miscommunications would be, while texting with perfect strangers.
This difference in empathy I’ve started referring to as: Visual Empathy Bias (VEB). I define VEB as a decrease in human connection and understanding due to the inability to visually pick up facial and other nonverbal cues.
Upon cursory literature review, while VEB does not surface specifically as an area of previous research, there are some indications that this might be something to explore. For instance, I was curious if visually impaired people struggle with empathy. Additionally, how does their brain encode verbal information? The short answer is: there are no differences.
Marina Bedny, a John Hopkins University brain scientist and fellow researcher Jorie Koster-Hale and Rebecca Saxedid from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Science completed an interesting study back in 2014. They found that people who were born visually impaired used neural empathy to understand situations that others might see. Researchers split participants into two groups (Sighted and Non-sighted) and then read them emotional stories (both positive and negative) that would either require a visual knowledge (seeing someone do something) or an auditory knowledge (a person listens to a telephone message). Participants listened to emotional stories in which sight would normally play a strong role in understanding. (I.E seeing a romantic partner from a distance get into another person’s car). Additionally, they explored whether the blind participants would make the same inferences that a sighted person would make if the story were more fuzzy (strange person’s car, dark outside and hard to see, far away, etc.) Through, fMRI neural responses they determined that visually impaired people and sighted people both use intuitive theory to empathize with others. Indeed, they found no significant differences in how the brain encodes the different combinations of stories told for the sighted or blind participants.
Intuitive theory takes a series of previous actions and responses not personally experienced and infers how a person would react. The findings that people who were born visually impaired are equally as good as sighted people with auditory empathy suggest other barriers to empathy may be at play. Although further research in how recently blind people fair in empathy studies (vs. participants who were born blind) might be illuminating to see if there are experience differences that impact our ability to empathize with folks we can’t see. In other words, have visually impaired folks picked up intuitive empathy skills that sighted folks don’t naturally possess? Perhaps, sighted folks’ over reliance on visual and facial cues creates a VEB that requires more study.
Regardless, how can we more effectively teach students to transfer empathy skills toward non-visual circumstances? The implications are plentiful to this text, e-mail, social media laden world…
My call to action goes out to all our researchers, scientist, and educators. It’s clear to me in a short period of time that the “empathy gap” that Borba so eloquently shares in her book may be further pronounced in visual vs. non visual setting (as seen in our podcast example). We’ve observed significant improvement over time with our students ability to connect, relate and ultimately empathize with guests over the phone. However, given the amount of regular practice that this podcast group is receiving with non visual empathy (phone calls) AND the previously strong empathy skills (as demonstrated in regular leadership/advisory observable settings through their Character Strong work) they already possessed, I worry that many of our non leadership students may need MUCH MORE non-visual empathy training to create transferable technological empathy (I.E practice applying empathy to phone, text, and/or social media experiences). While increased human to human connection is essential and desirable, additionally these skills must be transferable to less personalized environments.
Furthermore, consider the fact that our school has an award winning culture for its Whole Child approach to Character, Excellence, and Community through Kindness, Service, and Empathy. When thinking about how much time and energy we’re spending to develop empathy successfully and still encountering struggles in non-visual settings, I’m left GRAVELY CONCERNED that schools who are NOT actively focusing (Tier 1, whole school capacity) advisory type commitment to empathy are SIGNIFICANTLY handicapping students’ future success to navigate this online and non-visual world. Whole Child work is imperative to life preparation. And the experts agree...
Andrew Sokatch, is the Founding Research Director at the Character Lab with Angela Duckworth. Sokatch’s previous experience includes teaching elementary, middle school, college, and graduate school students, and spending over a decade leading teacher quality research at Teach for America and The New Teacher Project. Sokatch says:
“end of the year test scores are the floor of what we need to expect from schools and we’re mistaking that floor, for the whole house.”
Dr. Clayton Cook, is the John and Nancy Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing at the University of Minnesota and Associate Professor in the School Psychology Program. Clay co-founded the School Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center at the University of Washington and is a core faculty member within the Institute of Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health at the University of Minnesota. In addition to his research, he consults with several school and community systems throughout the US to improve practices and outcomes for students to meet the demands of civic, work, and home life. Dr. Cook says that:
“if we only focus on academics then we’re only giving students 30-50% of what they need to be successful after high school.”
Here’s a few reflections to ask YOURSELF:
**How might we embed teaching empathy into the daily fabric of our schools?
**What non-visual empathy practice are we currently giving our students to offset potential VEB?
**What feedback or checkpoints do we have in place to ensure high character behavior online or other non face to face/visual settings?
**How can we incorporate Borba’s 9 Empathy Habits into education?
**Is our current Social Emotional or Character Program effectively targeting empathy? And how do we know?
**What systemic changes are needed to make Whole Child education a priority?
**Who are the key players and/or stakeholders to help build school, district, and political capital to enfuse Whole Child work?
**What types of experiential or project based empathy focused learning opportunities can we create for our students?
**How might we empower student leaders in our school-wide work with empathy?
**How will we partner with parents to reinforce our educational efforts at home?
**What barriers do you encounter or forsee encountering in a pursuit of empathy implementation?
**What training do educators need to confidently and effectively implement a Whole Child approach?
If we’ve learned anything from incredible landmark educational books like “The Innovator's Mindset”, “Future Driven”, and “Code Breakers”...it’s that we can’t afford to continue to teach to the world we used to live in or EVEN the world we currently live in. We must start educating students for the FUTURE. A failure to prepare kids for the world that they’ll experience...is simply an ABOMINATION.
PERHAPS...CLOSE YOUR EYES AND PUT YOURSELF IN YOUR STUDENTS’ SHOES, FOR A MOMENT...DON’T KIDS DESERVE IT!
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 18 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Recently, Hans launched his own blog about School Culture and this fall rolled out a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture: Hosted by Wildcat Nation, which can be subscribed, listened or reviewed on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and Libsyn. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Hans on twitter @hansappel094. Follow AWC on twitter at @awculture or Instagram @awardwinningculture. Wildcat Nation at @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emscounseling #WildcatNation #AwardWinningCulture
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.