Nonprofit helps educators teach empathy
An important component to stop bullying
by Karen Anderson
Lack of empathy, of which bullying is the most violent expression,
is a critical issue facing our youth today. To many educators, the
problem has almost taken on a life of its own, and surfaces in the
classrooms, hallways and playgrounds in the form of students being
mean to each other.
University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research analyzed 72
studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between
1979 and 2009. Their report shows today's college students are about
40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades
Out of this concern, and the near loss of a teen to suicide, youth
advocate, Betty Hoeffner, president of the youth self-esteem and
empathy-building nonprofit, Hey U.G.L.Y. - Unique Gifted Lovable You
- partnered with educators and curriculum writers to develop social
and empathy learning programs geared for students aged 9 to 19.
Called Empathy Learning Activity Plans (ELAPs) the nonprofit built
in mandated learning standards in areas such as math, English,
health and social studies to help teachers easily incorporate into
their existing curriculums.
Teaching empathy is an important component in helping children
survive and thrive today. The State of Illinois, recognizing a
missing cog in the education wheel, now actually requires all school
districts to teach social and emotional skills as part of their
curriculum. In particular, positive self-esteem and empathy are key
components of a healthy self image, and the best safeguard against
bullying behavior and disrupted classrooms.
"It's all about helping teen and tweens see their own worth and that
of their fellow human," explained Hoeffner who recalls her favorite
quote from To Kill A Mockingbird where Atticus Finch tells his
child, "You never really understand a person until you consider
things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin
and walk around in it."
Most educators agree that central to effectively shifting behaviors
is the inclusion of experiential activities where students can,
almost literally, "climb inside another's skin." ELAPs each
incorporate some facet of experiential learning to engage tweens and
teens in ways that comfortably address even uncomfortable issues.
For example, in one ELAP students get in touch with how it feels to
be negatively judged. They share their experiences in a peer
learning environment and learn to recognize when they are negatively
judging others and, most importantly themselves (self bullying).
They are taught how to how to cancel out the negative judgments and
replace them with positives. Reports from students surveyed six
weeks after the lesson show 93% now recognize when they are having
negative judgments against themselves and others; 83% state they
learned how to cancel out negative judgments and replace them with
positive thoughts. 58% indicate that no one has bullied them.
Current research has been conducted by Roger Weissberg, professor of
psychology at the University of Illinois (Chicago) and president of
the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning based
at the University of Illinois, a non-profit that promotes the
benefits of acquiring social and emotional abilities from preschool
through high school. He and his colleagues have identified that such
programs also influence academic performance. They recently
completed an analysis of 300 scientific studies and reached two
important conclusions: First, students enrolled in [social and
emotional learning] empathy teaching programs scored at least 10
percentage points higher on achievement test than peers who weren't.
Second, discipline problems were cut in half.
According to Weissberg, "Some teachers may be skeptical [about
social and emotional learning] at first but they are won over when
their students learn more, are more engaged and better problem
Dr. Sue Bryant, Principal of St. Stanislaus Kostka School believes
ELAPs are more impactful on teens and tweens because "they work in
two very different areas of learning: academic understanding and
emotional experience. For the learning to go deeper it is necessary
that the learning actually shape behavior. ELAPs create an emotional
experience, an 'aha moment', for the learner, and then records the
feeling in some way. Students leave the learning setting with new
emotional understanding about what it means to live in a successful
In addition, educators are seeking to develop well-rounded, happy
children who grow up to be productive members of society. It is
generally agreed that self-esteem and good social skills contribute
positively to that development and equip children to not fall prey
"ELAPs give teens the tools they need to build self-esteem by
helping them look at themselves - and others - with compassion and
tolerance, explains Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, M.S.W., LCSW, a
psychotherapist who has worked with adolescent girls and young women
for over twenty years. "This effective and innovative program will
make a difference in students' lives and in the communities in which
Recording artist, Crystal Bowersox agrees. On CNN's AC360 Special on
Bullying she said: "Empathy is such an important quality for us to
have and it carries through your entire life. If you teach your
children tolerance, acceptance and the ability to empathize it's
such an important thing to do."
For more information about ELAPS (Empathy Learning Activity Plans)
Read more news about Hey U.G.L.Y.