Each Saturday morning (well, most Saturday mornings), I put my hair in a ponytail, grab a cup of coffee and head for my “office,” by which I mean the kitchen table. While my kids eat toast and scrambled eggs, I meet online with a group of educators for #leadupchat to swap ideas, hear success stories and to get inspired all over again for the week ahead. This week’s topic was the teaching of empathy, discussing the benefits and the obstacles of implementing social emotional learning in the classroom.
I first encountered the idea of “EI” or Emotional Intelligence over ten years ago now when I pulled into the parking lot of Anansi Charter School to begin my student teaching. I walked into the 1st grade classroom on my first day of work and there was this lady with short hair and glasses reading very seriously to the children a story about the “Rainbow Kids” – this, I learned, was “The EQ Lady” also known as Dr. Amy McConnell Franklin. She quickly became both a mentor and, over the years, a dear friend. Her work on the behalf of the students and youth of New Mexico in advocating for Social Emotional Learning in the schools and partnering with educators throughout the state is matched only by her continued commitment SEL as a pathway for global change.
The school itself gets its name from the tales of Anansi the Spider, a trickster figure from African and Caribbean folklore. In one such story, Anansi the Spider is credited with bringing stories from Nyame the Sky-God down to the children and people of Earth. And one of the first things that I learned from Amy was that one of the ways we learn empathy – how we learn to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and to see through their eyes – is through stories.
I was incredibly lucky as an emerging educator that I stumbled upon this remarkable person and a school community that was deeply committed to the teaching of EI as a key component of their early childhood curriculum. One of the most promising aspects of EI is its emphasis on choice and change – the radical notion that naming emotions, recognizing patterns and increasing empathy are teachable, learnable skills, like addition facts or consonant sounds. In fact, there is growing evidence to suggest that these social-emotional skills may be correlated even more strongly than academic ones to general happiness and lifelong success.
One of the side effects of traumatic events and early childhood violence is that growing up against this background literally robs children of vocabulary. Studies done on community violence in Chicago neighbors show that students assessed within a week of a neighborhood homicide event demonstrated impaired attention and lower impulse control on cognitive assessments when compared to students from the same neighborhood assessed at a different time (Sharkey, 2010). The work of Elaine Scarry reminds us that the experience of pain – and I would extend that here to also include the close, continual proximity to violence – “does not only resist language but actively destroys it” (1987, p. 6).
By creating a scalable and replicable early childhood program that focuses on building social-emotional and peace-building skills such as emotional literacy (being able to identify and name a range of emotions), identifying patterns and strengthening empathetic response, Little Ripples works to break patterns of loss and violence by replacing them with learned hope and optimism. Their curriculum integrates EI components with math and linguistic literacy to not only help children heal from trauma, but to give them new skills to build upon. This is how lasting radical change is made.
One of my favorite times is when I pick my son up from school. During the car ride home, I get to hear about all about his day, learning more and more about what is important in his world. It is time that I highly value with my son. The effects of Little Ripples’ social emotional learning start with the children and their teachers, but are already spreading to the children’s families. The changes in her daughter Saleyma, according to her mother Mariyam, are already profound: Mariyam reports that her daughter is more verbal, telling stories and singing songs at home that she has learned at school. She chats about things that happened at school. The children are telling their own stories now.
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