At Prospect Sierra Middle School, fifth graders, led by a trained facilitator, enjoy a year-long relationship with a baby and the family. Lessons about emotions, temperament, brain development, trust, and child safety and care are integral to the process. “I love Baby Bryn,” says one student. “Even when she cries, we feel sad for her and are curious to find out why she’s feeling that way.”
The activity is based on an award-winning, social-emotional learning curriculum, Roots of Empathy. Its Executive Director Mary Gordon, who tells children, “love grows brains,” was one of the speakers at a TEDx conference on teaching empathy that the school co-sponsored with the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center in 2011.
Another speaker at the event, Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, discussed how “RULER skills” help schools teach students to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions in order to create optimal learning environments. Today, class charters—signed by everyone—reflect how individuals at Prospect Sierra want to feel as part of their school community. Students also learn to approach literature by gaining deeper understanding of characters through their own experiences with empathy.
Science has shown that wiring our brains for greater empathy and love is powerful, and creating a healthy emotional climate is essential for deep learning, says Prospect Sierra Head Katherine Dinh. “Compassion may be the most important skill to teach in the 21st century. We need to better equip students to handle any kind of challenge that may come their way in the future.”