Louisville's Experiment: Can Teaching Empathy Boost Math Scores?

By Thomas, Wendi C. | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

Louisville's Experiment: Can Teaching Empathy Boost Math Scores?


Thomas, Wendi C., The Christian Science Monitor


At Cane Run Elementary School, ringing bells mark more than the start of the school day.

For teachers Meghann Clem and Christine "Shay" Johnson, the sound of a chime begins another 50-minute lesson to teach students compassion, empathy, mindfulness, and resilience. These so-called soft skills, research suggests and educators believe, will translate into success inside and outside of school.

It's all part of the Compassionate Schools Project (CSP), an ambitious $11 million, six-year experiment in social and emotional learning in Kentucky's Jefferson County Public Schools.

"We're going to really try to keep our brains focused on the sound of the bell," says Ms. Clem to a room of kindergartners sitting cross-legged on mats. "And when you can't hear the bell anymore, I want you to look up and show me those beautiful smiles."

Clem strikes a small wooden mallet against a metal chime and waits. Seconds pass in silence as, one by one, students look up, grinning.

Except for Jeremiah, whose forehead was touching the floor. He was fast asleep.

Clem guided his classmates to the next exercise - stomping around the room as if they were climbing up a mountain - and then stopped by Jeremiah's mat.

She jostled his shoulder gently. Did he want to climb the mountain? He shook his head. Clem steered him to a mat in the corner, where he slept soundly for the rest of the class.

"Normally, I would be like, 'You need to wake up, you need to sit up, and you need to listen to me," says Clem, who has taught elementary school for 12 years. "Instead, I'm like, he needs to rest. In that moment, that's compassion for Jeremiah. He didn't need to walk around and do the mountain. He needed to rest."

It's too soon to say whether this compassion curriculum will translate into academic gains or fewer behavior problems. However, philanthropists were impressed enough by classroom visits to donate an additional $4.4 million to the project this week, boosting the total amount raised to date to $6.5 million. District and CSP officials announced the gifts in a press conference Wednesday morning.

Dr. Patrick Tolan, who directs the University of Virginia's Youth Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, which oversees CSP, says the time that elapses between a good idea and progressively larger rounds of testing to prove the idea works is usually 15 to 17 years. That's almost an entire generation.

The way to shrink the time from "bench to bedside," he says, is with a strictly implemented and evaluated program in a real-world setting.

Jefferson County Public Schools was a good fit, researchers found, with its racially and economically diverse student body, and mix of suburban and urban schools in and around Louisville. JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens was an enthusiastic supporter, and so were city leaders. The CSP experiment comes four years after Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher signed a resolution to add the city to an international coalition of "compassionate" cities committed to the values of selflessness, equity, justice, and respect.

The compassion curriculum, which aligns with state curriculum standards, will replace traditional physical education and practical living courses at 25 schools, while 25 other elementary schools will serve as comparison schools. Tolan hopes to see the same sort of positive outcomes found in other social and emotional learning (SEL) programs.

CSP officials point to a 2008 meta-analysis of 180 school-based SEL programs, which which showed an 11 to 17 percent increase in students' academic performance and had better problem solving and conflict resolution skills.

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found a positive correlation between "kindergarten social competence and future wellness." In other words, kindergartners who are empathetic and who can regulate their emotions were more likely to graduate from high school on time and less likely to use drugs. …

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