The Huffington Post: The Most Needed School Supply Everyone Can Bring: Empathy

As educators, with another new school year dawning upon us, we have to meet all children where they are. And honestly, they don’t all come to us with the skill of empathy set firmly in place. There is no doubt that children who are empathetic perform better in school, within social situations, and even into adulthood, whether in their careers, or raising their own families, or both. But some kids, for any combination of reasons, come to us without that skill. They may bring bags full of much-needed school supplies on the first day, but may be lacking the most basic and important school supply of all: empathy. And it’s our duty to teach them, for the betterment of humanity. It takes a village, right?

But how? How do we teach empathy to kids – or even teenagers – who have yet to learn this crucial skill? Well, the hopeful news is that the good folks at Kleenex, in partnership with some key members of The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have figured out one simple way.

Lori Nathanson, Ph.D., and Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. both of The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, conducted a study on 5th grade students nearing the end of their elementary career. The study shed light on the concept of widespread, mutual anxiety, and feelings of being “the only one,” despite heaps of literature and media outlets that portray back-to-school season as a happy, positive time of new supplies and fresh starts. Drs. Nathanson and Tominey began their study, the “Commitment to Care” social experiment with the hypothesis that if students were given the space to talk about their emotions, and the tools to share and show empathy (in this case, they created “Kleenex Care Kits”), then the students would feel less alone and more confident about entering middle school. They were absolutely right.

They hosted a workshop sponsored by Kleenex brand for a group of 5thgrade students during their last week of elementary school, about to enter middle school. Before their first workshop, students were able to compile a list of 54 unique and mixed emotions that they were experiencing about entering middle school. Additionally, 87% of them reported feeling worry (a little or a lot) and 76% experienced stress about entering middle school. Specifically, their highest concerns were what adults might imagine: getting to class on time, getting lost in a new school, and receiving bad grades. Just behind that, though, were significant worries about not fitting in with new classmates, and being judged by others.

During the workshop, the students were taught pro-social strategies. One of those pro-social strategies was having the students make “Kleenex Care Kits.” They were given kits that included Kleenex® Slim Wallets and custom sticker wrappings where they could write and share a message with someone in their life. They were given no guidelines as to whom they should give them, or how many they could give out. As one might assume, students started out sharing fun messages with those they already knew well or were already friends with. But what Drs. Nathanson and Tominey found was that the longer the experiment went on, the more empathy the students showed, by giving Kleenex Care Kits to teachers, and even extending them out to kids they didn’t know as well. They shared messages that conveyed words of hope, from “you did it!” to “you’re not alone.” The experimenters were able to watch the kids have these amazing moments of discovery, finding who else they could reach out to next.

After the workshop, students reported feeling more excited, confident, happy, and “chill” about entering middle school. An extraordinary 77% of participants shared that the simple act of making Kleenex Care Kits made something change for the better. It helped to start conversations about the feelings they were all experiencing regarding middle school. They felt less alone about their mixed feelings related to starting middle school, and additionally, making the Kleenex Care Kits taught them new strategies to manage their concerns about middle school. They learned to take their frustrations and concerns, label them, talk about them, share them, and connect with them. Ultimately, they learned how to show empathy in a constructive and meaningful way.