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Lewis-Palmer Middle School creates new program to explore virtues of empathy

December 8, 2016 Updated: December 8, 2016 at 10:55 pm
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A group of counselors and teachers at Lewis-Palmer Middle School in Monument has come up with a new approach that they think really works to help students not hurt themselves or others.

The crux: Lift that childhood veil of self-centeredness to get an inkling of what it's like to be someone else, especially someone who's having a rougher go of it.

"Studies show that empathy - to walk in another's shoes to experience how they live, feel and be - is a skill our students and society as a whole is lacking," said middle school counselor Jennicca Mabe, one of three counselors and two teachers who developed "Path2Empathy."

The program was piloted last year for Lewis-Palmer Middle School's 840 students and expanded this year to include elementary school students in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument. Research on its effectiveness also is underway.

The goal is to prevent disconcerting behaviors, including suicide, using positive messages.

"Other anti-bullying programs are about don't do this or that. Instead of 'No, no, no,' it's how to treat each other and yourself, and that gets kids looking at someone else's point of view," said Amy Sienkowski, an eighth grade counselor and another of the creators.

Seeing the world through the eyes of others fosters personal growth because it takes the focus off one's-self and contributes to a greater cause, organizers say.

"One of the most beautiful things about empathy is that it can be practiced by and on any human being," Mabe writes in a blog about the program. "You can be any gender, political party, race, religion, socioeconomic status, age, walking on the moon or on the ocean floor, and be a carrier and a receiver of empathy."

Students get it.

Tyler Charcier, 12, likes learning about how other people feel. It's easier to understand them then, he said.

"I didn't know how to feel the same as other people," Tyler said.

But he's looking at the world differently now.

"Maybe if your friend is having a hard time with math, you can relate and say you're having a hard time, too."

Classmate Rachel Smith said she's grasped the difference between sympathy and empathy.

"Sympathy is you can feel bad but don't know what they're going through; empathy is you can feel what they're going through," she said.

Teaching students to practice the three pillars of the program - empathy, respect and gratitude - deflects such mindsets as aggression, depression, racism, victim status and entitlement in a preventive manner, organizers believe.

The traditional methods of identifying bullying and learning how to report it aren't the focus. In fact, the word "bullying" isn't part of the program's vernacular.

"We've gotten really good at labeling people as bully, victim, bystander," Mabe said, "and a lot of anti-bullying programs actually model the behavior."

Instead, Path2Empathy is packed with 21st century experiential learning activities. Each grade level has four lessons that include challenges. Some students took a "Third World Challenge," for example, eating beans and rice, sleeping on the floor, taking cold showers, carrying jugs of water, forgoing technology and making other sacrifices for one week.

Practicing a more austere way of life becomes the catalyst for truly knowing what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, Mabe said.

"Unless they experience empathy, it's not going to resonate," she said.

Students also learn coping skills for how to handle stress and how to respect themselves first - the starting point for empathy - on the path to developing gratitude for their lives and what they have.

Being grateful blocks shame and guilt, Mabe said, and allows students to move toward embracing empathy.

Students practice listening closely to others, being kind, disagreeing with dignity, finding something to respect in every person, being available for others, being humble and imagining being in their shoes.

The approach fosters a sense of pride and self-worth, said Lewis-Palmer Middle School Principal Seann O'Connor.

"We want to empower students to move from a 'bystander' mentality to an 'upstander' mentality," he said. "The surrounding students, or witnesses, are often an important factor in the vast majority of bullying situations. We can change that dynamic with this program."

Best of all, it's a homegrown approach to address what's become a widespread problem among children nationwide, O'Connor said.

"It's for us by us. It really gives us a chance to make a positive difference and foster a positive school culture," he said.

The website, path2empathy.com, explains the idea, and a blog features personal stories of paths to empathy.

The creators also have adapted the concept to a corporate training format.

"I like how it frames things in the positive and puts that control on us as individuals," said seventh grade language arts teacher Beth Claycomb.

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