Blog post by: Dr. Shweta Verma*
And I feel Ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.
– 10 year old August , In Book: Wonder. By R.J. Palacio
How would teachers and school create an environment for every child to feel ordinary? ORDINARY– like every child who feels OK, who feels belonged, who has friends, who plays, and does much more than fitting into people’s stereotypes?
The answer: Teach empathy in school while making sure that teachers not only engage children in empathy activities but also model empathy themselves. The most important aspect to remember: Teaching and learning empathy is not about giving a list or steps of instructions. It is about creating experiences and opportunities for empathy in education. How? Here are some ways do so.
- Help Children Imagine How Others Feel in Different Situations
This can be done through stories and conversations that children bring themselves to the classroom. Another way could be to use books such as ‘Mud Boy’ by Sarah Siggs and Amy Crosby. ‘The Mud’ here is a metaphor for Sam’s experiences of bullying and exclusion. This illustrated book presents bullying in an experiential way, how it feels like in the beginning, how it impacts, and what can be done when one experiences it. The most important thing in story sharing by teachers is: not to focus on ‘moral of the story’ at the end. Remember that children relate to the story in their own way and each might find different parts or characters fascinating. Krishna Kumar (2000, P. 20), also points: “The moral value of a story — if a story has one — has no special interest for children; for them the story itself is the important thing. A teacher who asks them about moral value spoils the achievement of her own work.”
- Modeling Empathic Listening
Parents and teachers should create space for all these kinds of expressions by:
-Ensuring space for children to say the whole thing.
-Being genuinely interested in what the child wants to communicate.
-Not contradicting everything that child says.
-Responding with greater interest and focus than just saying ‘good!’
-Asking for more information
-If required, helping the child see other aspects of the topic they share.
-Remembering that child may be sharing with the objective of expressing about their life and not for your judgments about their life.
3.Exploring and Reading Books that introduce children to diversity, including everyday issue that some children experience or live with. For example, All cats have Asperger Syndrome [By Kathy Hoopman] is a great books to normalize thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences of being neuro-divergent.
4.Community Building in Classroom
- Acceptance of diversity while strengthening community in classroom is the key. To do this effectively, teachers should also enhance their skills and perspectives on working with groups and communities. These skills would come handy when using group work to inculcate team-work, empathic listening, and a sense of being a part of the same community while being different. If one is not sure where to begin for up skilling, check:
-Skill Training for Social Workers- A Manual , by Sudha Datar, Ruma Bawikar, Geeta Rao, Nagmani Rao, and Ujwala Masdekar.
-Using Groupwork, by Mark Doel
5.Use Talk & Communication as a Resource
Instead of asking children to remain quiet all the time, teachers should become empathic listeners, and ensure that children feel heard, and believe that they can talk, communicate, and express. Krishna Kumar (2000) considers communication with and between children to be one of the biggest resources available free-of-cost! He sates (2000, p. 13), “For young children of pre or primary school age, talk is a basic means of learning and consolidating their learning. A school where little children cannot talk with freedom is a useless school.”
Use activities to use talk and communication as a resource. For example, [a modified version of what Krishna Kumar shares in his book, p. 25]
What Did You See and Hear?
- Stage 1: Ask one child to go out of the room, see what is happening outside, and tell the class what he saw. For instance, he might see two children walking, and a teacher standing.
- Stage 2: Now rest of the children, preferably sitting in a circle, will ask him questions, one by one, and one question per child. For instance, a child may ask: ‘What was teacher doing?’. The child may reply, ‘standing with a few copies and talking to a child.’
- Stage 3: The next round starts with child B. Ask her to see something that the earlier child had not seen. When she comes back, ask children to come up with new questions-not the ones they have already asked.
Such activities help children focus on each other and practice genuine curiosity. Krishna Kumar (2000) explains how young children use language to direct one’s own activities (like a running commentary to self), draw attention of others to their needs, to play, to represent things and experiences (and hence also learn to accept these at emotional level), associate themselves with story characters or objects and talk as them, share their anticipations, to inquire and find logic behind everything that happens around them. Remember this to really listen to children when they communicate, instead of asking them to remain quiet all the time.
Empathy is an everyday part of life and experience. To help children learn and practice empathy, the environment itself needs to undergo change. Everyone coming in contact with children influences their experience of the world. Teachers and Schools are undoubtedly an important part of building a world that is empathic and diversity respecting. Take your steps today to build such a world, right from your classrooms!
About Ginny’s Planet:
Ginny’s Planet is a social enterprise Co-founded by Dr. Shweta Verma in 2019. The brand runs on the core value of helping our teachers and parents to teach their children to become independent, smart and better leaders by equipping them with a deep understanding of empathy, diversity, disability and inclusion. Dr. Shweta and the team design events, workshops and products to help guardians & schools to develop kids’ mindset and evolve as adaptive and flexible human beings. They work with schools to organise workshops for children and teachers.
*Dr. Shweta Verma: CEO of Ginny’s Planet. She is a social work professional with experience in disability rights & mental health field. She has led several workshops with children and NGO workers on empathy, diversity, and disability.