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How Can Our Middle School Incorporate The Teaching Of Empathy?

by A Middle School Mom

Our middle school just inherited a group of kids from the elementary school who are particularly cruel to each other. The middle school administrator wants to be proactive but I'm convinced that without incorporating the teaching of empathy, we'll get nowhere.

I say this because I have watched the same group of kids tormenting their peers for 5th through 8th grade. The parents are in denial--"They know their son does things like this," the principal told me after a recent incident.

I don't know how a school wakes up parents who have heard of multiple bullying incidents with their kids and are still in denial. But I truly believe that these kids are just working out their anxiety by picking on the vulnerable kids and are not aware of how bad it feels to be a victim.

Are there any programs we could work with? We've had character ed in place in all schools for years but clearly, we're not hitting the target. I say identifying core issues we value and having the kids make posters about respect does nothing!
One parent mentioned we should look into "restorative justice" where the victims speak up.

The bullying is mostly verbal, and I wonder if our school is just too timid about having victims step forward--or even bystanders step forward and talk about what it's like to see the same old gang of kids picking on yet another child with special needs, or an anxiety disorder, or who is quick to tears. I do think at least some victims would be brave enough to speak up.

I know my son, who was constantly picked on in elementary school, would speak up--he is very confident, and stands up for other kids (and is met with threats--which the bullies and their pals deny).

Any advice on teaching empathy to these middle schoolers? I'm glad our school is willing but it's so bad that I am not afraid for my own child but for kids who are quietly building up depression and anger. I really am concerned about safety.

--Middle school mom

Response from Dr. DeFoore

Hello, and thanks for telling your story here. I commend you and your school for trying to be proactive in your situation. As you know, serious problems can result from the type of bullying you describe.

I am not familiar with any programs to which I can refer you, that would guide you through setting up an empathy training program. I do think you're on track with that idea, however, and I'll try to help.

In this format, I can only offer general ideas. I would be willing to consult with your school, however, to assist in setting up a school-wide empathy training program.

Such a program would need to include the following

1) Full participation by all students. This would prevent the singling out of bullies and victims, but would of course include them. Bullies have often been victims themselves at times, and likewise those who are currently victims could become perpetrators if they are not helped.

2) The program would need to be simple and to the point. Role playing exercises for reflective listening training would be the foundational component, in which students express on of the basic emotions, "I feel sad (mad, scared) when..." Then their partner in the exercise woule simply repeat what they heard, saying, "What I hear you saying is, you feel..."

3) Beyond that, the next component would be actual conflict resolution skills, which would be adapted from the basic model you will find on this page.

4) Follow up and refresher programs would be needed periodically, to facilitate the incorporation of these skills into each student's repertoire.

The logistics and scheduling would be up to school administrators, of course.

Again, I commend you for being proactive. When schools are struck with tragedy, they implement programs out of necessity...and you have the opportunity to prevent that from happening in your school.

I wish you all the best in your continued efforts to help the students in your son's school.

My very best to you,

Dr. DeFoore

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