“I teach sixth grade in an elementary school in Palm Coast, F.L. I want my students to step outside their boxes and meet people that may appear different than they are, but actually share the same hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, etc. I also want them to be comfortable initiating and taking part in difficult conversations.”
“Over the last few weeks, the kiddos have had such an amazing time opening their eyes to their own identities and that of their classmates. We also met our friends in Mobile, [Alabama,] which was great! We are all looking forward to what’s to come.”
These reflections are from teachers who participated in Empathy Across the USA, an initiative by Empatico that connects elementary school classrooms in the United States through an online platform. This program gives children in third through fifth grade opportunities for contact across racial and socioeconomic differences, including activities to support live and asynchronous dialogue and collaboration with other classrooms. The program aims to build empathy and understanding, and empower students to collaborate to take compassionate, informed action on local issues that affect their communities.
We’re living in a time of social divisions, culture wars, and intolerance. The Empathy Across the USA program can teach us valuable insights about how to help children practice empathy and overcome their differences, so we can build a cohesive society that’s able to confront today’s global problems.
Overcoming prejudice with connection
Researchers have found that in-group love—favoritism for people who belong to our own group—emerges in preschoolers and can spur biases in favor of their group throughout childhood, whether that group is their team or their race or ethnicity. What’s more, out-group hate—dislike for people who are outside of our own group—emerges after the age of six and can further intensify these biases.
While out-group hate can lead to prejudice and discrimination, that’s not inevitable. Making friends outside of our group plays a significant role in reducing stereotypes and conflict. But a major barrier to positive relationships between different groups is that we often don’t venture beyond our bubbles and, in turn, don’t have opportunities to meet with and nurture friendships with each other.
One of the important ways to reduce prejudice is for people from diverse identities and lived experiences simply to be in contact with one another.
Researcher Gordon Allport described four keys to interactions that can help break down negative biases and promote positive attitudes across groups of people. First, both groups need to have equal status, rather than one group having greater power over the other. Second, the meeting needs to foster a sense of cooperation so that the groups are working together on something. Third, the groups need to come together with shared goals that everyone values. And, finally, contact between groups needs to have support from leaders or institutions.
So how can we facilitate these kinds of positive interactions for kids?
The power of virtual exchange
Virtual exchanges are an innovative way to help children and youth move beyond their bubbles and connect across cultures and countries using technology. They involve students in two different parts of the country or world meeting online. Virtual exchanges are often facilitated by teachers, with activities that highlight children’s similarities and ways they can work together on common aims. In this way, the essential, research-backed ingredients for positive contact are in place.
Empatico, one organization on the vanguard of virtual exchange, is a free video-meeting technology platform that supports educators who teach K–12 students around the world to virtually connect their classrooms together, and Empathy Across the USA is one of their many global initiatives.
Through a series of four preparation sessions that take place in individual classrooms, alternating with four collaborative virtual exchange sessions, caregivers and teachers guide children along the following experiences in Empathy Across the USA.
Getting to know yourself and each other. Children focus on cultivating self-awareness, and caregivers and educators facilitate conversations and reflections about identity.
For example, children complete cultural identity trees to foster a greater understanding of their identity. This art project involves reflecting on and representing different parts of their identity—like major accomplishments, hopes and dreams, strengths, and values—on different parts of a tree. For example, on their tree’s roots, they can include their name, where they come from, their city or town, and important family or community traditions and customs. Children are invited to share their cultural identity trees with each other and are guided to reflect on the experience of sharing, including what they found interesting or surprising that they discovered about someone else.
Learning about others’ lived experiences. Children share with each other, focusing on exchanging their perspectives and engaging in compassionate listening. Meanwhile, children are guided to find commonalities and navigate any conflicting perspectives. For example, children learn how to identify and challenge any preconceived notions about each other and discuss race and ethnicity in a way that is kind and respectful. They also learn how to practice mindfulness to help decrease any feelings of anxiety that arise in anticipation of interacting with people they’re not yet familiar with.
They also are invited to participate in structured conversations in which students ask each other questions—about things that bring them joy or something that they dream of doing, for example—that help them feel closer and understand each other’s perspectives. Children also learn about one another’s lived experiences by sharing guiding strengths and values, like kindness and honesty, that they try to embody, and personal experiences in which they developed or practiced these strengths and values.
Identifying a project or area to explore together. Children focus on collaboration and critical thinking as they select a project they might want to work on together, and caregivers and educators help them understand their strengths and limitations. For example, students can create artwork to raise awareness about an issue experienced in their local community, and to share their feelings about racial injustice.
While working on these projects, they reflect on and share about their own and others’ experiences in their communities, including ways they have taken compassionate, informed, and collaborative action in the past.
Taking positive, compassionate action. Finally, children put their empathy and compassion into action and work toward common goals during the culminating exchange. For example, one classroom in New Hartford, New York, described their project:
Together we analyzed ways to solve [homelessness], thought about how we could take accountability as a community and show action/allyship. We worked independent of our partner class as well as with our partner class and were able to have a meeting of the minds. It was really powerful and all students played an important part in the overall process. The Empatico virtual exchanges allowed the students to delve into identifying areas in our community that needed help and become problem solvers. It created a focus for our students and made them realize the importance of being organized. We ended up donating clothing to the rescue mission and books to the local library and Thea Bowman House. We also were able to learn about another school seven hours away from us in the D.C. area and their needs and were able to see the similarities and differences between our communities/neighborhoods/schools. This fostered curiosity and sparked empathy.
Empathy Across the USA aims to nurture students’ empathy in three areas. First, emotional empathy involves our ability to experience the feelings of others. Cognitive empathy encompasses our capacity to understand another person’s perspective. Finally, behavioral empathy describes our motivation to act in support of others. At the same time, the program helps students develop these types of empathy toward themselves, toward others, and toward groups who are different from their own.
A formal evaluation of the Empathy Across the USA program revealed that students grew in their capacity to notice racial discrimination and take compassionate action in response, according to teachers’ observations. Teachers also noticed that their students increasingly recognized that people can grow and act as agents of change. What’s more, teachers also reported gains in their own self-growth as a result of training for and using the materials from the program.
Connecting tomorrow’s students
With all the benefits that are possible when children from different backgrounds are in contact with each other, how do we support further virtual exchange programs in schools?
A 2022 study of the Empathy Across the USA program by researcher Laura Engel and her colleagues suggests that virtual exchange programs are often spearheaded by individual teachers who become “champions.”
“Shifting the emphasis from individual champions toward school- and district-wide support would enable not only greater participation in [virtual exchange] programming but also widen the sphere of its benefits from the individual to the system level,” explain Engel and her colleagues. “Schools interested in increasing access to [virtual exchange] programs for more diverse populations and facilitating conversations across racial difference[s] should concentrate their efforts on system-wide approaches rather than individual teacher recruitment.”
In other words, if we want to educate a generation of compassionate global citizens, schools and districts have to decide that this is a priority and support teachers who want to provide these rich, mind-expanding opportunities for their students.