The Empathy Principle

Letting kids use their gifts to brighten the world

This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.

This is the final installment of a five-part series on principles that I believe are essential to creating a school culture that helps children thrive. I developed these principles to serve as the foundation for the charter school I founded, yet the principles are universal, based in robust theory and research from psychology and education. Today, we discuss the Empathy Principle, providing opportunities for students to use their gifts and talents to solve problems to make the world a better place.

I’m back! So happy to share probably my favorite principle with you today. After this, I’ll continue to post but probably not every week, as I’m trying to get the first draft of my book done before summer, and my writing mentor reminded me that that has priority (for now). Can’t wait to share some book excerpts with you all in the coming months….Oh, I have a special favor to ask of each of you too, so please read to the end.

Ok, time to jump into our 5th principle: Empathy

In Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do what Makes you Come Alive, Sirius XM host Jen Fulwiler talks about how she used her sense of humor, skills at computer programming, and love of talking to others to become a standup comedian. As a student, she studied computer programming, but it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She liked to entertain people. As she began following her “blue flame” (her unique gifts), her journey led her from blogging, to writing several successful books, to becoming a talk radio host. And then, as I mentioned, to standup comedy. Interestingly, she attributes part of her success to her technology skills, as she used spreadsheets with metrics detailing the strength of laughs her jokes received as well as the length of pauses between the laughs, to fine-tune her comedy routine.

Fulwiler was lucky—she was able to build on her interests in school in a major that is clearly valuable in the world. But what about other students, those who daydream, who doodle, who write poems, who read for hours, who wonder about ancient battles, or who gaze at ants on a sidewalk? And what about those who don’t know what they like to do, other than watch YouTube or play video games? School, with its traditional curriculum and standardized approach to instruction, cannot—and is not—reaching these students.

And it’s real pity. No, it’s a disservice to them…and to the entire country. Students who don’t see the purpose or value in what they are doing are just not going to be motivated to do it. Certainly not to do it well. Sadly, that is the state of many students in K12 schools these days. Not just because of the lack of nurture, challenge, autonomy, or interest as I mentioned in the previous posts, but also because of the lack of MEANING—why are they learning these things? It’s not enough to tell kids it’s because they need to know these skills for high school/college/work.

Kids want to know WHY they need to learn these things now. Which brings us to the Empathy Principle. Here, we focus on each child’s unique gifts and talents in the service of solving problems to help make the world a better place. All this learning means nothing if it doesn't add good to the world.

Let me tell you about a boy I knew in high school. Sandoval was bright, curious, and creative, yet he found no value in high school, and he had strong intrinsic motivation that he wouldn’t do things just because people told him to do them. He only wanted to do things that mattered. Although he made it to college, he soon dropped out because it seemed like the same thing as high school. I've never met someone that willing to following their own conscience so completely with regards to education. You might think that maybe he didn’t like learning things, but he did. He loved to learn. He taught himself to play classical guitar by practicing 8 hours a day every single day for an entire summer. And he became very, very good at it, learning just for the love of it, the desire to make music. There’s no room for folks like Sandoval in traditional schools, and so he's spent most of his life doing menial work, depriving the world of his talents and gifts, because of his lack of interest in schooling--because he didn't see the good it did.

When schools focus on building on kids’ strengths to make or do something that improves or adds to some area of life, it fills them with a sense of purpose and industry. Schooling then seems valuable and important, something that is helping them attain goals that are important to THEM. According to Erik Erikson, the key lifespan crisis of the school years is one of industry vs inferiority. Too many experiences of inferiority and too few experiences of industry will shape the entire trajectory of a child's life in a deeply harmful, even destructive way. To our nation’s shame, the main place kids’ learn inferiority is from their K12 school experiences.

Empathy taps into the innate desire humans have to help others, to be of service. A sign of healthy development in young children is their ability to understand that people have different perspectives than their own. In psych speak, we call it having a "theory of mind." This ability to take others' perspectives is related to the development of empathy which can be a feeling or an understanding of what someone is going through. The development of empathy is important to future success in one's career and one's relationships. Harnessing students’ talents and interests to solve problems that affect their community helps build empathy.

From another perspective, helping others or something larger than ourselves is a part of what makes our middle years meaningful, according to Erikson's lifespan theory of human development. I would argue that this is true for all humans--most have an innate need to help others (consider the research on mirror neurons that makes us feel what others are feeling, which motivates us to reduce their pain).

The Empathy Principal is a core part of Galileo School’s mission statement. Teachers at Galileo work to gently lead kids beyond their own natural egoism to a focus on the larger world. Interdisciplinary service-oriented projects are used to help students to channel their gifts towards service to others, to promote their own development and guide them into broader understanding of our common humanity. Fifth graders partner with kindergartners as book buddies. An elementary class built a bat box to help reduce the mosquito population around the retention pond. A group of students created pet toys and raised funds to help a local animal shelter. The pre-Vet program students provide grooming for classroom pets. These activities provide a deeper meaning to the curriculum and broaden their connections with the community.

The problems have to matter to students though. Just telling students to care about something isn’t the same as tapping into their existing empathy. What do students care about?

Why not ask them?

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

PS. To those of you who have read this far….Writing this newsletter has been a labor of love for me, and yet….it takes a lot of time, time that maybe I should be spending on my book. As long as it is of some value to others though, I want to keep offering it. So, it would mean so much to me—if you value or enjoy reading this—to take a second to “like” this post, or comment, or just reply back that you find it valuable.


I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?

Leave a comment


Get this newsletter delivered fresh (and free) to your inbox by subscribing below:


Let's stay connected. Together we can help make schools places where kids can thrive