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Empathy at All Ages and Stages

How Georgetown Day School is building a generation of changemakers.

By Lita Tandon

After getting her B.A. in psychology from Yale, Lita spent two years working with Teach For America in inner-city DC, focusing on early childhood education. Now, as a member of Ashoka's Social Financial Services team, Lita keeps finding herself attracted to the Empathy Initiative like a moth to a light. She is particularly interested in the intersection of education and business and how business thinking can be used in broader educational reform.

December 17, 2012

Empathy is everywhere at Georgetown Day School, from the kindergarteners earnestly trading “peace roses” to resolve peer conflicts to the fifth graders spiritedly debating food access in impoverished DC communities. The school’s comprehensive social curriculum, which encompasses all 1000 of the pre-K to 12th grade students, proves that it is indeed possible to meaningfully teach empathy at any age.

Starting as young as four, GDS students practice mediating conflicts by focusing on their friends’ perspectives, learning to put themselves in others’ metaphorical Velcro sneakers. Building on these skills, second and third graders address bullying, using the Quit It! curriculum and role play exercises to tackle exclusion, name-calling or gossip, whether as targets or bystanders. Once the students reach fifth grade, they use their past experiences to become peer teachers and mediators, ensuring that their younger community members act kindly and respectfully.

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In addition to building community within the school, GDS helps students understand that activism must transcend the four walls of their school building. The service-learning curriculum provides opportunities to tackle problems happening in the greater DC area. For example, Pre-K/Kindergarten students spend their Fridays carefully assembling cheese sandwiches for the Martha's Table food bank, tallying the weekly totals of people fed. As they grow older and academic demands increase, service learning is seamlessly integrated into learning standards: part of the second grade social studies and science curriculum involves partnering with the C&O Canal Association to clean the canal, and third graders pay quarterly visits to the bilingual preschool CentroNia, practicing their literacy and Spanish by reading to preschool buddies.

Georgetown Day has managed to find the sweet spot in integrated social education—challenging their students to stretch themselves while maintaining a safe and supportive environment. The spectrum of empathy they have cultivated is a powerful reminder that students are never “too young” to learn conflict resolution, leadership and teamwork.