Start Empathy

Powered by ASHOKA

Words on paper//Source: Flickr Creative Commons, adcox

Creating the Space for Relationships

Open Circle’s Co-Director and Training Director Nancy McKay shares how to strengthen student social and emotional skills.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

January 15, 2013

How do you build positive relationships with all students? How do you create room for discussing feelings and building community during such a busy school day? For 25 years, Open Circle has been working with teachers to help them find answers to these questions and create opportunities for social and emotional learning (SEL) in classrooms. A leading provider of evidence-based SEL curriculum, Open Circle has reached more than 2 million children and trained more than 13,000 educators. Leveraging her wealth of experience from Open Circle, Co-Director and Training Director Nancy McKay spoke with Start Empathy about her own experience and Open Circle’s success.

Start Empathy: How did you become interested in teaching and SEL?

McKay: I came to this work because I was a former elementary teacher. I still remember so keenly that there were days I would go home, and there were some children I never had the chance to connect with because the plate of what I had to do every day was so full. That was a frustration for me, and I was always thinking about how to bring joy to the classroom. For me, a big part of the joy of teaching was developing relationships with students, and I felt that I never had enough time to get to know my students as individuals. I was very aware of that and felt that SEL was not a skillset that was really talked about formally in pre-service training or in my practice as a teacher back then. I learned of Open Circle through a colleague, and it was the perfect fit for me!

Start Empathy: Tell me about a success story from Open Circle.

McKay: There was one child who had such a hard time managing his emotions that if anything didn’t go his way, he would completely fall apart. One of the skills that Open Circle teaches is calming down, and one strategy we teach for calming down is called candle breathing. Students hold up five fingers and slowly blow on each of their fingers as if they are blowing out candles. This student’s class was putting on a play, and just before he was about to go on stage, his costume fell apart. The teachers fixed it up, got him up on stage, and his costume started to fall apart again. You could see his face changing, and it looked like he was going to lose control. Then the child next to him reminded him to do some candle breathing. He held up his five fingers and started blowing out each one. He could not participate fully in the play, but he didn’t fall apart either. It was such a gift for him, and the other child was able to empower and remind him.

Load More

Start Empathy: How does Open Circle cultivate empathy in students?

McKay: All the lessons in the Open Circle Curriculum provide a foundation for developing empathy. The lessons that focus on self-awareness and perspective-taking are especially important. Before someone can recognize and respond to another person’s feelings, he or she must be able to recognize and label their own emotions. Open Circle lessons introduce the concept that feelings may be positive or negative, but that all feelings are okay. Through activities such as brainstorming feeling words, discussing scenarios that describe experiences that provoke a range of feelings, and sharing children’s books such as The Way I Feel by Janan Cain, Lots of Feelings by Shelly Rotner, or Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Frame, children get a chance to discuss their own feelings and expand their “emotional” vocabulary.

In lessons on Recognizing Differences, Problem Solving, and How to Listen Well, children learn perspective-taking skills and practice consequential thinking. Children learn a six-step problem-solving process that gives them tools to self-regulate, to see situations from multiple perspectives, to think of several solutions, and to consider the consequences of those options. These skills increase the chance that children will respond to problems and stress in empathic ways.

One of the principles of Open Circle that may have the biggest impact on the development of empathy in children is the importance of adults as models. When adults listen well, name their own feelings, recognize feelings in others, and understand another person’s perspective, they are adding to the foundation provided by Open Circle skills.

Start Empathy: In addition to SEL, does Open Circle help students take leadership to solve problems?

McKay: Different schools build on Open Circle in a variety of ways. There are many service-learning projects that students can do as a result of what they learn in Open Circle. These projects really help older children take on leadership roles and organize an intervention to a problem they see. Open Circle is also in a lot of K-8 schools, and we are discussing how to engage middle schoolers who had Open Circle in elementary school in leadership and service-learning opportunities throughout their communities.


McKay provided us with some great book recommendations for cultivating empathy in young children. Read these books with your students or children and discuss the characters’ empathic moments. How did empathy move them to take action or change their future behavior?