SU Students Help Develop Young Leaders through Empathy Matters Program
Published on 4/13/17
District News Academics HW Smith K-8 School
Second graders at HW Smith are learning how to recognize emotions, display empathy, create support networks and work through stressful situations, thanks to SU mentors and a semester-long program called ‘Empathy Matters.’
Once a week, SU student volunteers visit with select HW Smith students, where they teach how to identify emotions based on facial expressions, how to treat each other, healthy ways to manage stress, and even how to treat animals, thanks to a special lesson that includes a visit from a therapy dog. At the end of each semester, students take part in a ‘graduation ceremony,’ complete with caps and gowns, and then a new group of students gets started.
“They’re teaching us empathy,” second grader Lonaijhza Bradford said. “Empathy means if someone is mean to someone else, you can understand what it feels like to be bullied and you can help.”
In one lesson, students used hand paints to decorate t-shirts. Once the shirts were dry, the students were asked to try to remove the paint and put it back in the tube. Students learned that words are like the hand paint – once they are out, you can’t take them back.
“I’ve learned about how to put myself in someone else’s shoes,” Aliya Williams explained. “I feel different because of Empathy Matters because I’ve learned why we should help other people.”
In another lesson, students made posters representing what they want to be when they grow up. Mentors then talked with them about some of the qualities they would need to develop in order to get there.
Students particularly enjoyed an activity that required them to stand in a circle and toss a ball of yarn around, each time mentioning someone who has supported them. As the ball was thrown more, a web of support was created, allowing a balloon (representing them as individuals) to bounce atop it. Students learned that the more support you have, the less likely you are to fall into trouble.
“We say our focus is on teaching empathy, but it also goes bigger than that,” Syracuse University senior Winnie Atim said. “We expand to cover subjects like strength and stress relief – how to manage stressful situations. These students are the future leaders of tomorrow, and these skills will help them become good, strong leaders.”
Winnie, a senior studying Public Health with a minor in Dance, has been volunteering with Empathy Matters since the program began her sophomore year. Her friend founded the program, and upon her graduation, Winnie took over planning the group’s activities and serving as a leader. The program aims to organize a field trip each semester, such as a visit to The Nottingham to sing to seniors or a trip to Wonder Works.
“I think the biggest benefit for the students is getting the mentorship from college students,” Winnie added. “You don’t feel it until the end of the semester, when a student tells you that when they’re in college, they want to be an Empathy Matters coach. That means a lot! Seeing the dramatic change in students through each semester just makes me want to do this more. I wish I had something like this when I was young – it’s so powerful to be a part of it!”
Second grade teacher Cathy Kennedy said she believes the positive change in students comes as a result of the one-on-one time with SU students like Winnie. “It is good for them to be around positive older role models,” Ms. Kennedy said. “The students really enjoy going and look forward to it each week! They also have the opportunity to share the concepts they have learned outside of the Empathy Matters setting, whether it's back in the classroom or out in the community.”
Syeisha Byrd, Director of Engagement Programs for Syracuse University, said that she hopes to expand Empathy Matters to additional schools in the coming months. Thank you to the SU mentors who are helping our young students learn the value of empathy!