Developing Empathy through Meaningful Connections in Brimmer’s Lower School

Judy Guild, Head of School
The following remarks were delivered to Lower School Grandparents and Special Friends at the Thanksgiving Assembly:
This year’s theme “Empathy and Ethical Thinking” has drawn our educators at Brimmer together on a subject that is critical to the development of young people. The young minds in our Lower School are developing the social skills needed for the rest of their lives. This theme brings to the forefront the value relationships play in our lives and highlights how we must prioritize this. Just a week ago, our Parents’ Association sponsored guest speaker and author of The Empathy Effect, Dr. Helen Riess to speak about her research at Massachusetts General Hospital on the importance of building and teaching empathy. Subsequently, I read her book on the subject and was educated on the importance of how this skill is essential for our children’s success in their future.
The pathway to empathy starts with a meaningful connection between people. At Brimmer teachers and students value the relational connections we have within our own community. This morning I would like to highlight three community connections this fall that knit together the stages of building empathy within our own school community.
Our buddy program, where our older Lower School students are matched with our younger children, unites our Lower School community. Let me tell you about a moment where I saw the seeds of empathy. I observed what appeared to be a ten-year old take the hand of a four-year old as they began a buddy walk around the neighborhood. But what really showed the beginning of a connection and new friendship was watching the two children look into each other’s eyes. The older child bent down a little, looked into the eye of the younger child to see if she was okay and ready, and then responded with a small little pat on the back — acknowledging the journey should begin. The body language of the younger child told a story of comfort and happiness as the skip in her gait revealed a playful thought.
Our lunch program is another time in the day when our Lower School community evinces the seeds of empathy. Come to Brimmer any day around 10:50 and you will see a fleet of parents come into the Corkin Dining Commons to help serve lunch to our youngest children. In part, the parents come to School to help with the various tasks involved when feeding young children. And they are good at it. They pour the water, help children select vegetables, and happily distribute ice cream. They observe how children react through words, body language, and non-verbal clues. But the care these parents show goes beyond the children and extends to the faculty as well. Knowing the faculty would have to stand to eat their own lunch, by coming to volunteer, our faculty can sit and take a short break in their busy day. The empathic concern our families show to our faculty makes this community a healthy and special place.
The third example of a community that believes in the empathy effect is our Lower School Garden. If you were here for this day last year you will recall how I featured this part of our curriculum. The story has “grown” since then. An important note to this is my office has a beautiful view of this outdoor classroom. So, you see, I hear almost everything. I would like to share a story about the carrot harvest.
A group of students came to the garden to harvest the carrots that were planted in early spring, grew through the summer, and matured in the fall. The green tops looked robust and there were enough for each member of the class to harvest a carrot, maybe two. One child pulled out a nice sized carrot, and her smile revealed how pleased she was with this result. Another child pulled her carrot, but when she pulled it out and shook off the dirt, it was a stunted, twisted carrot that was very hard to celebrate. Her body language spoke volumes. The children immediately understood her disappointment, and together they stepped aside and told her to choose another one. It was okay to share. It was at that moment that I knew the garden was far more than an outdoor classroom teaching science; it was a place where our Life Rules are in action.
These three examples are pathways to teaching empathy and can only happen if we take time to have meaningful connections.
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving, I am confident you will have children at your table who will reveal the beginning stages of developing empathy for others. As we know, the day is far more than the food we serve; it is a day to make meaningful connections.
As an inclusive private school community, Brimmer welcomes students who will increase the diversity of our school. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender, gender identity and expression, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or any other characteristic protected from discrimination under state or federal law, in the administration of our educational policies, admissions practices, financial aid decisions, and athletic and other school-administered programs.