"Stand in My Shoes" - Empathy Lesson

Saturday, January 25, 2014
Inspired by this lesson, and the fact that my 4th graders are choosing to be unkind on an all too frequent basis, December's social skills lesson for 4th graders was on empathy.

The Lesson

In the first part of the lesson (4th grade lessons are split into two parts), we read Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy; and discussed the two parts of empathy:

1) Think about what the other person is feeling. How would you feel in that situation

2) Think about what that other person/needs wants. What would you need or want from others in that situation?

In the second part of the lesson, we reviewed the definition and two parts of empathy. I also brought 6 shoe boxes to the room. I sadly did not have real shoes inside (partly due to cost, partly due to the immaturity of my students - I didn't want to hear "ew") but I did print and color pictures of different kinds of shoes. I asked for brave volunteers to come up and open a box. I held up the shoe picture while they read the scenario inside. Volunteers then followed each step of empathy from before (how does the person feel and what do they need from others).

Stand in My Shoes activity lesson using shoeboxes and different scenarios

Here were the scenarios:
  • I am staying home today because my stomach doesn't feel right. Actually, mom and dad broke up this summer and I don’t get to see my dad very much now. Everything has changed so much at home and it is all I can think about. This is my third day to miss school so far and my mom says she’ll lose her job if she has to keep taking off of work to stay home with me.  Put yourself in my shoes.
  • I am a baby and something’s not right so I’m going to the Doctor. I haven’t been sleeping well so I’ve been kind of fussy lately. It could be that I’m cutting some teeth, but mom’s not sure. I cry all the time and it is driving my brother and sisters crazy. I’m too young to explain how I’m feeling because I don’t talk yet. Put yourself in my shoes.
  • I am a fourth grader at Lakeview Elementary. I really struggle with math assignments and it takes me longer than everyone else at my table to finish our worksheets. Sometimes I steal their pencils so that I don’t have to waste time looking for one. People at my table try and talk to me when I am working and sometimes I snap at them and say mean things. I am trying to concentrate because I know I am not going to do well anyway. Put yourself in my shoes.
  • I just moved here from a foreign country. My English is not very good yet and I have a strong accent. I don’t understand a lot of the classroom rules so I keep making mistakes. My teacher gives me a lot more chances than other people in my class because I am new. But it makes people not want to be my friend because they don’t think that’s fair. Put yourself in my shoes.
  • I am a teacher and I really want my students to learn and reach their goals. I have 25 students in my class that are all very different and all need me to help them. When I was working with a small group, students kept coming to the table with questions and accidentally interrupted what we are doing. I stood up and demanded that all of my students return to their seats and to not get up in an angry voice. Put yourself in my shoes.
  • I am a fourth grade girl and I got a REALLY bad haircut. I got gum in my hair and my mom had to cut it out. The person at the salon couldn’t even fix it! Everyone has noticed and it has put me in a really bad mood. I just want to be by myself. I don’t even want to be around my friends. Put yourself in my shoes. 

The Response
Though students didn't connect with the book as much as I'd hoped, they really enjoyed the shoe box activity (as did the teachers). The most interesting thing about this was getting to see how very different my 4th grade classes responded to this. A couple of my classes really struggled to use empathy and instead continued to focus on how the individual in the scenario could solve the problem. On the one hand, it's great that they want to be problem solvers (and some had great suggestions). On the other hand, it showed that developmentally, some need more scaffolding before they can discuss empathy in this way.

Book Club: Justin Case

I had a great intern this past semester, and I made good use of her. I'd been reading wonderful things about counselors doing book clubs (see here and here) and really wanted to give it a try. To make the most of the group time, the group was created to 1) increase school motivation/effort and 2) improve literacy skills.

At that time in the semester, I felt like I was servicing 2nd and 4th grades the most so I chose 3rd grade as the target for this. Here is how students were chosen.
1) I reviewed test scores for a recent standardized assessment they took that was meant as a predictor for our big end of the year test. I made a list of all students who scored as a high "Basic" for the English and Language Arts Test (basically, the "bubble" kids that were very close to being "Proficient".
2) Then I separated out the students who also scored "Basic" for the literacy sub-section (since this is the only sub-section that our book club could realistically improve scores on).
3) I emailed my 3rd grade teachers the list of students and asked them if they believed any of these students would have higher grades/test scores if they had increased school motivation/effort. Voila - these became our kids!

Because I use picture books in my school counseling practice, I consulted with my school's librarian to find a chapter book that 1) would appeal to both genders, 2) was within a low 3rd grade reading level, and 3) could be a jumping off point for school motivation/effort. She finally sold me on Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters (Justin Case Series). It's a bit above the reading level of some of the students, but doing it as a group is fine. Although I've discovered the main character suffers more from school and social worries than low school effort, it is still working for us.

The group (which is still going on - we picked a long book) is run once a week for 45 minutes (30 of which are during the students' scheduled lunch). Each student has a copy of the book as do I or my intern. In each book is a bookmark with a job title on it. We rotate these so that each week, students have a different job. "Settings Tracker", "Character Tracker", "Historian", and "Predictor" were jobs we picked by looking at what sort of questions were being asked in the literacy sub-section of one of our major ELA assessments for 3rd and 4th grade. The "Motivator" and "Connector" jobs are the SEL focused ones meant to stir discussion regarding school effort and motivation.

Improving reading scores with book club using trade books and reading jobs.
Improving reading scores with book clubs utilizing trade books describing each job in book club is.

We start each group with the Historian doing their job. We then take turns reading the journal entries, usually reading the last entry chorally. Other jobs do their part and then we're done!

While the students have trouble remembering to come (still...after over 6 weeks...), they are really engaged in the story and their jobs. Better yet, the most recent standardized test they took showed 4 out of 6 of them making gains in their reading scores which is even more impressive considering that most 3rd graders' reading scores went down. We have fun together AND we improve student data - Win!

CBT Series Part 1: Introducing the Power of Our Thoughts

Wednesday, January 8, 2014
I'm very passionate about the importance of our thoughts. As a child therapist, I utilized CBT more than any other modality. Though it's difficult to do that kind of work as a school counselor, I certainly implement aspects of it. Some of my ideas are innovative, some are not. Hopefully, my posts in this series can be of help to those wanting to use these concepts in individual counseling, group counseling, or classroom lessons.

CBT Series Part 1: Introducing the Power of Our Thoughts

I've seen how powerful it can be for students to identify unhelpful thoughts and replace them with helpful ones but I've also struggled to find great ways to introduce these concepts to students. The best way I've found so far is to tell students the story of the dog and the two boys (or girls) while drawing it.

 A story, using CBT, cognitive behavior therapy with elementary age to help them change unhelpful thoughts.

"Let me tell you a story. One day, there were two boys, both 8 years old walking home from school. What should we name them? Ok, John and James." Draw two boys with these names.

"While they were walking home, both boys saw the exact same dog in the middle of the road. This is what their faces looked like." Draw a dog, add feeling faces to the boys.

"Whoa. They look like they feel very different. How does it look like John feels? How does it look like James feels?" Add hearts next to each boy, write feelings inside.

"Hm. So both boys are the same age, and they both see the same dog, but they feel totally different. I wonder why that could be." (at this time, some kids will give ideas about their thoughts - others I have to go further with) "What do you think James was thinking when he saw the dog? What do you think John was thinking?" Add thought bubbles to boys.

(Lots of students tell me here what the boys would want to do. I reflect this, add it to the picture, and then ask what their brains said that made them want to do that)

"Ok, so if John was thinking 'I love dogs, they are so much fun!' and feeling excited or happy, what would he to do? If James was thinking 'Dogs are dangerous, it might bite me' and is feeling scared, what would he do?" Draw hands and include actions.

"Whoa. Check this out. These boys were the same age and saw the same dog but they felt very different feelings and did different things. Hm. Why do you think they felt so different? Do you think it could be their thoughts?"

From here I explain that all day long, we are thinking and that these thoughts are what our brain is saying. Some of these thoughts help us, and some of them hurt us. Our brains are powerful and we are in charge of what we think. Though this example is a helpful start, most of my students (7-10 year olds) need some more help distinguishing between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I'll save that for another post!

CBT Series Part 2: Thought Detectives

One way I try to help students replace unhelpful thoughts is to examine whether or not they are true. We do this by becoming 'detectives' searching for 'evidence' both for and against their thoughts.

Before we do this with their thought, I say "What if I was thinking 'All the kids at this school hate me'? That thought would make me feel sad. What if I told you I was thinking that, what would you say?'. Then they usually laugh and say 'no way!' and we collect some evidence for both sides. Depending on the age of the student, at this point I tell them either that I decided that my thought was untrue and I was getting rid of it or I try to come up with a more helpful and realistic thought like 'Some of the kids might not like me, but most of them do'.

Teaching CBT, Something Might Happen, anxiety and phobias,a look inside the book, If the student's unhelpful thoughts are related to anxiety or phobias, then I sometimes introduce this idea using the book Something Might Happen. The main character in this (very funny and silly) story has several unfounded worries that he eventually gets over.

Students and I can examine one of the character's thoughts and decide whether or not there's evidence to support it.

Teaching CBTto elementary, using cognitive behavior therapy to change unhelpful thoughts examples

Then we get to the tough stuff - the student's thought! Here's an example of one I did with a 3rd grade girl about her thoughts that her parents being outside indicated something had already happened or was going to happen. I circled the evidence she thought was most powerful and then I sent this home with her to share with her mom.

Teaching CBT to change unhelpful thoughts, elementary student example

I do this activity at least once a week and while it usually goes as planned, it doesn't always. Sometimes students are ready to examine their thought(s) and sometimes they are not. I've found that this activity works best with kids that are ready to accept help for their symptoms and can accept that the situation cannot be changed.
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