Adding character education to schools builds more successful students — and workers. After all, we aren’t born with empathy and compassion. We nurture these qualities through our continual rich and deep connections with others.
In his book What the Best College Students Do, educator and historian Ken Bain profiles many education superstars who encourage students to pursue their passions, not just straight A’s. They urge children to find a way to contribute to the world. We are doing just that at Milton Hershey School (Pennsylvania), a residential school of more than 2,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade.
Empathy Is Key to Milton Hershey School’s Expansive Vision
As part of our 2020 Vision Strategic Plan, we at Milton Hershey aim to help children build strong character by developing global awareness and taking action. Teaching children empathy helps them to break the ‘What's in it for me?’ mentality and look for ways to help their community and to pay it forward.
In keeping with a tradition that recognizes the generosity of the school’s founders, Milton and Catherine Hershey, Milton Hershey students have been rolling up their sleeves to help their neighbors in the community in a variety of ways:
- Recently, more than 2,000 students helped area residents as part of the school’s annual Community Day. They cleaned local churches, performed chores at the home of a visually impaired couple, and wrote to soldiers deployed overseas.
Students pitch in on Community Day, an annual tradition at Milton Hershey School (Pennsylvania). Credit: Milton Hershey School
- This spring, senior division students held their second annual Mini-THON, a 12-hour fundraiser to provide financial assistance for the families of children battling cancer at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. The students exceeded their $100,000 fundraising goal, taking in $101,244 for the cause.
Senior division students proudly hold up signs displaying the total funds raised through their philanthropic efforts during this year’s Mini-THON. Credit: Milton Hershey School
- To kick off the school year, our students in the Student Government Association volunteered at the nearby Ronald McDonald House. They prepared meals for the more than 70 families who stay there while their seriously ill children are treated at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Beyond these activities, learning empathy permeates students’ experiences at Milton Hershey. “Teaching children to help others is as much a part of the curriculum as world cultures, literature, and geometry,” says Tanya Barton, curriculum supervisor of social studies and world language.
Three Ways Children Can Learn Empathy
1. Learn to bounce back from adversity or disappointment.
Research indicates that kids are more likely to have empathy for others if they have parents who help them cope with negative emotions in ways that combine showing sympathy with solving problems. Parents should talk to their children about their emotional states and discuss ways that beliefs, desires, and emotions drive behavior.
“At Milton Hershey School, we have an initiative called The Compass Project, which focuses on social and emotional learning,” says Deanna Slamans, curriculum supervisor of social and emotional learning. “Teachers and house-parents help students reflect on their emotions and the ways they can overcome emotional and personal challenges, as well as failure, through open dialogue and support.”
The school holds a month-long “Perseverance Through Adversity” series each year to help students identify the tools they can use to come back from adversity. The series includes engaging in open discussion, reading books, viewing movies, and listening to poignant speakers.
2. Discover qualities we all have in common.
Experiments suggest that kids are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar or similar to them. The more we humanize the victims of tragedy and help students understand other cultures, the better they will be able to respond with empathy.
“Some of our students traveled to Eastern Europe this past summer through our international service and global awareness program. During that time, they observed the ways other cultures greet one another, the foods they eat, how they socialize, what they value, and more,” says Barton. “By becoming more familiar with the lives and perspectives of others, our students broadened their thinking, and with it their empathy.”
Students pose in front of the Berlin Wall. The group expanded their horizons and thinking while visiting Eastern Europe this past summer through the international service and global awareness program. Credit: Milton Hershey School
3. Teach a sense of morality based on self-control, not rewards or punishments.
Kids are capable of being spontaneously helpful and empathetic, but studies have shown that they become less likely to help if they are rewarded or punished for their behavior. Additionally, children have a heightened sense of right and wrong if they are raised with clear discipline. The approach should emphasize rational explanations and moral consequences.
“Real-world consequences rather than rewards and punishments are proving to have a greater impact on the likelihood that young people will make good choices in the future,” Slamans says. “We teach our students that they should do something because it’s morally right, not because they will get something for doing it.”
An Ongoing Mission to Teach Empathy at Milton Hershey School
By teaching children to act with empathy, Milton Hershey is carrying out its long-standing mission and realizing its vision for the future. Milton Hershey School was founded on the very principle of doing good for others. Our founders, Milton and Catherine Hershey, could not have children of their own, so they decided to share their wealth with the less fortunate. Their legacy continues today.
Milton Hershey School Students in Action