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UNH researchers say teaching empathy to students can help reduce bullying

Union Leader Correspondent

January 16. 2014 8:51PM

DURHAM — Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have learned that teaching students civility and empathy early on can help prevent incidences of bullying.

They have learned it through the application of the nationally recognized “Courage to Care” bullying prevention program created by UNH researchers and educators and unveiled in 2011.

More than 60 middle schools nationwide use the program, and more and more teachers participate in a three-day leadership training course on the program at the Browne Center each year.

Now, future educators can also learn how to teach the program in a new course offered through UNH’s graduate education program titled “The Courage to Care: Teaching Empathy in the Classroom.”

The class will be offered for the first time this spring.

The new course will provide future teachers intensive training in the Courage to Care program. The students will then help implement the curriculum in a school, after school or other formal youth educational setting.

Courage to Care is an evidence-based curriculum for middle school students, designed to increase empathy and care for others, and reduce bullying and meanness. Tests with more than 600 students have shown it improves school culture and climate while reducing peer victimization.

Rochester Middle School implemented the curriculum in 2013, and Principal Valerie McKenney said it gave them an opportunity to have frank discussions with sixth-graders about what it means to be caring and how to be safe.

Malcolm Smith, a professor with the UNH Cooperative Extension, affiliate professor of education and co-creator of the Courage to Care program, said there is a new emphasis in New Hampshire and in schools around the country on social and emotional learning, and there is solid evidence to show that students with higher social and emotional IQ’s do better in school. He said issues around peer violence and bullying are also reduced if a student’s empathy level can be raised.

He said overall the educational community has done a poor job preparing teachers to deal with the types of issues they may be faced with in school, outside of math problems and science labs, including issues around bullying, and thought this would be a good experience for graduate students in education at UNH.

The students will be mixed in with professionals in the field while going through a three-day intensive learning seminar, and will then go out, with supervision, to implement the program in schools and other educational settings.

He said, really, the course is a new way of teaching civics and goes back to why Benjamin Franklin started the first high school in Philadelphia to begin with.

“Franklin’s whole rationale for starting the first high school in Philadelphia was his belief that the experiment in democracy would fail without teaching the young civility,” Smith said. “That, I think, is what we’re back to. Teachers and school districts are understanding the climate and culture of their school is as important as academics … we have to teach the whole child.”

Smith said this course may be the beginning of a proposed certificate program in crisis prevention and intervention.

He said more and more schools are hiring crisis coordinators and designating staff to serve as crisis interveners.

“It’s becoming sort of a standard in the state and in the nation in response to the increased number of school shootings, which have a direct correlation on suicides and other things that have occurred in schools, which are all directly tied in one way or another to bullying,” Smith said.

He said the program is really about helping students understand how they can use their power in a positive way.

“We are showing them the real value in their lives and the rush they get in their brain from the endorphins when they try to do the right thing, when they stand up instead of stand by, when they compliment instead of put down. That is really what the program does,” Smith said.

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