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Think Your Students Don't Care About Others?

Here's how to nurture a caring school community — to confront biases, divisions, and challenging topics
students talking illustration

Americans as a whole seem more divided than ever, but according to Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, they still tend to care for each other despite their differences.

Yet the findings in the new report, Do Americans Really Care for Each Other?, aren’t all good news, because it turns out that most Americans aren’t actually practicing care in their daily lives.

Adults, on the whole, are far more likely to view biases and racism as defects in other people, while they are also prone to prioritizing their own happiness over caring for others. This extends to young people as well. In a 2014 survey conducted by Making Caring Common, the group found that high school students are far more likely to prioritize success — including happiness and achievement — over caring for others.

The new report outlines several issues that have exacerbated the problem of caring, including:

  • Relying on unhealthy cultural and community norms and traditions
  • Struggling to hold both negative feelings and compassion
  • Falling back on biases and stereotypes when uncertain, scared, or angry

So, when it comes to young people and learning, where does caring fit into the equation? HGSE Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, a co-author of the report and faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project, says it's essential to enhance our capacity to care for others— across difference, division, and bias.

“We need to be far more intentional and systematic about developing our capacity — and our children’s capacity — to care for and tend to others and our collective fate,” Weissbourd said to HGSE News.

Through Making Caring Common’s Caring Schools Network and its work with K–12 students, researchers have developed ways to help students effectively understand and recognize biases and gain the skills to have constructive conversations around challenging topics. 

"This work is about people and skills rather than specific content. It’s about the process and what it takes to try to understand people, to learn about them, and to be generally curious to develop the skills to take that care further."

Even when topics move into more controversial areas, co-author and Senior Research and Evaluation Manager Milena Batanova says the lessons learned through this intentional work allow students to focus on individuals rather than get caught up in differing opinions.  

“We need to remember that this work is about people and skills rather than specific content,” Batanova says. “It’s about the process and what it takes to try to understand people, to learn about them, and to be generally curious to develop the skills to take that care further.”

How educators can begin to work with students around biases, challenging topics, and caring:

1. Start small

Students might be itching to dive into big topics, but before tackling what can be vulnerable subjects, students need to trust each other and their teacher. Part of that work can be done by creating class norms so students have a shared understanding of expectations.

The other piece is building a foundation for caring by starting with smaller issues. Making Caring Common Project Consultant Kiran Bhai, an HGSE alum, says this is helpful to manage the many issues swirling in current events that students want to tackle.

“The gut reaction from teachers is they have to say something to show they care, but it’s better to build relationships so students know they can come to teachers to talk about those issues,” Bhai says. “Later on, you can have those discussions with the whole class.”

2. Show and tell

Games and other activities aren’t just an excuse for fun. They can also be useful tools for students to share their identity with their classmates and build community. As a school counselor in New Mexico, one game Bhai plays with elementary and middle school students is the “news ball” game. At the end of the week, students and teachers share one piece of news about themselves that brings a piece of their identity into the classroom. Each sharer also explains how they want their community to respond, perhaps with clapping or a hug after class.

3. Caring for everyone

One of the biggest challenges for students when it comes to caring is not just learning how to care for others, but specifically those who are different than them.

“It’s really about caring about certain kinds of people,” says HGSE alum Glenn Manning, senior project manager for Caring Schools. “Not just the people in your circle already, but really focusing on caring for those who are different than them and who are marginalized.”

One way to help students expand their circle and practice the important skills of asking questions and listening deeply is through activities like a portrait project. Students can conduct interviews with a member of their community they don’t know well and share their learning with their class. It shows students that caring isn’t just an individual act but “it’s about a community’s experience of caring for others and the common good,” Manning says.

4. Talking, and listening, across differences

Too often when students begin to tackle difficult topics, the focus turns to the individual rather than on the issue being discussed. So, modeling not only listening but questioning is important to keep students focused.

“The goal is not to have a debate around controversial issues,” Manning says. “It’s not arguing. It’s about talking about important topics in growing levels of difficulty and really learning how to listen to understand.”

To help students practice these skills, they can begin with easier topics, like vegetarianism. A student would share a statement they believe in, like “I believe everyone should be a vegetarian because of animal rights.”  

Then, the rest of the students have the chance to ask a clarifying question. The key is that students work on controlling their emotions and learn to respond in order to better understand a point of view, not interject their own beliefs.

“We’re trying to prepare young people for a democracy where people will have differences of opinions,” Manning says, but where students can still build “communities that care and trust.”

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