Committee for Children Blog

Building on Martin Luther King’s Powerful and Profound Empathy

Authored by:

Joan Cole Duffell/Executive Director, Committee for Children


Dr. Calvin Watts/Superintendent, Kent School District

Today we celebrate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King dedicated his life to ending racial and economic inequality and, in doing so, demonstrated a rare form of empathy at almost every turn of the road. He heard and saw people—all people—and understood how combatants on both sides of an issue—even the most divisive issue—actually felt. This allowed him to practice peaceful problem solving in the name of social justice.

Nearly 50 years after his death, this powerful level of empathy is what we who have dedicated our careers to fostering the safety and well-being of children seek for all children—wherever they live and whatever school they attend.

The encouraging news is that a growing body of research shows that social and emotional skills like empathy and peaceful problem solving can be taught. And possessing these skills effects change—the change that Dr. King sought, and the change that we need in order to make the world healthier, safer, more civil, and more functional.

On a micro level, teaching social and emotional skills in schools has had a dramatic impact on students’ lives—and there is national data to prove it.

An analysis of nearly 300,000 students, for instance, found that social-emotional learning (SEL) participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in test scores.

Beyond test scores, bringing social-emotional learning into our classrooms helps children feel a greater connection to their learning; helps them to develop empathy and build stronger relationships; and helps them make better and safer decisions. In the end, this will enable all children to succeed as people—as better human beings—in our community and in our world.

If Dr. King were alive today, we believe he would urge all of us, as educators, law enforcement officers, and other public servants, to practice empathy—to view every child as our own, to see our children as human beings, to treat them respectfully and hold them accountable with dignity and compassion, to meet them “where they are,” and encourage them to become the best people they can be.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. And one place this failure manifests itself is in the “school-to-prison pipeline”—an epidemic that research shows is plaguing school children across the nation.

In the United States, our schools are truly a microcosm of our communities. Dr. King’s level of empathy may be present in some of our schools and lacking in others. In fact, when legions of students are suspended, expelled, or even arrested for minor offenses, a lack of empathy may be the root cause. Of greater concern, the statistics show that far too often our students of color, our children with learning differences, and our children who come from backgrounds of poverty, abuse, trauma, or neglect are more frequently disciplined than other student groups.

More specifically:

• 40 percent of all students expelled from U.S. schools each year are Black
• 70 percent of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino
• Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than White students

As we face the brutal facts, we must also acknowledge that Black and Latino students are twice as likely not to graduate high school as White students—due, in large part, to our pushing them away from and out of school for disruptive behavior.

What alternatives could we choose instead of jettisoning or punishing our children?  In the Kent School District, we believe that instead of simply telling our students how to behave, we must also teach them. Our (K-6) social-emotional learning curriculum, the Second Step Program, is one example of a preventative measure that enables students to increase their capacity in the following four areas:

Skills for Learning: Students who can self-regulate are better able to participate in and benefit from classroom instruction.

Empathy: Being able to feel or understand what another person is feeling prepares students to manage their own strong emotions and solve interpersonal problems with others.

Emotion Management: Students who can recognize strong emotions and calm down cope better and are less prone to aggressive behaviors.

Problem Solving: Students who can solve interpersonal conflicts with peers are less likely to engage in impulsive or aggressive behaviors.

These sound, research-based approaches, draw on Dr. King’s profound legacy, and will enable our current generation of children to become more productive and constructive. This approach will also serve future generations so they may better emulate Dr. King’s reflective practices. In the process, our children will benefit society today, and become the architects of a more just and peaceful world tomorrow.

Joan Cole Duffell, a lifelong community activist, has been committed to improving the lives of children for over 35 years. She is executive director of the successful Seattle-based global nonprofit Committee for Children—an organization that helps over 13 million children every year in over 70 countries develop vital social emotional skills to avoid violence, bullying, and sexual abuse. Joan received the “Superhero for Washington Families” Award from Parent Map Magazine in 2010, and serves on the board of directors of several nonprofits focused on education, early learning, and child well-being.

Dr. Calvin J. Watts is the superintendent of the Kent School District, which serves approximately 28,000 students in 42 school facilities. It is the fourth-largest school system in Washington State. Formerly an assistant superintendent in Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) in Suwanee, Georgia—the thirteenth-largest school district in the United States—Dr. Watts was an integral part of GCPS receiving the Broad Prize for Urban Education (awarded to urban school districts that significantly narrow achievement gaps among underrepresented student populations) in 2010 and 2014. Under his leadership, 100 percent of general education schools in his administrative area met or exceeded state performance standards.