Imagine exploring the world through experiences that spark curiosity, kindness, and empathy—experiences that ultimately develop social skills such as respectful communication, perspective taking, cooperation, and critical thinking. These experiences are the foundation for the Empatico program being administered by Trinity’s Department of Education through a $1 million gift from Daniel Lubetzky '90, executive chairman and founder of KIND Healthy Snacks (KIND).
This gift came as a three-year grant with the goal of training teachers, social workers, and counselors in 12 San Antonio area school districts. The grant also includes a sustaining gift of an endowment that promotes SEL-based research and teacher preparation.
Empatico’s mission is to provide San Antonio educators with the tools and resources for elementary-aged students, ages 6-11, to connect with peers around the nation and the world during interactions via a live video chat from their classroom. Empatico is designed to help students develop four main skills: perspective-taking, respectful communication, critical thinking, and cooperation.
In summer 2019, Trinity University’s Empatico team that includes Rocio Delgado, Ph.D., program director, Laura Allen, Ph.D., Ellen Barnett, Ph.D., Courtney Crim, Ph.D., and Heather Haynes Smith, Ph.D., identified the first four school districts to disseminate the program’s learning platform and activities that support elementary students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) and language development. Faculty in the education department consulted with participating school districts to determine the type of delivery model that would best meet the needs of schools and student populations served within each district’s boundaries. A total of 137 educators were trained across 63 participating elementary campuses in the first four school districts selected.
Those in attendance were also invited to participate in a research study on the efficacy of Empatico within the San Antonio community to help create a model for how universities can best partner with local schools to employ Empatico as an SEL tool.
Educators engaged in conversations about the need for human beings to recognize similarities that exist among people. “One way to learn about these commonalities is to connect with those who are different from us and to get to know them through listening to their stories and experiences,” explains Rocio Delgado, Ph.D., Empatico program director. “Educators learned about the tools that Empatico provides for them to help connect individual classrooms around the nation and the world as a way to develop empathy and understanding in school children.”
Delgado goes on to explain that the activities that Empatico provides for educators are aligned with different state and national SEL standards. As part of this grant, Trinity’s faculty further aligned individual activities to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that students should know and be able to do.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic put face-to-face teaching on hiatus in mid-March, area educators completed more than 850 SEL exchanges with San Antonio area students during the first part of the semester, while still teaching in-person at their respective campuses. With the transition to remote instruction, the Empatico team developed virtual training sessions that were shared with Trinity’s education programs alumni, and 108 more educators received the virtual training at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
To ensure that SEL continued through the end of the school year, a socio-emotional training was developed for parents of children in the districts selected at the beginning of the grant. The “at home” resources provided by Empatico were incorporated into the training and shared with 40 parents who attended the special session.
Educators ended the 2019-20 school year with an appreciation for the innovation, purpose, and excitement that the Empatico program brought into their school communities and noted that their students who participated in Empatico exchanges were excited about meeting students from other places across the country and the world.
“The Empatico team will continue to support the initial cohort of participants from the four school districts with which it worked in the 2019-2020 school year,” Delgado says. Four additional districts have been invited to participate in the program for the 2020-21 school year, though it has not yet been determined when training will occur or how its delivery will be different from the first year’s face-to-face training sessions. “The team is currently exploring diverse platforms it could use to develop virtual training sessions to share with educators in a remote learning context,” Delgado explains.
In addition to the Empatico Program, this group of Trinity faculty members also participated in the San Antonio Compassionate Institute 2020. This institute consisted of an online curriculum where community educators and leaders received compassion training to take back to their educational institutions and communities.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the San Antonio City Council via a city resolution partnered globally with the Charter for Compassion. The Compassionate SA Resolution 2017 encourages residents and educators to have all ages explore and teach compassion, based on the understanding that extensive research and resources validate the full spectrum of the benefits of compassion, from the bottom line of business to being a part of the human DNA.
San Antonio was first among 450 Compassionate Cities worldwide to integrate systemic compassion into schools and college/university campuses. A total of 160 San Antonio Compassionate Institute Fellows, representing 85 percent of all San Antonio educational institutions participated in this intensive five-week, 10-session virtual compassion integrity training program from the Center for Compassion, Integrity, and Secular Ethics at Life University in Atlanta, Georgia. Participants met virtually from June 15 to July 16, 2020.