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Modeling Compassion Helps Students Learn and Apply What They See

Teaching the leaders of tomorrow requires more than ensuring they know mathematics, science, and reading. Educators at National Heritage Academies (NHA) partner-schools go beyond the basics and hone what comes naturally to children: compassion.
It’s human nature to be compassionate, said Senior Moral Focus Specialist Kristen Sanders, who is a member of NHA’s Curriculum and Instruction team. Empathy, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, is a big piece of compassion.
“Academics are so important, but I feel like Moral Focus virtues really go beyond just being successful in school,” she said. “It's what you need to be successful in life, your career, and how you interact with others.”
Rolesville Charter Academy Kindergarten Teacher Steph Beckett agrees and said the promise of being able to teach students about virtues that help them become responsible adults was a big reason she wanted to work at an NHA school.
“I felt they were such a great thing to teach our children, it drew me to this school,” Beckett said. “It’s the greatest thing in kindergarten, they just soak up those Moral Focus virtues. They’re so good to each other. They have so much empathy and compassion. If a student drops a pencil on the floor, there’s usually a scramble of kids trying to pick it up to help that student out.”
Students first learn to identify key emotions in others by asking questions like ‘what is that person feeling in this situation?’ and ‘what can I do to act upon that?’ Learning starts very simply at early grade levels and becomes more detailed as students progress through middle school ages.

“When we start talking about compassion in kindergarten, we start looking for little ways to help others every single day,” she said. “When you see a way to be helpful, act on it right away. Are you holding the door open for somebody? If you see somebody drop their supplies off their desk, do you stop and help them clean that up? Are you warm and friendly and willing to help?"

When students enter third through fifth grades, they start to learn the reasoning behind their actions. They willfully care for others when they need help, which shows others that they care. They take action, which shows others they are trying to help someone in need. By the time they get to eighth grade, they have a solid foundation and are looking beyond themselves to care for, comfort, and empower those in need.

“As we work through and grow in that depth and complexity, in compassion, we're really looking to grow that strong foundation to carry them into high school and beyond.”

Teachers at Vista Charter Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich., were in awe of the compassion shown by fifth graders who worked with kindergarteners on a special STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) project where they tried to predict the outcome of a simple experiment, then recorded the results.
“I really wanted to encourage a partnership and get some role models for my kindergarten students,” Kindergarten Teacher Kailani Sarjeant said. “They don’t often get to see such big kids, so it was really neat to have them work together. It was great to see them emphasize some of those Moral Focus virtues, as well, just being respectful and persevering through some of those activities that might have been more challenging for them.”
A progression of information, emotional connection, and action is used to teach all nine Moral Focus virtues at NHA schools: Wisdom, Respect, Gratitude, Self-Control, Perseverance, Courage, Encouragements, Compassion, and Integrity.

Parents are also encouraged to take an active role from home with an activity called service learning, a process where they discuss a need in the community with their children, and brainstorm ways to act on it. That could include volunteering at an animal shelter, cleaning up litter in a park, or sponsoring a food drive to help fill shelves at a local food bank.
“I think it's essential for them to see a variety of different adults model those virtues and see what they look like in action,” Sanders said. “It also provides the opportunity to practice their responses and have their actions affirmed.”
As we know, education doesn’t end when we’re done with school. Adults also benefit from surrounding themselves with virtuous actions. The more we surround ourselves with positive modeled behavior, the more those actions become part of our daily lives.
“It’s something you are expected to do, so you're more likely to be compassionate moving forward and you don't give it a second thought.”

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About Vista Charter Academy:
Vista Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes over 95 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit

Visit Vista Charter Academy's blog to read more stories like this.