Student walkouts show compassion is a tool for change

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Dr. Patricia "Tish" Jennings is an associate professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. A lead researcher with the Compassionate Schools Project, she is particularly focused on applying recent findings on mindfulness-based approaches to reducing teacher and student stress and improving teaching and learning environments. The views expressed here are solely the author's.

(CNN)One month ago, America watched in horror as yet another school shooting unfolded, claiming 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Instead of the usual cycle of thoughts and prayers, followed by inaction, our nation's students made their voices heard with walkouts across the country on Wednesday. Their actions brought school faculty and supporters together not only to honor those killed, but also to shed more light on the need for gun control reform.
Patricia Jennings
This powerful moment is just the beginning, paving the way for the March for our Lives later this month and other local movements that may finally compel action on this critical issue. How are these students making such an impact? They are driven by compassion and empathy for the victims, and their passion to protect others from similar tragedies.
While many of the students who walked out on Wednesday may not have had the benefit of formal social-emotional learning, or SEL -- a process that, for 30 years, has enabled children and adults to build better relationships, in their classrooms -- the success of their efforts is providing a persuasive argument for why more formal development of these skills is important.
    Compassion. Relationship-building skills. Establishing achievable goals. These are the building blocks of social-emotional learning. I have worked for many years with other educators and researchers across the country to embed explicit opportunities into curricula to ensure our nation's youth learn empathy, mindfulness and compassion.
    When our youth confront problems, SEL ensures they can understand the perspectives of all those involved and work in collaborative teams to find a solution. SEL gives them tools to clearly articulate and translate policy recommendations into meaningful change.
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    Students across the country are doing just that right now, leveraging those building blocks to organize and galvanize adults to action. However, SEL doesn't just have to apply on the national stage. It is making a significant difference in our local classrooms.
    Look no further than Louisville, Kentucky, where researchers and local policymakers are coordinating with the city's schools to deliver and assess the Compassionate Schools Project. Launched in 2014 in partnership between the University of Virginia and Jefferson County Public Schools, the Compassionate Schools Project is the nation's first integrated health and wellness curriculum that will reach 46 schools and 20,000 students over the project's seven years.
    Teachers in Luhr Elementary School, for example, are creating "compassion classrooms" that focus on empowering students to identify and manage their emotions and listen to others' perspectives. Students at McFerran Preparatory Academy are learning how to "calm down and focus," using mindfulness activities such as partner practices to help them empathize and work through problems with their peers.
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    Local educators are noting how impactful the program is for participating students, who report an increased ability to manage their emotions, higher levels of compassion, and a greater attention to mindfulness.
    And the evidence shows SEL can position all our youth to thrive. Researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning have found after decades of study that students who develop social and emotional skills show improved academic performance and classroom behavior. Additional studies illustrate that when students benefit from social-emotional learning, they are more likely to graduate from high school and earn a college degree, demonstrate stronger relational skills, and set and achieve goals.
    By attaining these building blocks of social-emotional learning, our youngest children can follow the example of today's youth. To do so, we need to make social-emotional learning accessible to all. We can start by disseminating the free Compassionate Schools curriculum (Thrive!) to classrooms across the globe. We can ensure schools also provide educators with professional development to become more mindful, compassionate and responsive in the classroom, which helps our students develop those skills in turn.
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    And as Congress and the President look to eliminate the Title II professional development program for teachers, we can point them instead to the impact of the evidence-based initiatives it funds, such as the New Teacher Center's on-boarding initiative, the Responsive Classrooms program and our CARE for Teachers program. These all are designed to support our educators and students through SEL.
    The students who walked out Wednesday are scaling their impact through the ability to build productive relationships with peers and adults across their schools, regions and the country. And they are moving the needle on sensible gun control reform. The result is transformative, one in full display as they took one step closer to achieving the reform that has eluded so many before them.