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Building Critical Empathy Skills in the First Weeks of School
Rachel Freeman, communications & website manager

At Nueva, we believe that EQ matters as much as IQ. We strive to make students feel heard, seen, and cared for, and to equip them with the skills to be global citizens of the world. It’s because of these goals that our faculty integrates social-emotional learning (SEL) throughout the curricula and that we formally teach SEL as a class across all divisions, first through 12 grades (albeit with a different name—Science of Mind (SOM)—in the upper school). 

In addition to helping to build in students a set of important life skills, infusing the school day with SEL lessons and activities helps everyone build a better Beloved Community. All seven SEL/SOM faculty members began the year in their classes with activities designed to build community and foster meaningful relationships among classmates. 

Here’s what the classes looked like during the first weeks of school. 

In the lower school, teacher Lisa Hinshelwood has, in her 11 years at Nueva, honed an SEL curriculum that builds in complexity year over year. In the first grade, students are introduced to the SEL Toolbox, a valuable set of skills children learn to use to manage their own emotional, social, and academic success. 

“The skills include I-messages, win-win solutions, cool downs, personal space bubbles, appreciation and gratitude, filling buckets, and check-ins,” Lisa said. “The goal is that by the end of first grade, students will be aware of the tools, will have a common language, and will have even begun to use the tools.” 

Students learn by doing, practicing the skills through role playing, writing and storytelling, art, and a variety of build activities. By the fourth grade, students have developed a great sense of self-awareness and begin to ask the question, “Why?” To feed this increased sense of curiosity about themselves, Lisa starts to be more intentional in teaching students about giftedness and excitabilities. 

“Diving into giftedness helps students understand, for example, why mindfulness and meditation are so important,” Lisa explained. “In fourth grade, we are also deepening their communication and interpersonal skills, and we explore the science behind those and other concepts.”

In the early middle school years, the first weeks of SEL focus on empathy and identity, which help students as they learn how to build community, develop leadership and problem-solving skills, and explore social justice issues. To begin the year, teacher Nicole Macaraeg asked her fifth graders to define what empathy means to them, and then they worked in small groups to identify opportunities to practice empathy. 

One student defined empathy as, “Walking in someone else’s shoes.” Another noted, “Feeling with something, not just for someone.” 

“Throughout the year, students will develop their skills and knowledge on several different themes but establishing a deeper understanding of empathy in the beginning allows students to lay the groundwork for the topics to come,” Nicole said. 

The later middle school years spend the beginning of the year focused on friendships. 

“Coming back to school is a big deal for most students and likely even more so during the current times,” said teacher Jared Briggs. “We know that friends and relationships are important to students but are even more central to the experience of a middle school student. Because of this, the beginning of the seventh and eighth grade years starts with the guiding questions: How do I maintain a healthy friendship over time? (for seventh) and How can I help foster a healthy friend group and navigate challenges within the group? (for eighth).”

I hope that students leave my classes knowing how helpful SEL can be in their lives. I want them to approach new opportunities with an open mind, good attitude, and growth mindset.”
Lisa Hinshelwood, lower school SEL teacher

Ninth graders began their year in SOM, titled Systems of Oppression and Understanding for Liberation (SOUL), with a design thinking challenge. After being divided into two groups, students were challenged to work together to pass each one of 72 tennis balls to every group member before placing each ball in a cardboard box—in only 60 seconds. Groups had three minutes to plan, answering questions including, “How can we make sure each ball is touched?” “Who should be the last person to touch the balls?” and “Should we lay out all the tennis balls first or make a funnel with our hands?”

Through this activity, teachers Matthew Oakland and Alison Williams hoped to demonstrate the design thinking process in action.

“We wanted students to realize that design thinking inherently necessitates a need for collaboration and iterating on a certain solution multiple times,” Matthew shared. “Relatedly, when thinking about identifying a problem or working against certain systems—for SOM that means thinking about systems of oppression—we have to think about engaging across differences and complexities. We have to think of a multitude of users with different needs and lived experiences. We want students to apply the same skills they did for this challenge—compassion, systems understanding, problem-identification, and capacious thinking towards complex issues—in our SOM/SOUL class this year.” 

Every year in her 10th and 11th grade SOM courses, teacher Olivia Barber writes a letter to her students. She introduces herself, sharing her hobbies, educational background, and why she loves teaching SOM. She then asks her students to write her a letter back, sharing information about themselves. This year she took a slightly different approach. 

“I really wanted to acknowledge and model for my students the vulnerability that comes with talking about the last year and a half,” she said. “We have all been through a number of trials, and these trials have affected people differently. So in my letter, I also shared how the last year has impacted me, inviting students to do the same in their letters.” 

Olivia’s goal for this letter-writing activity is to invite students into rich conversations about their SEL needs for the year. They also participated in a spectrum activity, in which Olivia shared two opposing ideas on a spectrum (e.g. I loved remote learning/I did not love remote learning) and students selected where on the spectrum they felt they were. 

“These activities are great opportunities for students to build compassion with each other,” Olivia added. “I want students to be curious and learn how to be kind with each other.” 

It’s this sentiment—wanting students to be curious and grow into empathetic human beings that build community and compassion with their peers—that is universally shared among the SEL/SOM teaching team. 

“I hope that students leave my classes knowing how helpful SEL can be in their lives,” Lisa said. “I want them to approach new opportunities with an open mind, good attitude, and growth mindset.”

Alison Williams, SOM teacher, added, “Our hope is for students to have a better sense of who they are and to feel connection and empowerment in lived experiences and identities. We want them to have an understanding of how these lived experiences inform how they navigate systems in society and to lead with a sense of hope and liberation for all human beings.” 


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