Developing Empathy in High School Boys — Paul Fehlner, Blue Ridge School, United States

  • Global Citizenship (2015-16)

During the autumn term, 2015, nine 15- to 18-year-old students from Blue Ridge School in St. George, Virginia took part in an action research project to determine the effects of repeated interaction between the students and the recipients of their community service. Qualitative data collected during the action research indicated empathetic responses from the students of each type: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. Not only did the boys come to understand the plight of the people they were serving, but they also developed an emotional interest that compelled them to help.

At Blue Ridge School we provide many opportunities for our boys to participate in service- oriented projects that range from fund raising ventures and aiding charitable organizations, to direct participation in the community food pantry located on our campus. Most of our boys will cooperatively, and even enthusiastically, participate at the request and direction of the faculty. While the boys possess cognitive empathy, however, and understand that poverty can have a detrimental effect on the poor, there seems to be a lack of emotional and compassionate empathy toward the beneficiaries of their efforts. Once the job is done, the beneficiaries and their circumstances seem quickly forgotten.