Creating Kind and Compassionate Kids: Author Q&A
Creating Kind and Compassionate Kids: Author Q&A
PUBLISHED: Monday, August 17, 2020 by Andilynn Feddeler

Creating Kind and Compassionate Kids: Classroom Activities to Enhance Self-Awareness, Empathy, and Personal Growth in Grades 3–6 offers lessons and activities that promote problem solving and social-emotional learning, allowing students in grades 3–6 to become more aware of themselves and others who share their world. Learn more about the book and the importance of compassion in this interview with the authors, Deborah S. Delisle and James R. Delisle, Ph.D.

Q: What inspired you to create a book that encourages compassion and other affective skills in students?

Jim: As an educator, I’ve always been focused as much on the affective side of learning as the cognitive dimension of it—perhaps more, in fact. My reasoning is this: Every lesson we offer to students is met in one of three ways: with excitement, with nonchalance, or with dread! So, in focusing on the elements of learning that reward you for being interested, introspective, reflective, etc.—which affective lessons are designed to do—we can reach both our students’ minds and hearts simultaneously. The compassionate part of learning is, to me, a natural follow-up to the self-reflection that many affective activities entail. As is said on every airplane flight prior to takeoff, “put on your own mask before helping someone else.” It’s the same with growing compassion in kids. Once they feel comfortable, safe, and secure in who they are, reaching out to others is a natural next step.

Deb: Whenever students walked through our classroom door, I always saw certain looks in their eyes: “Care about me.” “Respect me.” “Help me to be a better me.” “I really do want to learn; I just struggle every day.” Even when students weren’t that obvious, I realized early on that kids want to have a relationship with the adults in their lives. Sometimes they just don’t know how. Worse, some kids have been so ignored by adults who felt the need to be distant that they have become weary of adults. So, the emotions attached to everyday life have to be confronted, taught, discussed, and nurtured. Kids’ hearts are as important as their minds. Years ago, my class became entrenched in project Kid2Kid, borne out of concern when Hurricane Hugo caused so much damage to South Carolina and other coastal states. Sixth graders became leaders and changed my perception overnight of what they can accomplish when given support and space. It still brings chills when I think about that entire endeavor.


Q: Why are social-emotional learning and problem-solving skills important to foster in today’s youth?

Jim: Think back to your favorite teachers when you went to school. Do you remember them fondly today because they taught you the difference between a verb and a gerund, or how to multiply fractions? I’m guessing not. We recall our favorite teachers because they became real to our lives. They laughed and cried with us; they admitted when a lesson was not going as planned and scrapped it for something else; they stopped instruction for a few minutes so everyone could look out the window and gaze at springtime’s first rainbow. In teaching our students the importance of viewing every day as a new adventure, we lay a foundation for their future development as caring parents, engaged workers, and empathetic friends. It doesn’t cost a dime to take time to listen to someone’s story or to offer support during an especially trying day. By teaching these lessons through classroom activities that emphasize kindness and compassion, we are preparing our students for lives filled with more joy than strife, and more empathy than selfishness.

Deb: Research indicates that social-emotional skills build a strong foundation for learning and may even be more important than academic skills. Educators have a keen desire to make a positive difference in the lives of their students, which requires modeling and incorporating effective social-emotional learning skills throughout the day. I view the development of and attention to social-emotional skills as essential to “growing” great kids. One of our primary roles as educators is to ensure that knowledge is acquired; however, that knowledge can only come alive and be understood in a classroom defined by respect, empathy, and social awareness. Whenever we ask our son to reflect on his schooling, he doesn’t share how he liked a teacher because of memorizing states and capitals or by learning how to solve an equation. He always reflects on how a teacher made him feel, how the principal supported him when something tough happened in his life, or when a teacher told him she was unable to give him anything more in English class—and told him to just write. These are incredibly powerful moments. How my heart sings as a parent when I recognize that these adults, and many others, took the time to care for my son—to be sure his heart was growing. Even after all these years, my son remembers educators who cared for him and allowed learning to occur simultaneously. 

Q: How do the lessons and activities in this book differ from traditional curriculum/lessons?

Jim: I’m not sure that they really do! Instead of asking overly-busy teachers to add yet more courses to their curriculum plate, we are simply asking that they infuse some of our activities into their current learning objectives. For example, our “Grate Misteaks” lesson focuses on the importance of recognizing and appreciating our own (and others’) “moments of oops.” Being able to see the relevance of making mistakes certainly applies to any kid who is struggling with spelling or math or deciphering the periodic table’s importance. Too, in our “Bug Myself” activity, in which one of the options is to invite three historical figures to dinner and create the conversations that might ensue, we are tapping into our students’ creativity while simultaneously exploring the importance of prominent individuals who have contributed to our world. To be sure, some of our book’s activities can be done just for fun or for a needed Friday afternoon break from standardized testing, but most of them correlate with curricular areas that are already within our teaching repertoire.

Deb: I suggest that they do not differ; rather, they take content-specific standards and embed them with social-emotional learning. These are not difficult to organize. They are intended to stretch teachers’ repertoire of skills and utilize kids’ curiosity and reactions to relatively simple teasers or questions. Additionally, one of the benefits of these activities is to allow various types of responses and, in doing so, help kids to see the differences in their classmates’ thinking. I have found kids love when there is no one right answer. However, there will be times when kids struggle and will often ask “What exactly do you want?” The beauty in these lessons is their flexibility. Teachers can bring their own interests and ideas into the lessons and incorporate them in ways that will work best for their students. The common thread throughout the lessons is the social-emotional skills embedded within each one. We believe this essential component breathes life into everyday learning.


Q: How can the lessons be modified/differentiated for learners in different grade levels, gifted learners, etc.?

Jim: I currently teach gifted high school students on a part-time basis. With just a little bit of tweaking, I’ve been able to use most of these activities with 15-year-olds who can be quite sensitive about not wanting to do “baby stuff.” For example, the activity we title “Possible Dreams” highlights the life of explorer John Goddard, who, at the age of 15, came up with 127 goals he wanted to accomplish in his lifetime, including such adventures as building a telescope, climbing Mt. Ararat, and getting married and having children. He updated his goals regularly and, prior to his death, accomplished the vast majority of them. After reading about Goddard and viewing a short film about his life, my teens were asked to consider what goals they had in these domains: places to explore, people to meet, things to learn how to do, physical accomplishments, and other goals (like appearing in a horror movie, as one of last year’s students planned to do). Trust me, my teenage students enjoyed and benefited from this activity as much as did the fourth graders with whom I originally used it. Tweaking and imagination are all it takes to make almost any classroom activity appropriate for any age student.

Deb: Jim provides a great example of moving the activities “up,” and the same can be done for younger students. For example, in “Thumbody Like Me,” high school students can work with younger students and elicit responses from them. Then, they can assist younger students in developing one thumbprint and make a character out of it. It can also, at all grade levels, become a main character from a recently-read novel or to explain a scientific discovery. Imagine a Neil Armstrong thumb character taking a long walk on the moon! 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

Jim: Every teacher I’ve ever met hoped, first and foremost, one thing: to positively impact the lives of the students in their temporary care. Sometimes, as the years pass, we forget that this was our original intent as educators. Maybe we feel bogged down with paperwork or administrivia or lack of support from parents or others . . . whatever the hurdles, we have all faced them. By doing classroom activities that remind us of the central roles we play in the happiness and well-being of our students, the more we will be able to rekindle that long-ago dream of impacting our students’ lives for the better. If our book’s activities help you, as a teacher, to do this in even a small way . . . we will have succeeded in our task as fellow educators.

Deb: I believe that what we offer to our students tells them what we value. When we offer opportunities for kids to grow their hearts, we let them know that we value them as people. When we provide opportunities for kids to engage with others, to act in caring ways, and to get to know their classmates’ different perspectives, we let kids know that they are valued as growing beings. I hope that our readers take away the importance of growing kids’ hearts and that it is not an overwhelming feat to nurture them. If our activities, our lessons, or our ideas help you to connect with kids’ hearts, we can all feel a bit more optimistic about the world we are helping our kids to create.


Deborah S. Delisle is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), a national nonprofit committed to improving the educational outcomes—and lives—of high school students, especially those traditionally underserved. James R. Delisle, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized educator of gifted children and the author of 23 books about understanding gifted kids as an educator and parent.