When we relaunched our stories for the fall, we mentioned some upcoming changes to our platform in order to grow our mission of denormalizing and destigmatizing homelessness. We believe this work remains rooted in educating others through perspective taking, contextualization, and affective connections which allow us, as humans, to develop empathy for others. With our backgrounds in teaching and education, we wondered how this idea could take root in elementary school classrooms. Therefore, we went into second and third grade classrooms to learn more about people in our homeless community.
Too often, our focus revolves around adults’ perceptions and understandings of society, yet children make sense of their world too and children have their own understandings of how the world works. Children catch onto the things adults miss. They hear and make sense of conversations that adults believe they cannot understand, and they experience many of the same emotions adults experience. Expressing these emotions often looks different for children and adults, yet the sentiment behind the emotions remains real and deserves validation.
As the seasons change and we embrace the spirit of giving, our hearts grow warm. We think of our blessings and what we can do to help others. Thoughts of helping others resonate for children too. Our friends in second and third grade wanted to know more about how they could help those in the homeless community. We walked into second and third grade classrooms thinking we would teach children about empathy, yet they ended up teaching us. Those of us with experience of being around children know that children always have something to teach us. The lessons children teach us often revolve around being a good human. The children we worked with shared their raw emotions with us in the most wholesome way.
We brainstormed ideas of why people experience homelessness, read a story about a young girl living in a shelter, engaged in perspective taking exercises, and made connections with the aim of developing empathy for others. Developing empathy requires us to connect with our emotions. We challenged students to consider a time when they felt hopeless. We asked them to reflect silently on a piece of paper. For some students, hopelessness resulted in their lego set breaking and not knowing how to find new parts. Other students shared they felt hopeless when they did not know if they would have food at home. To many people these examples differ drastically, yet both examples highlight individual experiences of hopelessness. All humans do not share common experiences, yet we all share common emotions.
We challenged the students to answer questions. “What did you do? Who did you talk to?” when you experienced feelings of hopelessness. These questions allowed students to reflect on their own support systems and consider how people experiencing homelessness need support systems too when they also feel hopeless. Students asked, “Where do you go if you’re homeless?” “How can you find food and a warm place to sleep?” “How can I help?” These questions demonstrate children’s ability to connect to other people’s lived experiences and make sense of the world in ways that transcend judgement and consider how we can create change. When we sit down and converse with children at an early age, they learn how to make sense of their emotions, their world, and other humans within their world. They start to ask questions, learn about helpful resources, and steps they can take to make their world a more empathic place to live for all humans.
Ultimately, we sat down, we talked, we valued each other, and we realized that we are all just People seeing People.