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The campus of Henderson International School as seen on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A chance conversation with a Silicon Valley CEO years ago changed longtime educator Bob Rodrigo’s view on student success.

The business executive shared what kind of skills he looks for in new hires. The first three didn’t necessarily surprise him: people who embrace creativity, believe in being lifelong learners and see opportunity in failure. But it was the fourth trait — empathy — that really started the gears turning in Rodrigo’s mind.

“He goes, ‘Well, I need my employees to understand the needs of our customers,’” Rodrigo recalled Tim Brown, who has since stepped down as CEO of global design company IDEO, saying. “He said, ‘I also need them to be empathetic so they can be better colleagues … and finally he says, ‘You know what Bob? It’s just the right thing to do for humanity. We all could use a little more empathy.’”

Bob Rodrigo, director of curriculum and instruction at Henderson International School. (Courtesy photo)

Fast forward several years. Rodrigo, now director of curriculum and instruction at Henderson International School, is helping launch an empathy-focused program at the private school. 

But it’s more than just a kindness campaign.

In January, eight staff members will begin a five-month training program aimed at helping them recognize and nurture students’ emotional and personality traits that will help them succeed in life. At the same time, the school has introduced report cards measuring students’ emotional and social developments.

“If we're honest with each other, and we really look at what we have been measuring and celebrating, I don't know that it lines up with what the CEOs of the world are asking,” Rodrigo said.

So how does this work in practice?

First of all, it’s not a letter grade. The school has developed a rubric, Rodrigo said, that tracks students’ progress in a number of categories. If they’re exceeding expectations in the conduct category, for instance, that means: They respect other people’s opinions, feelings and ideas. They don’t interrupt others while speaking. They exhibit kindness and honesty. And they’re positive team members who are inclusive of others.

It’s one thing to teach discrete academic skills such as multiplication or punctuation and quite another to teach concepts rooted in compassion. After all, even adults confuse the words “empathy” and “sympathy.”

Rodrigo, who spent years working at other school districts in California, acknowledges it’s not a simple feat. He said the effort involves modeling empathy and praising students when they display the trait. Once a week, staff members deliver certificates to students who have been spotted excelling in emotional intelligence — perhaps because they invited a lonely student to play or respected a peer’s ideas during a discussion. Whatever the case, teachers and staff make a point to reiterate the positive action so that others can learn from it.

“If it was easy, everybody would do it,” Rodrigo said. “It’s not easy. It has been one of the more difficult things to teach.”

Social-emotional learning has become a trendy educational term in recent years as momentum grows for its inclusion in classroom settings. Several years ago, a Las Vegas elementary school revamped its recess to foster more social and emotional skills among its students who staff realized may not have been acquiring those traits at home. Up north, the Washoe County School District has been weaving social-emotional learning into its curriculum for more than a decade. And increasing social-emotional learning was one of the recommendations that emerged in 2018 from Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara’s advisory committee examining ways to bolster school safety.

Organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning have been touting research showing the benefits, such as improved academic achievement. 

As far as Rodrigo is concerned, creating empathetic students has never been more important. As priorities shifted in the classroom and in society at large, empathy took a back seat.

“Is it celebrated in the same way that we celebrate the Super Bowl champions,” he said. “I’d say, yeah, probably not.”

So far, parents have been receptive to the initiative, Rodrigo said. While the program remains in its early stages, he said the roughly 300-student Henderson International School — which has been providing in-person instruction — has had only three office referrals for behavior issues this year, which could signal enhanced social-emotional awareness among the children and young teenagers.

But he cautions those who think this can be accomplished through purchasing curriculum or software. It can’t, he said. Success hinges on building a school culture that embraces and promotes emotional intelligence — not just book smarts.

“When EQ (emotional quotient) and IQ are equal and held at the same level of importance,” he said, “then I think that’s where the magic starts happening.”

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