Getting to know the children with whom we work is essential. We learn their names and perhaps ask about their favorite activities or what they did this week or last summer. We might notice that they like to wear blue or hear that they have a new sibling at home. These details are helpful, but research shows we need to know more if we really want to help every child learn and grow spiritually.
Jorge Valenzuela, an education and equity coach, says that a more systematic way to get to know children is to construct empathy maps. An empathy map is a visual tool that highlights a child’s interests, goals, strengths, and needs. Constructing a map for each child in a group helps a leader develop lesson plans that are more likely to connect with every child. The maps also serve as a check on unconscious bias because they ensure we’re paying attention to all children and not just those who stand out for some reason.
While we can gather some knowledge about the children we serve through registration forms or information sheets, a better approach includes group discussions and thoughtful observation. That way, children get to speak for themselves through their words and actions. Paying attention and listening to children share about themselves also has the added benefit of modeling the kind of respectful relationships we hope to foster among members of the group.
You can create an empathy map with a sheet of paper and markers or use a template that you print out (see Related Resources). Begin by dividing your paper into three columns, and then subdivide the first and third columns to create two boxes. Leave the center column as one, larger box, and place a photo of the child you are mapping in this space.
Around the child’s photo, list the child’s areas of strength. What do they do well? What spiritual qualities do they exhibit? What skills have they worked hard to cultivate?
In one of the other four boxes, note the child’s interests and motivations. What do they love to do? What motivates them to do good and act justly? When are they likely to get involved?
In a second box, describe the child’s spiritual needs. What do they need to learn to reach their goals? What spiritual skills are still under construction in their life? What spiritual practices do they want to learn or improve?
Use a third box to identify the child’s social emotional learning (SEL) needs. Valenzuela suggests focusing here on how a child can move toward greater self-awareness, social awareness, healthy relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
The last box is a place to name the child’s spiritual goals. What kind of person do they want to be? How do they want to be part of the change their community or the world needs?
Once you’ve constructed empathy maps for all the children in your group, use them to assess your curricular goals and strategies. Ask yourself: How well is this program building on children’s strengths to meet their spiritual and SEL needs? What else could we be doing to help them reach their spiritual goals? Then adjust your lesson plans and teaching strategies to better fit the children in your care.