Moving the Needle on the Bullying Meter With Dance: A 'Soft Space' Nonprofit Yields Solid Results

It was while working with students in Bogotá, Colombia, that she had a flash of insight -- that movement, dance and other forms of kinesthetic learning increase student engagement and serve as an organic and effective means of teaching empathy-based conflict resolution skills.
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Working behind the scenes of the glaring headlines highlighting the escalating violence and bullying in our schools, Move This World founder and CEO, Sara Potler LaHayne has been leading a quiet revolution. Using dance and movement as a vehicle for empathy education, she is empowering students, teachers, parents and community stakeholders with effective tools to peacefully resolve conflict.

It was while working with students in Bogotá, Colombia as a Fulbright Scholar, that she had a flash of insight -- that movement, dance and other forms of kinesthetic learning increase student engagement and serve as an organic and effective means of teaching empathy-based conflict resolution skills. Soon afterwards, Move This World was born.

Recognizing that a root cause of conflict is the lack of empathy, building self-awareness is a key component of an effective empathy education curriculum. Lahayne believes,

If we don't understand ourselves as individuals, if we can't understand each other, if we can't put ourselves in each other's shoes, than it is virtually impossible to collaborate and support each other in solving the world's most pressing social issues.

Move This World's remarkable track record speaks for itself. So far this includes successfully working in twenty-two cities, on four continents, to provide tools for individuals to improve self awareness, increase empathy, reduce bullying and act as change agents to transform conflict in their communities. The data is compelling. Key highlights include,

•80 percent decrease in student suspensions
•65 percent decrease in physical violence during a peer conflict
•78 percent decrease in responding to a stressful situation with anger
•39 percent increase in positive empathetic response to an isolated peer

Interview with Sara Potler LaHayne

You use the term kinesthetic empathy; tell me more about this.

I think that we are seeing more and more educators acknowledge the concept of multiple intelligences -- that we all don't communicate and teach and learn in the same way -- and we need to find other vehicles to inspire certain learning objectives. I think Move This World does that.

We refer to our work as kinesthetic empathy; we talk about empathy having multiple constructs... what we may not be able to convey with words, we can now express through the embodiment of certain ideas.

So for example when you think about empathy as a skill set to reduce aggressive behavior in humans, we are talking about empathy being cognitive, affective and kinesthetic ... we help our students and teachers FEEL the physical state of another person with their own body... to build connections in a more authentic profound way and to engage students who would otherwise not be interested in this type of curriculum.

Using mirroring techniques, participants may practice the embodiment of concepts such as active listening to establish non-verbal connections. So [the questions may be] what do you do to embody being fully present or to embody mindfulness? How do we take turns leading and following?

When we are able to connect on that level we may not be able to understand each other with words, but now non-verbally we have established a connection that we may have otherwise not been able to arrive at.

How does this connection translate to the work you do? For example if I am a kid who is being bullied and in this program I am doing an exercise with someone who is bullying me and an empathetic connection is established, how does it actually work to decrease conflict in layman's terms?

Our theory of change is that if individuals are empowered with self and social awareness through a culturally sensitive creative curriculum, they will have the tools to be empathetic in their interactions with others and act as change agents to transform conflict in their communities.

We often talk in our school communities about the conflict triangle -- attitude, behaviors and contradictions -- and in order to really be able to attack the conflict triangle we need to address that lack of empathy in all of the different relational dynamics in a learning environment.

That means student to student -- to address peer to peer conflict, teacher to teacher -- so that teachers who don't get along can work effectively together, student to teacher and also administrator to parent. Someone told me of a parent who actually punched a vice principal in the face!

I mean these are real stories in the communities where we work... so what we are really doing is cultivating that emotional resilience in individuals to foster that empathetic connection in each other so they have the tools to be change agents and transform their living environments.

There are other bullying programs that use the arts to address the issue, do you work with such organizations? What is the unique factor that makes what you are doing so effective?

Other arts organizations that want to infuse empathy education and social/emotional learning into their curriculum have now become our partners rather than our competitors.

We see ourselves as more than direct service providers... we are technical assistants and [providers of] capacity building for individuals, social change activists, non-profit leaders, youth workers and educators... we connect them in best practice sharing so they can learn from each other.

And finally what sets us apart is the very scientific foundation of our approach and the evidence based practices that serve as the framework for all our curriculum development and training and the extensive monitoring and evaluating of our impact.

What keeps you going? Do you have a success story?

A very distracted student who had a lot of unfocused energy throughout the session took "The Angry Machine" very seriously. During this activity, each student embodies what they do/feel/look like when they are angry through a gesture and word all simultaneously so it sounds like a machine.

During the debrief, this student reflected so articulately and calmly, "The angry machine was pretty cool. I kind of have anger issues and I felt like I could express my anger in a way that didn't hurt anyone or get me in trouble." - 3rd grader, University Settlement at PS 133

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