Brett Bigham

Empatico’s new global inclusion model is an invitation to every student

It is so rare that you get to be part of something that is both really fantastic and really important. If you are a teacher who works with kids with special needs, then this is one of those moments when your class can be part of something that truly is life-changing. This week, Empatico is unveiling their all-new special education activity adaptations and resources, which invite your students to participate in global inclusion. I believe our students benefit from contact with the outside world, but for many classrooms, the needs are so high that community access can be difficult. Empatico is the perfect answer for how to connect your students with other classrooms in other communities and countries.

The goal of Empatico is to promote empathy and kindness on a global scale by introducing children to other children in places far from their own homes. My friends — Michael Dunlea and Melissa Collins (New Jersey and Tennessee) — were matched as Empatico classrooms, and what they found was their classes were given an amazing opportunity to have a new and special friend who just happens to live far away. What they saw was an opportunity for their kids to have a friend. I was moved by their stories of how their classroom’s embraced each other and how the kids saw no race or social status, they were just immensely excited to make new friends.

But the more I heard, the more I realized that Empatico’s activities were probably a bit too big of an ask for some of my students. Today’s special education classes are incredible blends of ability, disability and a need for teachers to adapt every lesson over and over depending on their student’s’ needs. You teach a hard of hearing student very differently than a blind student or student with a severe cognitive disability. The students I know need things tailored to them, and I saw a need for Empatico to adapt their platform to become much more accessible for kids with special needs.

Instead of just wishing they would adapt their tool, I volunteered to help. For those of you who know my Teaching Channel blog, you know I mostly adapt popular lessons for kids with special needs. Wasn’t this that same idea, but for an entire tool? I figured I’d never hear from them again as adapting that many activities and resources can’t be cheap, and Empatico is completely free for educators. They don’t make money, they just support kids.

But I did hear back, and I am very honored to say that I have worked hand-in-hand with Empatico to create special education adaptations that will allow your students much easier access not only to Empatico and their activities, but also to another classroom somewhere else in the world. I know special ed teachers struggle to help their students find a place in their own community, let alone in global education. We thought of your students as we put this together because I was thinking of my own students.

Most of my students have communication goals. These include taking turns and asking questions, and run the entire gamut of back-and-forth-speaking skills. Empatico’s new adaptations take this in mind and have implemented a series of communication supports.

For our students who are hearing impaired, there are sign language directions and vocabulary words. Empatico has even gone so far as to create vocabulary lists to share with your students who use vocal output devices. These phrases can be programmed in and allow non-verbal students a chance to fully participate in Empatico activities.

Many people do not realize how difficult it can be to maneuver through the alphabet on those vocal output devices. Dr. Stephen Hawking used a sensor on his cheek to move through the alphabet to type out responses. Each cheek flex moved it one space. A to B to C… until he got to the letter he wanted. I told him I didn’t know how he could do that — it took such work and concentration. He laughed and typed (slowly), “I wrote three books on this thing!” Watching both him and my students struggle to be heard never leaves my mind as a teacher. I’m thrilled that Empatico has made it easier for these kids to participate.

Empatico is about bringing peers together to find their similarities and appreciate and celebrate their differences. This idea of practicing kindness and empathy is a perfect time for students with special needs to be included. My students have many things to teach their peers, and Empatico has suggestions on how to prepare students to meet children who might be different. The supports include books and movies that you can share with your class to prepare them to meet their first person in a wheelchair or someone who is autistic.

Empatico has created a safe space for our students to reach out beyond the classroom walls. That is what global inclusion is all about.

Finally, I believe Empatico has created a structured setting where a student becomes immediate friends with someone else. My heart has broken countless times, sitting in meetings across from parents, who answer “What do you want for your child?” with the plea that they wish their child could have a friend. Empatico gives you a friend, supports that friendship, and, most importantly, gives your students a chance to practice being friends through repeated, structured, meaningful, and safe online conversations. This is the friend that helps them practice being a kind, empathetic friend. My students have needed that. Every single one of them has needed friends.

It is with that hope for inclusion and friendship that I invite you to look into the new special education adaptations that Empatico has lovingly created with your students in mind. This has been no small effort, but they have been willing and dedicated partners.

Empatico is inviting your students to come join the conversation. They understand that promoting empathy and kindness is for everyone. Your kids included.