Dancing our Way to Safer Schools


Published on 2 May 2012

Author(s): Ashoka Empathy/Sara Potler

Type:  Feature

In the past few years, bullying has seemed an epidemic. The loss of young lives and safe learning environments has made us universally cognizant that names really can hurt, as well as destroy individuals, families, schools, and communities.

Fortunately, we now have the attention of those privileged to make change. From legislators who have pioneered tough laws in New Jersey and California, to school administrators who championed strict penalties for bullying, to innovators focused on prevention and culture change, the force for a better tomorrow is being driven from many directions.

Now, with so many advocates, the conversation is changing. And it has everything to do with the little “e” word.

The role of empathy in education is finally a debate that has captivated the media. Progressive outlets like GOOD and Dowser have recently given the public a glimpse into a question that has captivated me my entire career: how do we prevent bullying and violence in schools through education?

In 2007, I had the opportunity to work as a Fulbright Scholar in Bogota, Colombia and study conflict resolution. In a community torn apart by violence and drug wars, students in the schools where I worked did not know what it meant to feel safe. My Colombian research team, Aulas en Paz, played a visionary role; they saw a way out of the cycle of violence that had existed for decades. Through their programs, they were equipping students with the social and emotional skills they needed to become peace-builders, rather than fall into the patterns their parents had before them.

Dance4Peace Bogota.jpg

As a newcomer to peace and civic education, I saw tremendous opportunity. But while the skills being taught produced measurable impact, the programs weren’t exactly fun for students – just another subject taught in desks, textbooks open in front of students.

A lifelong dancer, my catalytic moment came the first time I set these lessons to music. In this way, Dance 4 Peace was born, blending best practices in teaching empathy with creative movement to help students build skills for peace.

The model I developed became only more relevant when I returned to the US in 2008. More than ever, there was a call to address violence in our schools, and the way that resonated with me was through social and emotional learning. From our first workshops in Washington DC, to more than 4,566 youth having participated in our multi-year, K-12 pipeline curriculum globally, Dance 4 Peace is now pioneering a global movement in education policy to make empathy and peace education a priority in our curricula.

A dollar of prevention is worth thousands in cure. Our program has proven that an extremely low-cost model can be scalable and measurable, and makes economic sense for investment on the part of schools, districts, and governments. Integrating empathy education into our schools is not a rhetorical discussion; rather, it is something we cannot afford to wait to take action on.

Within the growing conversation about empathy, I sit among plies, the name pass, and relaxation exercises, bringing creative movement to the table with educators, policy makers and academics. Now is our time to mobilize to stop bullying and school violence, to change the way our children are educated so that they have the tools to build this better tomorrow. I urge you to join this globally relevant movement and together, we will take the steps to ensure our children grow to be our next leaders and peacemakers.

Back to previous page