The Empathy Project

By Lindsay Boyle, InterActivist, Editor-in-Chief

Standing at the front of the fifth grade classroom, Mara Giglio was about to begin a Second Step lesson when a boy’s hand shot into the air. Giglio gave him the go-ahead. “It used to be so hard for me,” he said, referring to school in general. “Now it’s a lot better.” Such feedback has become commonplace to Giglio, who’s been employed by the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network since 1999. She regularly teaches Second Step bully prevention classes at local elementary schools including Amesville, Chauncey, Trimble and West.

Giglio, a Meigs County native, said she grew up in a very socially and emotionally supportive environment. In college, she studied figures like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama and became interested in the concept of non-violent education. Her junior year, she went abroad to India to study Indian and Tibetan culture. “It really opened my eyes,” she said. “Not everybody does things the way we do them. It’s so interesting and exciting to see that people have all these differences.” She became eager to put what she had learned to use. When she heard about the job opening with APJN, she obtained an online interview and flew back to Ohio 10 days later. In 2006, she scheduled a visit with her mother in Seattle—where the Second Step curriculum was created—and underwent a two-day training session in which she learned both how to teach the curriculum and how to train others.

Though it’s labeled as a bully prevention program, Giglio said the title doesn’t portray it correctly. “I like to call it ‘The Empathy Project,’” she said. “That puts a positive frame on it.” The curriculum runs for 22 weeks and gradually moves from teaching basic learning skills to more complex concepts related to understanding feelings. It is administered to kids ranging from pre-school level through the eighth grade. It’s also specially tailored: the curriculum for the younger grades is more picture-based and includes activities with puppets. The older grades view more short videos. However, discussions, group work and hands-on activities are central factors for all age groups. That’s not to say that younger grades receive a more diluted version of the curriculum. Giglio called Second Step a respectful curriculum that honors people’s intelligence. She explained that even the kindergarteners get into pairs, have discussions and learn to focus and pay attention to each other. In addition to that, Giglio pointed out that the average person’s social-emotional skills are mostly set by third grade. She suggested that the younger kids are actually more aware of how they feel. As kids grow older, the focus is typically on academics and test scores, and emotions are often devalued.

“The whole idea is if you can identify feelings, you’re more empathetic. If you’re more empathetic, then you don’t want to be in conflict,” she said. “Second Step takes the whole cycle of violence and deconstructs it and teaches the opposite.” In collaboration with the empathy element, the curriculum teaches students to embrace diversity. Giglio said that although racial diversity is not necessarily huge in southeastern Ohio, she’s still able to use examples of socioeconomic class diversity as well as physical differences, such as hair color or wearing braces and glasses to make it more applicable to the students.

During an activity performed in a fifth grade Second Step lesson, the students answered questions about things such as their favorite hobbies, foods and sports. Then they compared their answers by playing a game similar to tic-tac-toe. Most were surprised by how many similarities they found. At the same time, they recognized that differences are good. If everybody was the same, in the words of one of the students, “It would be boring.” In the discussion afterward, one girl stood up and said, “I judge my friends by what’s on their inside.” Many other students nodded their heads in agreement.

The curriculum is sensitive to the fact that many kids will come into it with impulse control issues and other behavioral issues. Thus, the curriculum suggests that teachers go against the norm and that instead of calling out and giving attention to kids who are misbehaving, they should focus on applauding the ones who are on task. Kids will quickly catch on that they will have to behave well in order to receive attention. Teachers aren’t the only ones who can help keep behavioral issues under control. Research about the curriculum has shown that students are able to help one another. Those with good social-emotional intelligence have been shown to have a positive influence on kids who are lacking in it. “If we can take kids that are being judged on things that they can’t change and give them some assets in another area, then they’re going to have more of a chance of success,” Giglio said. At the first grade level, Giglio’s Second Step lesson tackled behavioral issues regarding assertiveness. The kids split into pairs and were given scenarios to act out. They practiced using respectful assertion when asking for help as opposed to passivity or aggression. Being able to communicate effectively in scary, frustrating or even ordinary situations is something that’s useful to learn, especially in cases in which it isn’t being taught at home.

Giglio is assisted by an Amesville school social worker and an Athens City Schools guidance counselor in teaching the lessons at several of the local elementary schools. In addition, three of the teachers at Amesville also teach the curriculum. “That’s actually the best because they are with the kids and they know their issues,” Giglio said. “They can bring their issues into role plays that are being done with the curriculum.” Even the teachers who aren’t Second Step certified observe and learn the Second Step management skills and then implement them in their classrooms. That reinforcement is helpful because the lessons only occur once a week.

“I’ve been at the APJN for 12 years now and the job’s awesome. It’s really grown with me,” Giglio said. Amesville was the first school where the curriculum was taught. Conflict management in some form has been taught there longer than Giglio has been employed. West Elementary was the next school to begin implementing conflict management programs. Then in 2010, Giglio began teaching the Second Step curriculum at Chauncey and Trimble elementary schools. “Basically, I think there are two doors to any school. You’ve got the principal and then you’ve got the teacher,” Giglio said. “If those two key people are open to collaboration, then you can work with their students.” Some principals don’t accept the curriculum because they don’t think all of their students need it. Others cite a lack of time and a need to improve standardized test scores. However, the program has been proven to not only increase social-emotional skills, but academic performance as well. For some principals, that is more than enough. Peggy Williams, who’s been the principal at Chauncey Elementary for four years, is one of those principals. “We are very happy with the program and the implementation,” she said.

APJN serves 14 different counties throughout Ohio and West Virginia. Though Giglio only teaches lessons in local schools, she travels to other schools to train teachers and other staff members on things like Second Step and conflict management programs. She’s also given presentations at local middle schools and, utilizing her field experience, has taught classes at Ohio University. In addition to teaching non-violent problem solving, the nonprofit also engages in activism. One of its board members started Democracy Over Corporations, which deals with the issue of corporate funding in politics. In the past, the organization has worked for legislative change on issues such as funding for public schools. APJN, which has been around since 1984, is primarily funded by individual contributions. The rest of the funds come from grants and income earned from Giglio’s presentations and trainings. “There’s a really progressive, activist base that supports the work and is incredibly generous,” she said. “Athens is a really great place to have a nonprofit.”

In the future, Giglio said she hopes to build capacity. She wants to train more teachers, teach more classes and ultimately get the curriculum in the hands of more teachers who will use it. So far, the principals at the schools where Giglio is teaching the Second Step curriculum have nothing but kind words. “Mara is outstanding and has demonstrated a true sense of commitment to the Chauncey Elementary School community,” Williams said.  “She is resourceful and well-respected by the students and staff alike.” A sixth grade girl at Chauncey once told Giglio that she didn’t know violence wasn’t normal. “It was really powerful to me to think that her norm is violence,” Giglio said. “We have the opportunity to offer her something else, to give her different skills and tools so she can get her needs met in a nonviolent way.”


  1. How can I get this curriculum into my school in New York City AND do you have a curriculum for the High School?

  2. Bob & Elaine Gridley

    How wonderful to see how work of APJN has continued to grow since we were there. We both have wonderful memories of our days in Athens. Please say hello to everyone. Love to all new and older. Bob and Elaine Gridley

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