The Nora Project: Teaching Empathy by Sparking Friendships

by Lauren Schrero

Last Tuesday I brought my almost three-year-old daughter Nora to a trial day at a therapeutic preschool near my house. The preschool classes are taught by teams of speech-language therapists, and many of the students who attend have behavioral challenges and developmental delays. I thought that for a first school experience this could be a good place for Nora, who has complex medical needs and is not walking, talking, or eating yet. She’d be more easily understood by her teachers and integrated with her peers at a therapeutic school, I thought, than she would at our neighborhood public school.

Still, as I walked through the door, it was immediately obvious that there weren’t any students quite like Nora in the class. Everyone else could move easily from place to place, point, wave, understand and follow directions, and pick up food or a cup and distinguish it from a block or musical instrument. No one else was rocking in the corner, trying to organize the sensory information surrounding him or her. And as I observed Nora grunt with frustration at a little girl eagerly approaching her to play, I panicked, choked back tears, and asked myself if it was really necessary to put her in an environment where she was so different from her peers.

Fortunately, the thought was fleeting and the answer easily came—YES, it is absolutely necessary. I know this because my cousin Amanda developed a social-emotional learning curriculum for elementary age students that teaches the critical value and skill of empathy by sparking what may seem to be unlikely friendships between students and their peers with disabilities. She called the curriculum The Nora Project, after my Nora, and it’s grown over the last two years to mean more to more people than I’d ever imagined. I currently sit as the President of The Nora Project’s Board of Directors, and we have big plans to bring Amanda’s curriculum to schools everywhere.

The Nora Project has two fundamental goals:

1. Teaching students to see the world through another’s eyes.

The Nora Project believes that if typically developing students can learn to empathize with someone who, in some ways, is vastly different from them, then they will be able to see and consider all kinds of perspectives as they continue through life, finding common ground in situations where it seems not to exist.

2. Creating opportunities for social inclusion of children with complex medical needs and disabilities.

The Nora Project recognizes that these children may lack ready access to friendships with their typically developing peers because, in addition to facing medical and logistical challenges, they are frequently seen as incapable of friendship or unworthy of the time and attention it takes to truly get to know someone.

To meet these goals, we ask students to consider three essential questions over the course of the school year:

1. What does it mean to be normal?
2. Why do we share our stories?
3. What does it mean to be a good friend?

In addition to exploring these questions academically and through classroom discussion, students in participating classrooms have the opportunity to engage their peers with disabilities in fun activities and to learn more about them by interviewing their family members, teachers, doctors, therapists, and caretakers. By creating these real-world opportunities in the context of the project’s guiding questions, The Nora Project normalizes difference and demystifies disability.

The friendships created through the project are real and deep, and continue beyond the confines of the classroom and the school year. Once the typically developing students get to know their peers with complex medical needs and disabilities, the enthusiasm they have for being around them is impossible to contain. The students quickly learn what we as parents of these children have always known: our kids are awesome.

The project culminates in a film festival featuring the original documentaries of participating students, which chronicle their journeys through the curriculum with their new friends. These documentaries are available on our website and they teach that the gift of bringing children with complex medical needs and disabilities into the classroom is among the most important gifts we can give all students.

Nora is registered now to attend that therapeutic preschool we tried last week. While it may take some patience, I know her classmates and teachers will soon come to see the bundle of energy and determination our family has fallen more deeply in love with each day since she was born. They will learn how to interact with her, how to engage her in play, and they’ll benefit from the love and joy radiating from her heart as she becomes an integral member of the class. The Nora Project gives me courage to send her into the world. It gives me hope for her future and for the future of all children.

We hope to bring The Nora Project to your school soon. Please be in touch.

Author: Lauren Schrero • Date: 5/25/2017

About the Author

Lauren Schrero Levy is the President of The Nora Project, a non-profit organization teaching empathy in elementary school classrooms by sparking friendships between students and their peers with disabilities. She is also the proud mother of the project’s namesake, Nora, a three-year-old bundle of joy and inspiration who herself faces significant medical and developmental challenges. Lauren received her B.A. from Macalester College and J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. She enjoys writing, spending time with her family, and summertime. She is a huge fan of Complex Child and honored to be a contributor.

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