Lack of empathy, of which bullying is the most violent expression, is a critical issue facing our youth today. To many educators, the problem has almost taken on a life of its own, and surfaces in the classrooms, hallways and playgrounds in the form.

Rolling Prairie, IN, November 14, 2010 - Lack of empathy, of which bullying is the most violent expression, is a critical issue facing our youth today. To many educators, the problem has almost taken on a life of its own, and surfaces in the classrooms, hallways and playgrounds in the form of students being mean to each other.

University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research analyzed 72 studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. Their report shows today's college students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades earlier.

Out of this concern, and the near loss of a teen to suicide, youth advocate, Betty Hoeffner, president of the youth self-esteem and empathy-building nonprofit, Hey U.G.L.Y. - Unique Gifted Lovable You - partnered with educators and curriculum writers to develop social and empathy learning programs geared for students aged 9 to 19. Called Empathy Learning Activity Plans (ELAPs) the nonprofit built in mandated learning standards in areas such as math, English, health and social studies to help teachers easily incorporate into their existing curriculums.

Teaching empathy is an important component in helping children survive and thrive today. The State of Illinois, recognizing a missing cog in the education wheel, now actually requires all school districts to teach social and emotional skills as part of their curriculum. In particular, positive self-esteem and empathy are key components of a healthy self image, and the best safeguard against bullying behavior and disrupted classrooms.

"It's all about helping teen and tweens see their own worth and that of their fellow human," explained Hoeffner who recalls her favorite quote from To Kill A Mockingbird where Atticus Finch tells his child, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Most educators agree that central to effectively shifting behaviors is the inclusion of experiential activities where students can, almost literally, "climb inside another's skin." ELAPs each incorporate some facet of experiential learning to engage tweens and teens in ways that comfortably address even uncomfortable issues.

For example, in one ELAP students get in touch with how it feels to be negatively judged. They share their experiences in a peer learning environment and learn to recognize when they are negatively judging others and, most importantly themselves (self bullying). They are taught how to how to cancel out the negative judgments and replace them with positives. Reports from students surveyed six weeks after the lesson show 93% now recognize when they are having negative judgments against themselves and others; 83% state they learned how to cancel out negative judgments and replace them with positive thoughts. 58% indicate that no one has bullied them.

Current research has been conducted by Roger Weissberg, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois (Chicago) and president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning based at the University of Illinois, a non-profit that promotes the benefits of acquiring social and emotional abilities from preschool through high school. He and his colleagues have identified that such programs also influence academic performance. They recently completed an analysis of 300 scientific studies and reached two important conclusions: First, students enrolled in [social and emotional learning] empathy teaching programs scored at least 10 percentage points higher on achievement test than peers who weren't. Second, discipline problems were cut in half.

According to Weissberg, "Some teachers may be skeptical [about social and emotional learning] at first but they are won over when their students learn more, are more engaged and better problem solvers.

Dr. Sue Bryant, Principal of St. Stanislaus Kostka School believes ELAPs are more impactful on teens and tweens because "they work in two very different areas of learning: academic understanding and emotional experience. For the learning to go deeper it is necessary that the learning actually shape behavior. ELAPs create an emotional experience, an 'aha moment', for the learner, and then records the feeling in some way. Students leave the learning setting with new emotional understanding about what it means to live in a successful human community."

In addition, educators are seeking to develop well-rounded, happy children who grow up to be productive members of society. It is generally agreed that self-esteem and good social skills contribute positively to that development and equip children to not fall prey to bullying.

"ELAPs give teens the tools they need to build self-esteem by helping them look at themselves - and others - with compassion and tolerance, explains Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, M.S.W., LCSW, a psychotherapist who has worked with adolescent girls and young women for over twenty years. "This effective and innovative program will make a difference in students' lives and in the communities in which they live."

Recording artist, Crystal Bowersox agrees. On CNN's AC360 Special on Bullying she said: "Empathy is such an important quality for us to have and it carries through your entire life. If you teach your children tolerance, acceptance and the ability to empathize it's such an important thing to do."