How Do You Teach Altruism?

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Sera Anello’s career in teaching began during a fraught moment for education, to say the least. 

The 21-year-old was co-leading her first class of fourth graders at Anne Frank Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, when COVID changed everything. Kids went home with Chromebooks, and they didn’t fully return for two years. 

As Anello got to know the students who returned, she saw how the pandemic had changed them. At the start of the school year, she asked them to strike up conversations with their neighbors. 

It was “chilling,” she says.

“You usually can’t get kids to shut up at that age,” she laughs, “[but] it took me two weeks to have my kids feel comfortable turning and talking to someone. They didn’t know how to have conversations, because they were used to hiding behind their screens.”

It’s a microcosm of Drexel’s approach to civic engagement, brought down to the early childhood level. Where do we start with the vision of a holistically developed, community-engaged citizen? What are the traits? They have to be character-related traits like empathy for others, and children have to be involved in projects that are meaningfully impacting their community.

– Michael Haslip executive director, Lisa and John McNichol Early Childhood Education Lab

Simply sitting next to a classmate made the children anxious. They cried or threw tantrums when classmates took their pencil or tapped a finger too loudly on a desk. They cursed at each other — and at Anello. Given an exam, they crumpled it and threw it in the trash. 

“My 9-year-olds were acting like 5-year-olds,” she says.

Anello knew she needed support, so she turned to Drexel’s Lisa and John McNichol Early Childhood Education Lab. 

Established in 2019, the young lab’s faculty and college students work alongside outside practitioner partners — currently more than 30 educational center directors, school counselors, principals and teachers from throughout Philadelphia and beyond — to incubate strategies for early childhood education.

Most of the lab’s research work is animated by Executive Director Michael Haslip’s interest in social-emotional learning, or SEL, which is the development of children’s moral and social character. Simply put: empathy, collaboration and altruism. 

The lab was exactly what Anello needed. She joined in the winter of 2021 and was inspired by the exchange of ideas. 

“I had felt like I was on my own, and then I joined the lab, and it made me feel like I had a team,” recalls Anello, who holds degrees in early childhood education and English as a second language from Temple University and has since completed a master’s in curriculum and instruction from the University of Virginia. 

She learned how to use “courtesy scripts” in the classroom, a method Haslip developed that gives children a simple sentence starter to encourage kindness in the face of confrontation. When two students butted heads, she instructed one to ask the other what they wanted, beginning with, “Will you please?” Students could choose from a set of appropriate responses: “OK,” “Sorry,” or, “That wasn’t me.” 

Gradually, relationships and understanding improved. Tattling and arguing diminished. Soon, Anello could end most disputes simply by reminding students to use the courtesy scripts.

“That’s the power of it,” she says. “They are learning how to handle things themselves, and they feel good when they don’t have to run and get their teacher. SEL enhances students’ coping skills — their ability to be resilient, to face challenges, to identify their emotions. When they can do these things, so many other things start to come on like building blocks.”

A trained yoga instructor, Anello began incorporating breathwork into the classroom, too, to help the children soothe their own emotions. Over time, as they learned to self-regulate and pause their active minds, the students began asking to do breathwork together after recess. They even encouraged Anello herself to partake when they noticed her becoming frustrated. “They’d say, ‘Miss A, do you think we should all take a breath?’” Anello says. “It was amazing to see. They had no awareness of themselves and now they have developed awareness of others.”

She saw firsthand the ways that small interventions — subtle changes in language, mindset and attitude — can have an enormous impact.

“If we can teach children early on how to be good, kind, empathetic people, we’re going to start seeing shifts not only in schools, but in the way we act as an entire society,” she says.

A New Way Forward

It wasn’t hard for Haslip to understand what Anello was going through. When he began teaching first and second grade in a disadvantaged Virginia neighborhood more than a decade ago, he saw similar emotional challenges and struggles with self-regulation. While pursuing his master’s and doctorate in early childhood education from Old Dominion University, he’d been trained to use a behavior chart to reward good behavior and discourage rule-breaking, moving students up or down a ladder and doling out consequences as needed. He quickly realized it wasn’t working.

Punishment, he says, “just makes a child sad, disappointed, upset and fearful, and they resist engaging in the learning process.” Instead, he found a new way forward, offering children special privileges for kind and helpful behavior — sports equipment for recess, for example, or selecting their own seat — while preserving everyone’s basic rights. Still, he felt he needed more robust tools.

“I spent the whole summer after my first year of teaching thinking about what SEL skills children were missing,” Haslip recalls. “What would I need to teach children so peer conflict would reduce or even disappear? It came down to how they were speaking to each other.”

The result was the courtesy scripts that had made such a difference in Anello’s classroom, as well as other strategies Haslip began testing. When he took over leadership of the Early Childhood Education Lab in 2021, after spending six years as an assistant professor in the School of Education, he gathered those strategies together into JustUnity, a collaborative professional development project that is now central to the lab’s efforts. It offers SEL-related teaching strategies that promote conflict resolution, character strength and healthy emotional expression, reflecting Haslip’s vision for the lab: a collaborative space to promote and support research on educational tools that can be applied directly in the classroom. 

“It’s a microcosm of Drexel’s approach to civic engagement, brought down to the early childhood level,” Haslip says. “Where do we start with the vision of a holistically developed, community-engaged citizen? What are the traits? They have to be those SEL and character-related traits like empathy for others, and they have to be involved in projects that are meaningfully impacting their community.”

John (BS ’74, PhD ’79) and Lisa McNichol, whose eponymous gift established the lab, say the lab’s approach gives it “real-world actionability.” Before launching a career in pharmaceuticals and biotech, John studied as a graduate student the impact of a high-quality early childhood education (ECE) program on children in under-resourced households near Temple University’s campus. He saw how early childhood education led to improvements in graduation and job rates and to declines in crime and teen pregnancy. Later in life, he and Lisa became active volunteers and philanthropists for initiatives to improve education in economically distressed neighborhoods, including those surrounding Drexel. 

“These programs break the cycle of poverty through education,” John says.

He and Lisa want the lab to be a place where anyone with a stake in teaching young children — inside or outside of Drexel and in any field — is welcome to gather and learn how to best achieve those goals. 

In a short time, the lab has exceeded all expectations, the McNichols say. 

The lab has quickly built a network through its annual teacher awards program. Each year at a special ceremony, nominated practitioners who excel in SEL are honored with the Penny Hammrich Teacher Excellence Award, named for the School of Education’s late dean, who passed away last summer. 

All honorees are invited to join the lab as members. They participate in monthly social meetings, consult collectively, join service or research projects, and share professional development opportunities and mentorship. The lab’s commitment to recognize and value excellent teachers took another step this summer with the launch of a new campaign to promote teachers to higher ranks while retaining them in the classroom (

In just three years, the lab’s members have published or are in progress on eight manuscripts. They’ve made 13 presentations at educational conferences and events and have nine active research projects and four service initiatives. One is a research project led by Christopher Beissel ’21, the principal at Hamburg Area High School in Berks County. Haslip supervised Beissel’s dissertation, in which Beissel conceptualized a new construct he calls “SEL mindset,” aimed at measuring a teacher’s aptitude for SEL instruction so administrators can learn how to better support educators in sharing these principles with students. The lab also maintains a grant database, a tutoring center with three staff, and a lending library. Haslip also manages two scholarship programs he brought to the School of Education that combine to support 50 students attending Drexel. Scholarship recipients are members of the ECE workforce and attend Drexel tuition free or pay a nominal co-pay of less than 5%.

The lab provides three professional learning courses which enrolled more than 150 educators from 10 countries in the past year, which Haslip estimates equates to indirectly helping more than 3,000 students.

“It’s thrilling to know that the hearts and minds of children are being nurtured through the teachers we support,” Haslip says.

Haslip points out that the SEL principles have a significant positive effect on academic achievement. One meta-analysis of 40 different SEL-related research studies across all grade levels found meaningful benefits for reading, math and science achievement, and urged the U.S. Department of Education to invest in new SEL program interventions.

Perhaps even more importantly, SEL also teaches children how to be civic-minded individuals in a deeply connected world. 

“The idea of improving other people’s lives starts with the youngest children,” Haslip says. “Our real contribution here is to say that we shouldn’t be waiting until college to teach kids to be active citizens. They need to be fostering those skills and attitudes in early childhood.”

The lab provides 3 professional learning courses which enrolled 150 educators from 10 countries in the past year.

Big, Lofty, Achievable Goals

Everyone involved with the lab recognizes that the world is changing, and education needs to change with it. To raise good citizens, it’s not enough to promote academic and character growth, Haslip says. In a world roiled by climate change and global crises around food security, clean drinking water, health and sanitation, educators must also raise young students’ awareness of sustainability. 

“We’re preparing children for their civic duties, not just teaching them how to add and subtract,” Anello says. 

To that end, the lab offers teachers a course called Sustainability and Altruism through Project-Based Learning, or SAPBL. The course frames classroom education through the lens of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, which include eliminating poverty and hunger and promoting health and well-being, resiliency and responsible consumption. The project can be visited at, which stands for Education for Sustainable Development.

Before taking the course, some teachers expressed skepticism that a topic like sustainability could be relevant to preschool and early elementary school students…it seemed too complex and weighty. But even during the debut of the course, in summer 2022, the lab’s members heard positive feedback from teachers who began to see how it could help students build their skills and understanding over time.

The lab’s members have now taught the online course to three cohorts, including educators in Pakistan and China, helping them build lesson plans organized around questions linked to one or more of the UN’s goals: How does water connect us, for example, or How can we mitigate climate change impacts?

The lessons are as varied as the teachers giving them. In one, students learned about consumption and waste in their school, including where trash and recycling end up and the small changes they can make to have an impact. Another used a nearby bay to explore marine ecosystems and the ways humans connect with the oceans for food, jobs and other activities.

“We frame sustainability as a process of engaging with others, of relating with others, of seeing ourselves as intricately related to the welfare of others,” explains Monica Blaisdell, a PhD candidate in the School of Education who is the lab’s co-director and also a co-designer of the course. “We’re hoping that way of thinking about the world — as being part of something bigger than ourselves and part of a larger community — will impact children throughout the rest of their lives.”

Teachers say the course has given them the courage to tackle challenging issues in their classrooms and their students have responded with enthusiasm and compassion for the people and the world around them. One instructor had her students contemplate sustainable initiatives they could promote at their school, then watched as they went above and beyond, researching how other schools had implemented recycling programs or installed rain gardens.

“My kids just fell in love with it,” she says. “They were like little advocates at the end of my lesson.”

Embracing the lab’s research agenda, members study the experience of educators who have taken the course and use it to fine-tune the program. Slowly but surely, they are determining the best methods to shape good citizens and spreading that knowledge far and wide.

The lab’s purpose is “to cultivate the skills and dispositions needed in young people from an early age to make change in their communities, whether that’s through sustainability or social-emotional leadership,” Blaisdell says. “These are big, lofty goals, but I’m seeing it happen. We’re all brought together by that mission.”

Making the Grade

Back at Anne Frank Elementary in Philadelphia, Principal Mickey Komins noticed the changes in Anello’s classroom. 

As a final school project at the end of her first year, Anello asked her fourth graders to create their own sustainability initiatives, calling upon them to use all she’d taught them about how to be positive change agents in their community. They advocated for ideas like waste-free lunches where plastic utensils were eliminated, and excess food was donated to shelters. Inspired by Anello, the students took their cause to Principal Komins. Impressed, he gave them all reusable water bottles.  
“My kids are 9,” Anello emphasizes.

Seeing all she had accomplished in her classroom, Komins asked Anello to teach her SEL strategies to other teachers in their school. Eventually, every classroom morning meeting began with an emotional check-in, followed by a piece of SEL-focused curriculum centered on a word of the month — “acceptance” or “caring,” for example. Soon, Anello was a districtwide expert on SEL learning; she expanded the concepts into professional development workshops that reached hundreds of educators. Teachers told her, “Entire classroom cultures were shifting.”  

Komins has seen the shift as well. “The kids have the language to communicate with each other; that’s what I hear more: ‘You should be more tolerant of this,’” he says. “Hearing a third grader say ‘Be more tolerant’ is worth the price of admission.”

Anello is now taking her SEL advocacy further afield. She’s authored research with Haslip on positive self-talk for young learners that is awaiting review, and she’s planning a paper about how breathwork made her students feel “calmer, happier and more confident.”

But she took the biggest step when she left Anne Frank this school year to join MindUP, a national organization advancing SEL curriculum. Through MindUP, she’s working with educators across many districts, dispersing the successful teaching strategies she learned from the Lisa and John McNichol Early Childhood Education Lab throughout the country’s educational system. 

Just as the lab’s creators intended.

A new early childhood education lab at Drexel is pouring empathy, collaboration and resilience into the world — one classroom and one child at a time.