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Teaching Empathy To School Bus Drivers

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Across the country each day, 25 million kids board a big yellow school bus. Some feel anxiety, especially students with physical or emotional challenges. Now, in Michigan, some bus drivers are putting on blindfolds and riding as passengers to try and better understand their riders' experience. From member station WKAR in East Lansing, Kevin Lavery reports.

KEVIN LAVERY, BYLINE: Dean Transportation in Lansing is one of the nation's largest private school bus companies. Every day, its fleet of 1,700 buses log 125,000 miles. If that were one long road, it would circle the Earth five times. But safety and training director Fred Doelker says the distance is far less important than the passengers.

FRED DOELKER: We transport about 80,000 children in Michigan each day. About two-thirds of those children are special needs kids.

LAVERY: Some are visually impaired. Others use wheelchairs. And still others are on the autism spectrum. Doelker teaches empathy skills to his drivers. That can mean just making connections, like offering a kind word to an upset student or giving that extra moment of personalized care.

DOELKER: What we're helping drivers and attendants understand is what they can reasonably expect on this heavily fortified can that's driving down the street with all different children of all different ages and all different development.

LAVERY: Empathy also includes being aware of how you're driving your bus. For example, a visually impaired child might not be able to anticipate a rough patch of road or a sudden stop. To experience this training, I'm blindfolded and strapped into a wheelchair.

DOELKER: All right. Let's go.

LAVERY: While I'm already buckled into the chair, the bus also has its own restraint system with tie-downs to secure the wheels to the floor. We start off smooth enough, but soon I'm seriously rattling in my chair. In Michigan, potholes are the stuff of legend.

I feel like a marble in a washing machine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

LAVERY: A couple days later, I meet Russ Clark in his bus garage. Clark is a retired GM worker who now drives special needs kids in the Rockford School District outside of Grand Rapids. He knows all his passengers by name and even their parents. His one-on-one interactions begin even before school does. Just before summer's end, Clark takes a practice run through his route. He wants his kids to know who he is and what they can expect when they return to school.

RUSS CLARK: So that first morning, they're not all worried and scared. We have personal contact. And I get them on the bus, and they walk around the bus and get comfortable with the bus before even school starts. That's what - something I've always done.

LIBBY: (Unintelligible).

CLARK: Libby, how are you doing today?

LAVERY: As the sun rises, we arrive to pick up a young girl who is nonverbal and uses a walker. Carefully and cheerfully, Clark straps her into her favorite seat, right behind him.

CLARK: Let's get your strap on, please. It's going to be a good day at school for you.

LAVERY: That little gesture is a daily ritual. Her mother, Beth Walla, knows it well.

BETH WALLA: That special handshake, fist bump, sparkles, whatever their little system is that they do, has just lit her up. And they've been doing it ever since. It just warms my heart.

LAVERY: While empathy training is relatively new, it's being more widely embraced. So, too, is Dean Transportation's plan to teach self-care techniques to its drivers so they can become more aware of their own emotional state. And the company is experimenting with a more high-tech approach to empathy, using virtual reality scenarios to help bus drivers fine-tune their real-life responses.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Lavery in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.