Eighth-grade boys and girls at Walnut Middle School got to experience three minutes of empathy on Wednesday as part of Kailey McCoy's family and consumer science class.
The "empathy belly," which students strapped on to get some idea of what it feels like to be nine months pregnant, is part of a larger unit about human reproductive health.
In the Grand Island school curriculum, reproductive health is part of the FCS curriculum, which also includes units on preparing nutritious foods and other skills needed to operate a successful household. McCoy said the students in Wednesday's class are about halfway through the 10-day section on reproductive health.
She said that she begins this unit by stressing the importance of decision making. Boys and girls alike are told that whether they become teenage parents depends on the decisions they make.
From McCoy's -- and the school district's -- standpoint, the preferable course for the eighth-graders is to avoid making any decisions that would result in a pregnancy. The district has an abstinence-only curriculum.
But despite what McCoy and the district might stress, many girls still end up pregnant at some point during their school career, and that increases the likelihood that the girl will not graduate from high school.
McCoy said one part of her curriculum includes electronic Baby Think-It-Over dolls that students take home with them after school. Students are responsible for caring for the "baby" for about 16 hours before they are able to return the doll to McCoy's classroom.
The decision to take the doll home is voluntary, McCoy said, though she estimated that in a typical year, about 120 of her 150 students will take the doll home.
The dolls can spark a conversation between parents and children about sex and the heavy responsibility of becoming a parent, she said.
The electronic doll is programmed to record how well students do at various tasks, including feeding, burping and holding the doll and changing diapers, McCoy said. The electronic records will show how well the students did each of these tasks, especially how well they did in giving the baby's neck and head proper support at all times.
The dolls can be programmed so that they can be easy to care for, moderately difficult to care for or hard to care for, McCoy said. If it was possible for students to care for the doll over several days, she said, she might consider programming the dolls for needing a moderate level of care.
But because the students get the dolls for a single overnight stay, McCoy said, she usually programs the doll to demand the greatest level of care. She said that means that the baby will do lots of crying in the middle of the night.
She said she does that so the eighth-grade students will get some idea of how tiring it might be to care for a newborn in the first few months of life.
It is not unusual for students to come to school the next day and say they cannot wait to be relieved of the responsibility of caring for the electronic doll, she said. Sometimes, students are surprised at the relatively low scores they receive in providing proper care for their electronic dolls.
McCoy said every once in a while, she will have a student come in and say it was very easy to care for the doll. She said that she will then look at the doll's electronic records and discover that the doll cried 10 times during the night and the student never woke up to give the baby the attention it needed.
"It's good for kids to know that about themselves, too," she said.
A heavy task
In some ways, The Empathy Belly is another small way for students to know what it physically means to take on the responsibility of pregnancy. McCoy told some of the students on Wednesday that if nothing else, the empathy belly should give them a new appreciation for what their own mothers went through in bringing them full term to birth.
The exercise begins with McCoy tightly wrapping an elastic band around a student's midsection to simulate the restricted breathing a woman will likely feel by the time she is nine months pregnant.
Eighth-grader Natali Coss Pacheco immediately exclaimed, "It's hard to breathe!" right after the wind elastic band was fastened around her midsection, exerting pressure on her lungs. And that was before McCoy affixed The Empathy Belly to the student and draped the protruding belly with a maternity smock.
Once that was done, McCoy had all the students perform various tasks: bending down to the floor to pick up a pencil that had been dropped; sitting down and rising from a chair; lying down on the floor and trying to find a comfortable "sleep" position. Of course, the finale involved struggling back up off the classroom floor.
Natali said each of those tasks was much more difficult wearing the pregnancy belly.
Because the belly is filled with water, when a student shifted weight a little to one side, the water shifted weight in the same direction.
Alejandro Romero was one of about four boys who McCoy enlisted to wear the empathy belly. He said he did not think anybody could get an undisturbed eight hours of sleep when nine months pregnant. It was difficult trying to find a comfortable sleep position, and even if a person could get comfortable, the comfort would only be temporary because the weight of the belly would eventually cause any position to become uncomfortable.
Because of time constraints, only a limited number of students could experience The Empathy Belly. While those few students were experiencing the sensations of being nine months pregnant, the remainder of students were using various iPad apps to show the week-by-week stages of fetal development.