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Iowa school gives kids a quarter of a graham cracker to teach them about poverty
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An Iowa high school used simulation at an assembly Monday to teach its students about poverty. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
Western Dubuque High School in Iowa had an interesting assembly Monday, according to The Telegraph Herald.

The local National Honor Society is kicking off its annual food drive, and in an attempt to boost donations, student organizers gave their peers a serious dose of pathos.

At a "hunger banquet," more than 900 students were divided up into social classes. Half of the students were given a "low-class" card, a quarter of a graham cracker and told to sit on the floor. A third were given a "middle-class" card, a frosted graham cracker and sat in the bleachers. The final 20 percent of students were given ice cream sundaes and got to sit at tables.

Alyssa Dougherty, a senior who helped organize the event, told The Telegraph Herald she hoped the simulation would make students more likely to donate nonperishable goods by having a firsthand experience with poverty.

A few students said they were disappointed to be put in the "low-class" group, or conversely, felt guilty if they received ice cream when their friends didn't but that's the reaction organizers were looking for, the article said.

The event was modeled after the hunger banquets that nonprofit Oxfam America developed 40 years ago as fundraisers.

For adolescents, such events can play a major role in the empathetic tendencies they develop. According to research from the University of Miami, empathy is typically engrained between the ages of 4 and 20. The capacity for empathy is highly innate to the individual, but reactions to one's empathetic feelings is a learned behavior.

Teaching "prosocial" actions to address the needs of others helps develop "the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping," according to The New York Times.

Young people who are involved in helping others also tend to be happier with their own lives and feel positively about their own futures, according to the American Psychological Association.

Susan Linn, a child psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told Babycenter.com that parents should begin talking to their children about poverty and homelessness when they are 5 to 8 years old. Children pick up habits from their parents, Linn said, and when interacting with the homeless, parents could send unintentional messages to their children, depending on their body language and actions.

U.K. charity Christian Aid creates presentations and lesson plan templates to help Sunday School teachers talk to children about global poverty, with themes as difficult as malaria and civil war.