On Feb. 14, 2016 @RestoraCircles tweeted:"Listening is not a skill. Listening is a willingness to change."
Laura Di Ianni, BA Hons, Med.
Trainer in Restorative Practices
Why is empathy critically important to teach and how can it be taught?
There is “that kid” at my daughter’s school. That kid who, in the most subtle and damaging of ways, asserts herself over others. In the young years of kindergarten, this kid has figured out how to create alliances, form groups, and isolate other girls. She brings my daughter to her knees; she exhausts my daughter; she hurts my daughter. My response? Teach her how to use her voice, teach her how to stand up for yourself (in the most ethical of ways), advocate for her at school, but also ask her to consider what makes “that kid” behave the way she does. Why?
First is because a lesson in empathy is critical for self-regulation-the ability to stay calm, focused and alert (self-reg.ca). Empathy lies in what Stuart Shanker calls the prosocial domain. This domain includes:
Empathy is not just putting yourself in the shoes of another however. It includes caring about someone else’s emotions, trying to help others deal with their emotions, and distinguishing between your own emotions and someone else’s (Shanker, 2013, p. 95). This is an incredibly important lesson for my daughter, in particular, who will, with great intensity, take on the emotions of the person in front of her. When someone is angry, she becomes angry. When someone is sad, she becomes sad. When someone is happy, she becomes happy. And, aren’t we all like that to different degrees? Thus, what I need to do is help her find peace. Stay regulated. Yet, real internal peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Real peace means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. So when anger knocks at her door, it is incredibly important to help her distinguish between her own and someone else’s emotions. This is what will allow her to remain in peace. Remain regulated.
This is even more important for her learning as a “lack of skills in the prosocial domain can set off a wave of dysregulating effects across the biological, emotional, cognitive, and social domains in [the] five-domain model of self-regulation” (Shanker, 2013, p. 94). In other words, a student’s ability to maintain a sense of peace (to stay regulated) while being immersed in a group of people, is incredibly important to their physical well-being, their emotional well-being, their ability to communicate well with others, and to their learning. Therefore, empathy in the age of generation me (especially as many are immersed in the very non-connected, impulsive worlds of social media) must be addressed. But, how? The answer is through restorative practices.
In a reactionary way (when there is an incident), the use of restorative questions and restorative conferences (iirp.org) challenges students to address the facts of the situation (separating the deed from the doer-allowing all to maintain their dignity); challenges them to distinguish their feelings from someone else’s; and challenges them to not only care about another, but to also help the other in making things right.
When my daughter is hurt by “this kid,” I want the school to have both of them answer these questions and have them meet to discuss their answers (provided the other student is taking accountability or else there is further victimization). This is a learning in and of empathy in the pro-social domain. At home, if my two daughters come to fist-a-cuffs, I use these questions for these very reasons.
As a teacher, to teach empathy in a more preventative way, I teach in circles. I call them instructional circles. This is one way how I am rewriting the irrp model of restorative practices from being solely a tool for behavior to just plain good teaching pedagogy. There are times when everyone speaks and there are times when only volunteers speak (it depends on the difficulty and nature of the question). The questions invite connection and social-emotional learning. But, they also ask each and every student to connect with literature and respond to literature in a way that analyzes the qualities and importance of empathy.
Teaching empathy must also be done by example though. Being restorative means exactly that. It is in your being. For this reason, I have also included, in redefining what it means to restorative in education, the inclusion of listening and language. With my own kids and with the students who I teach, I listen for their feelings and I speak in a way that demonstrates my care for their emotions, my desire to help others with their emotions, whilst distinguishing between their and my emotions. For example, if a student is quite obviously frustrated (as noted in his body language and tone) and refusing to complete the day’s writing task, I may say, “I sense that you might be frustrated with the writing task? As your teacher, I am here to help you. So instead, of my getting frustrated too, let’s see if I can help.” I did this last week with an angry young man who told me he “hated school” and yesterday and today he wrote. He wrote a lot. He smiled a lot today. And, when he was leaving class he said “Good bye Mrs. Di Ianni, I hope you have a really good weekend. Thank you”. Alas, the importance of connection, well-being, and self-regulation to learning. Empathy has quite a bit of muscle. Even with generation me.
So in honour of Ms. Harper Lee, please consider the importance of empathy and consider how we might teach the power of empathy in our homes and in our schools. It is so critically important to the promotion of peace.
**Shanker, Stuart. Calm, Alert, and Learning. Copyright 2013 Pearson Canada Inc., Toronto, Ontario.
**International Institute of Restorative Practices. iirp.org
“We must teach a child to be calm and how to enjoy it”
~Dr. Stuart Shanker (self-reg.ca)
Laura Di Ianni, B.A. Hons, MEd., Phd. Candidate
I had to begin with Brene Brown’s Ted Talk The Power of Vulnerability in rewriting the restorative practices training (from an American model- that is rather tool based and founded and grounded in restorative justice -to a Canadian model with links to Ontario Policy and founded and grounded in research in connection, well-being, and self-regulation). I had to begin here because as Louis Cozolino champions in The Social Neuroscience of Education:
While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning (Cozolino, 2012, p. 17).
Education demands connection, but connection demands vulnerability. If this is the case-and I am certain it is-then what does this mean for the field of education?
What this means is that we as teachers must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We must move away from the very comfortable and safe world of prediction and control and “lean into the discomfort” of being human. Authentically human. We must allow ourselves to make mistakes. We must allow ourselves to be seen. We must love with our whole heart regardless of the outcome. We must believe that we are enough.
However, this is quite the contrary to what we experience. We, as educators, live in a world of prediction and control; At times, a world of high stakes prediction and control. As a result, if a student fails or misbehaves, many of us either blame ourselves or feel blamed by the institution that commands us. Or, conversely, some blame them-the students, parents, the institution, etc. Seems to me, after teaching, training, reading, and reflecting, that education is a culture of blame.
Worse yet, it is a place of constant comparison. I have heard, many times over, with worry or with indignation, “What do you do…Well I do this…What do you do….Well I do this”. I feel so badly for those teachers whose eyes are always darting around the room trying to ascertain what others are doing that they might not be. And, I get so angered by the narcissistic “I” that speaks as though they, alone, are in the know. But, I’ve gleaned perspective. I see where it comes from and why it comes. I think it comes from a constant feeling of blame and a need to defend oneself. As a result, there is never any accountability. Just a constant circle of staring blame.
What we need is peace. Not a peace that comes from there being no noise, trouble or hard work. But, a peace, a calmness of heart, that comes in the midst of these things. For this to happen, we need to “lean into the discomfort”. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We need to abandon prediction and control. We need to connect: with ourselves, with each other, and with the students who we strive to do right by. We need to “accept things for what they are” and realize “it is what it is” (Brene Brown, The Power of Vulnerability).
For this reason, in rewriting restorative practices training for educators, one of the most important connections that I have kept from The International Institute of Restorative Practices (iirp.org) is their connection to a prayer recited to celebrate the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It reminds us that:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.