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November 11, 2021

Compassion: A Teacher’s Greatest Learning Tool

Creating the conditions where students feel emotionally safe and have opportunities to be heard is foundational to their achievement and growth.
School Culture
Classroom Management
The opening scenes of Disney’s animated film Lilo and Stitch show young Lilo feverishly trying to gather the ingredients for a peanut butter sandwich so she can feed it to a special fish, Pudge. This leads to a series of unfortunate events, causing Lilo to show up late for her hula dancing class soaking wet. She sneaks in, dripping water as she goes. It seems like she has gotten away with being tardy—until another girl slips in Lilo’s puddle. The girl unleashes a barrage of angry words, and an emotionally charged Lilo responds by punching her in the face.
When presenting to a group of 5th and 6th grade teachers on trauma-informed practices, I showed this scene. Then I asked the participants what they thought should happen to Lilo after she behaved so violently. Teachers had different opinions about how to support Lilo: “Get her counseling.” “Find that girl a friend.” “She needs anger-management training.” None of them suggested kicking her out of dance class, or giving her detention, or punishing her in any way. 
Though each answer was unique, they all had one thing in common; they were rooted in compassion. Moreover, they demonstrated a desire to see Lilo through safely to more effective coping mechanisms. The teachers knew Lilo’s entire backstory—her parents died in a car accident, she lives with her older sister who works at night as a waitress, and they struggle financially and emotionally—and they were moved to act with empathy.
It is widely known that punitive approaches, like removing students from the classroom or detentions, are damaging to kids—especially those with trauma in their backgrounds. However, thoughtful responses to misbehavior are not always routine in schools. Many factors, like time, added pressures around academic growth, and the frustration that comes with repeated behaviors from the same child, can wear a teacher or an administrator down and make them more likely to respond in unproductive ways.

What Is Lilo’s Problem?

In times of stress, it may feel like “running a tighter ship” is the most expedient answer to disruptive behavior. But research tells a different story. What’s needed is emotional safety centered around compassion—a necessary building block to create the positive conditions required for deep learning. There are many wellness benefits for both the givers and receivers of compassion, including stress reduction and increased happiness (Kurland, 2019). In other words, teachers, students, and support staff can all benefit from empathetic approaches to behavior and academics.
Many research-based SEL and trauma-informed programs have developed practices to combat the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like neglect, divorce, poverty, racism, and abuse. According to the CDC, children who experience multiple ACES are at a higher risk for struggling in school, socially and academically. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that Lilo had trouble making positive choices. The good news is that these effects are reversible. Though educators cannot prevent every challenge in children’s lives, we can work to reverse the negative side effects that develop as a result of those traumas. 
Trauma-informed and restorative practices are rooted in the idea that all humans are born with affects, or biological processes, that motivate us to act on stimuli in our environments and are designed to increase positive states of mind like joy and decrease negative ones like fear. These affects can fuel transformations from interest to excitement, enjoyment to joy, anger to rage, shame to humiliation, and fear to terror. 
The problem is that children who experience multiple ACEs often have hyperactive negative responses—even when there is no source of stress. A punishment that reinforces shame or humiliation will increase the likelihood of future unwanted behaviors. The best way for teachers and support staff to overcome hyperactive negative affects is to proactively activate the positive affects of joy and interest. The more we do this, the fewer negative behaviors we will see.

Supporting Lilo and Her Friends

Creating the conditions for students to feel emotionally safe and have opportunities to be heard is foundational to their achievement and growth. In The Benefits of Reflection in School Discipline, author George Farmer encourages educators to give students opportunities to think about and process their actions with adult guidance, which gives us time to understand their motivations. As students reflect, they also build relationships with caring educators and friends—two key ingredients for growth and success.
In my 5th grade classroom two years ago, my teaching partner and I made a habit of practicing restorative circles, a space for skill and relationship building, starting at the beginning of the year. We established protocols and rapport with innocuous topics like favorite snacks and types of pets. As the year progressed, we were able to use the circle to solve problems and give voice to all students.
When one of our students, who tended toward impulsivity, decided to put a paperclip in an electrical socket and caused a disruption with sparks and smoke, the class was upset. Some students refused to talk to him. Instead of disciplining the student, my teaching partner and I tried the now-familiar restorative circle.
First, I took the boy aside and asked if he’d like to apologize. He said he would write a letter to read to the class. In the circle, we asked the question, “Have you ever done something you later regretted?” Students offered up their own moments of regret, and we felt moved by the honesty in the room. But when it was the little boy’s turn, he sat quietly, unable to read his apology.
When we talked again, he wanted another try. This time, we started the circle with, “What is forgiveness? Have you ever needed it?” We had to go around the circle two times, but on the third try, he looked up and said he was sorry. The entire class burst into applause. The relief on the boy’s face was equally apparent. 
While that process took time, a small investment often buys more time in the future, as well as lessons in taking responsibility, compassion, and forgiveness. We could have let the boy walk away with his shame as a natural consequence, and we could have let his peers walk away with anger as their prerogative. Instead, we all walked away more connected. Restorative practices go beyond teaching one child a lesson to transforming whole classes simultaneously.

Creating the Conditions to Thrive

Compassion should also be infused into every aspect of our teaching. Units of study and routines that promote empathetic thinking can minimize the need for reactionary discipline. Imagine if Lilo’s hula class was a place where she was able to learn and practice empathy for others. Had Lilo's hula teacher embraced compassion as a guiding principle in the curriculum, she may have had other tools to express her frustration and avoided a violent outburst.
For example, I started my 6th grade nonfiction reading unit last year with an article about a young Muslim girl who was frustrated that there were no emojis wearing hijabs. In response, she designed one and successfully campaigned to have it added to the official emoji bank. This article activated students’ newly developing sense of justice, and it featured a student not much older than they were taking on adults in a productive way. 
We talked about other groups that might not feel represented in the emoji list and why that might be. Then, students created their own emojis on the platform Pixlr and wrote about why their designs should be added to the emoji library. During this project, I noticed that no one left the room to go to the bathroom. Even my most challenging students, with backpacks full of ACES, were focused and productive. Thinking about the needs of other people tapped into their sense of empathy and gave way through design to the joy that comes with creating. Like Lilo, who was late to dance class because she wanted to care for Pudge, my students were motivated by the determination we feel when our work has an authentic purpose.
Sometimes, compassion means responding with understanding and care to undesirable patterns of behavior. Sometimes, it means planning projects that capture the whole mind of the child—not just their ability to read, but their desire to discover and create. When we do this successfully, we allow the fear and shame some students carry around with them to take a backseat to more favorable and healthy affects.

What Do Students Deserve?

Maybe the earlier question I asked my colleagues, “What should happen to Lilo?” should have been phrased, “What does Lilo deserve?” We must show compassion to all students—especially the ones who vex us the most. It is our responsibility to build an inclusive and restorative community where all children are invited to think critically, work collaboratively, and build respect for themselves and one another, even when inevitable challenges arise.

Kurland, B. (2019 September 18). "Beyond Empathy: The Power of Compassion." Psychology Today.

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