• Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 6: Attune through empathy

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič - @specialdaddy on Unsplash

(To read Day 5, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







Feelings happen.

More often than not, students have little control over how they feel. They are angry when their classmate pushes their book off their desk. They are frustrated when their raised hand goes unnoticed or ignored. When they are excluded from playground games, they feel isolated and lonely. These things simply happen throughout the course of any given day and how our students feel about them is completely normal.

Too often, educators become upset when students react poorly to these negative events. When students push back, yell a curse, or purposefully trip their classmates in retaliation, we rush in to punish the offender. Yet there is a large difference between emotions and the actions they inspire. While there are a whole host of actions that students take that are not ideal, feelings are a different matter. It's okay to feel angry, sad, hurt, disappointed, or ticked off. These are typical feelings that everyone has, including teachers.

When teachers see students in states of emotional upset, they can and should validate the students' emotions. Whether they agree with them or not, whether they think the feelings are valid or not, their emotions simply are. Validation means resisting the temptation to deny or minimize what students are going through. When teachers tell kids how to feel - or how not to feel - they invalidate their experiences.

Before addressing the behaviors that were sparked by their emotions, teachers should first take a moment and feel their students. Connect with them. This process, called empathy, is not about maintaining obedience. Empathizing wires students' brains to process disappointment, frustration, and anger without acting out those emotions in a hurtful manner. At the end of the day, it isn't the students' feelings that are upsetting but the actions prompted by those feelings.

If teachers are able to hold an accepting space for students so they may process their emotions, they practice conscious empathy. Teachers should strive to attune to their students' subjective experiences, to see their minds and recognize their internal states. When students receive this message of being seen, they "feel felt."

The effects of not attuning

But is this touchy-feely stuff really necessary? Isn't taking charge all about getting kids to obey?

Put simply, no.

An easy way to picture this is to imagine that each student has a clapper noisemaker inside them that regulates their emotional state. When students are calm, their clapper beats at a normal, steady rhythm. When they are excited, their clapper beats louder yet still at a steady pace. It's when students become emotionally dysregulated, however, that their clappers become a distraction. They speed up, beating louder and more irregularly, drowning out any other information that is competing for their attention.

Empathy is about understanding what is, not attempting to direct what should be. When children exhibit emotional upset, teachers will sometimes not respond in an empathetic, attuned manner that offers relief. However, the child's distressed attachment system will stay on if teachers don't deactivate it through attuned empathy. Arousal continues, the child's clapper speeds up, becoming unsteady, and the child spends the day seeking or defending against connection rather than learning.

When students' clappers go crazy, the teacher's goal is to help slow the clappers down so they become quieter and more steady. The skill of empathy links discipline correction with connection by addressing children's upset state