Take CHARGE Day 6: Attune through empathy
Updated: Jan 21
Take CHARGE of the Moment
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 states first and behavioral changes second. It helps adults and children know their relationship can stay strong even when limits are set and conflict ensues. Out-of-control, upset children need empathy to become organized and to access the higher centers of the brain. Connection moves a child from reactivity to receptivity. It's when students are most upset that they need teachers the most.
Emotional regulation and the ability to sustain attention go hand-in-hand. Too often, empathy is bypassed for immediate redirection or distribution of consequences. When students are yelling at each other, one might say, they just need to quit it. They don't need to "feel felt." They just need to stop and apologize immediately. Teachers who react in this typical manner, by fussing at the students to coerce compliance, might stop the immediate behaviors. What they've missed, however, is an opportunity to address the causes of those behaviors. They've pruned a blighted leaf without noticing that the entire tree is being poisoned.
How to attune
Teachers need to communicate to their students, "I'm with you. I've got your back. Even when you're at your worst and I don't like the way you're acting, I love you, and I'm here for you. I understand you're having a hard time, and I'm here." When students' clappers are going wild, their perception narrows to focus on the offending situation. By attuning to students and opening to their emotions so they "feel felt," teachers can help broaden their vision so they can see past the problem.
There are many ways to focus on students' feelings with empathy. Try any number of the strategies below and look for the one that seems the most authentic. Students will be much more likely to connect with their teacher than they will with a script.
One method is to simply name the feeling that the student seems to be experiencing. "You seem frustrated." Though this is a stab in the dark, it shows students that their teacher sees them and is trying to connect with them. Often with younger students, they might not have the vocabulary to name their own feelings. By giving them a term, it also empowers them to start the process of self-regulation. Emotions aren't quite as overwhelming when they have a name.
Similarly, teachers can pose questions that tune in to feelings. "Are you tense?" This might be appropriate if the teacher isn't quite sure what the student is feeling. Rather than making a statement, such as, "You seem tense," a question is appropriate when less confident in the identification of the emotion. One note, however, needs to be made. If the students have low emotional literacy or are immature, they might not be able to verify their emotions. They won't know whether or not they are tense.
A third clue that teachers can use is physical movements or positions. Teachers can match the emotion with the gesture and name both. "You seem to be scowling. Are you tired?" This utilizes additional clues, such as facial expressions or gestures, to tune in to how students are feeling. Along the same line, teachers can notice how their students are breathing. Fast, rugged breathing is a sign of emotional unrest.
These are all clues that teachers can use to attune with their students. So once the teacher has empathized with the students, has gauged and named the emotion so that the student "feels felt," what next?
Connect. Be there.
Eyes are called the windows to the soul and eye contact is a powerful connector. Appropriate touching, like a hand on the back or a side hug, also bridges the gulf between teacher and student, calming the clappers. Every teacher has his or her own way to connect with students. Do what feels natural.
But what about consequences? Should teachers simply hug a student after he ripped his partner's paper and expect that to stop the behavior? Consequences are coming. They just aren't the first (or second or third) step. Deep, empathetic connection can and should be combined with clear and firm boundaries that create needed structure in children's lives. Consequences are ineffective as long as a child is upset and unable to hear the directions or lessons the teacher is offering.
It's like trying to teach a dog to sit while he's fighting with another dog.
Action: Practice empathy. Build up your skill at recognizing emotions by attuning when you talk with friends or family. Try to identify the emotional state of those you interact with to sharpen your expertise.
Reflection questions: Think about a recent interaction with an upset student. How did you empathize with the student? Did the student "feel felt"? Knowing what you know now, what you do differently if the same situation happened tomorrow?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Simon and Schuster.
Greenland, S. K. (2010). The mindful child: how to help your kid manage stress and become happier, kinder, and more compassionate. New York: Free Press.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.
To read Day 7, click here.