Building Empathy…Changing Behavior…More Questions than Answers

Man it feels good to watch these letters and words appear on the screen. It has been way to long since I have been able to share my thoughts and learn from you. In all honesty, I have many thoughts or potential posts in the “que” but I have either not taken the time nor found the time to articulate my thoughts well enough to post them. I am reflecting. I am making notes. I will share. I promise, I will…

So, why this one? With so many thoughts just waiting to be shared, why did I decide to share this one? I suppose that answer is an easy one. Complete transparency…I am sharing and writing about this because I do not have the answers. In fact, I have more questions than I do answers and I am turning to you, my readers, my PLN, to help bring clarity to my thinking.

If you have spent any amount of time in education, you realize you spend 90% of your time dealing with 10% of your students when it comes to addressing unwanted behaviors. In fact, it may get to the point where you feel all you are doing is addressing “the behavior”. While it may feel that way, the reality is, the majority of students are meeting…or in many cases exceeding expectations and we simply are not paying enough attention. How do we fix that? How do we spend more time focused on the positive, moving away from focusing on the unwanted?

I realize the unwanted behavior, if unaddressed can quickly interrupt the learning experience of the student exhibiting the unwanted behavior, but as we know, the unwanted behavior also interrupts the learning experiences of other students who are simply bystanders, trying to do their best to maximize the opportunity in front of them. Keeping in mind, the relentless pursuit many teachers embark upon in attempting to do their very best to instruct all students, balance behaviors, implement accommodations, work to strengthen relationships & keep parents informed of progress (or lack there of) well knowing the behaviors of the few can negatively impact the instruction/success of the majority. So, how do we address the unwanted behavior in an attempt to change it?

Traditional practices would suggest the unwanted or undesirable behavior be stopped or redirected. Got it. Easy enough. A teacher can redirect behavior, change a seating placement, provide engaging activities and even activities that empower students, but what if the behavior does not change? A parent conference can be scheduled. Teachers can collaborate with other teachers and brainstorm ideas to implement within the classroom. Plans can be put into place. The plans can be positive (which I prefer), the plans can have input from the student (prefer this as well), the plans can be catered to meet the student’s specific needs. Mentors can be assigned. Counselors can be utilized. The list can go on and on. What if all of this does not work? At some point the positive behavior supports wane and consequences turn from positive to negative and words like suspension begin to enter the conversation. In-school, out of school…alternate school setting. Yep. All forms of suspension. Does it work? I suppose it depends upon the individual student and their needs. Does it work for all students? I know that answer. No, it does not work for all students. So, what do we do?

At some point over the last nine to ten weeks, I had an epiphany. We keep running our students through all of this well intended “stuff” to address behavior, but we are not addressing the root cause of why our students are doing what they are doing. They are serving their time or doing what we ask and then we are sending them back to class as if they should “have it figured out”  or we think things will change. What we are forgetting as the adults is “for things to change, I must change.” I wonder, “Is the cause of the student’s misbehavior linked to something they may not completely understand?”

Do students understand empathy? Have we provided them with the supports to do so?

How do we grow and develop a student’s ability to be empathetic? How do we get students to feel? How do we get students to feel how someone else is feeling? Do students realize their undesirable behaviors make other students feel a certain way? If they did, would they continue to act in that way?

I told you I have a lot of questions. I am seeking some answers. I am not one to sit around and just wait for the answers to come to me. I am actively seeking out answers on my own and I hope you will contribute to my thinking. Familiar with restorative practices? You may be, but what I am finding is that most educators are not. There is a lot of research out there behind the effectiveness of restorative justice or restorative discipline in schools and guess what key word is positioned at the center of this research? You got it. Empathy.

As I have learned more about restorative practices and met with colleagues within my district and within my PLN who are also interested in learning more about how we can develop empathy within our students, I am beginning to see how this may change the narrative on school discipline. Less referrals. Less suspensions. Maybe, no suspensions at all. The sky is the limit with restorative discipline.

Have you ever participated in a restorative circle? Whoa. Powerful. Talk about getting to know your students. Restorative circles immediately take me back to my college psychology class and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a campus we are ensuring the physiological needs are met, we ensure students are safe and create environments that allow them to feel safe. A restorative circle can reinforce learning in a safe environment. Students feel loved and cared for when they are listened to and a restorative circle provides an opportunity for students to be heard. Earlier I asked, How do we grow and develop empathy? The next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is “esteem”. Using the visual to the left, the respect of others is a key ingredient of empathy. How do we make students aware of the respect they are showing others? We have to take action. We have to do something different.

Are you ready for your first circle?

Sit your class or small group of students down in a circle and use a talking stick to provide one participant the opportunity to speak, while reminding the others they need to listen. Then provide an open ended question about how students are feeling…

How did you feel when you walked into the building this morning after the weekend?
How do you feel about not being in school over the weekend?
How do you feel…

If you are looking for questions and need something more concrete, try these if you are experiencing challenging behavior within your classroom:

To Respond to Challenging Behavior
What happened?
What were you thinking of at the time?
What have you thought about since?
Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
What do you think you need to do to make things right?

To Help Those Harmed By Other’s Actions
What did you think when you realized what had happened?
What impact has this incident had on you and others?
What has been the hardest thing for you?
What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

See how these questions shifts the focus from a me versus you to a focus of empathy? These questions also remove the accusatory tone used when discussing behavior with students and give a voice to those who may have been impacted by other’s actions.

While circles can be used to discuss a specific incident, circles can also be used to develop community, address a concern or to just check-in with your class. While I still consider myself a “rookie” in this practice there are a couple of takeaways I can share after completing just a few restorative circles.

Shifting the conversation from “Why did you do that?” to “How were you feeling when…?” is a game changer for students. Ask a student “Why did you do that?” and nine times out of ten you receive an “I don’t know.” Of course they do not know. If they knew why they did it, they would probably not do it. Ask a student “How were you feeling when…” and the response is completely different. Through my brief experiences, students have shared a plethora of feelings, often times sharing feelings completely unrelated to the direct event, as something made them feel a certain way and this “thing” was a result of unresolved emotions. Insightful. It not only allows me as the educator to learn more about the student but students are learning about one another. Guess what? Empathy is increasing. Mine included. If we do not think empathy in educators needs to be checked, we have another think coming. The first thing to go when a student acts out in “my class” is empathy.

We think “How dare he do that?”
We think “Does he know whose class this is?”
We think “I am the teacher. I will show him?”

How often do we think, “I wonder how that student is feeling?”

Empathy.

You know what it takes to build empathy?

Time.

You know the one thing we never feel we have enough of?

Time.

Now compound that by working in a high needs, Title I building where each minute we are not working with students is a minute lost. Who has time to lose when we are trying to support students in scaling a mountain? After all, they have a test to pass at the end of the school year. Who has time to spend on developing empathy? (These questions are smeared with sarcasm…but we know there are educators who are asking these questions.) 

How do we shift the mindset?

While I do not have the answers to many of these questions, I do know this. We better find the time to develop our students’ empathy. Our students, our future depends on it. We must be raising a generation of students who have empathy for one another. We must raise students who understand their actions not only impact themselves, but they also impact others and not always in a positive way. I believe we find time for what we value. The key will be leading people to understand the importance of valuing empathy.

Where do we go from here?

I am going to keep refining my restorative practices. I will continue to facilitate restorative circles with students and yes, I will have some teachers participate in them as well. We will start small…subtle changes here and there. Is there a silver bullet? I believe there is. It is the time we spent developing empathy. Easy? Not a chance. Necessary? Absolutely.  I have a million questions and I have yet to find the million dollar answer. Maybe one of my readers has it, but I will not hold my breathe. We will continue to put one foot in the other, knowing that continuing to do what we have always done, will give us what we have always got.

I am ready to approach behavior in a new, transformative way.  I am ready to bring restoration to our students, teachers, classrooms and community.

******************************************************************

Are you transforming the way you approach behavior in your classroom, school or district? I hope you will take a moment to share what you are doing. Share what has worked. Share what you have learned. Share where you have failed along the way. Hopefully, by sharing your failures and successes I, along with others will be able to learn from you and share.

Do you have resources you have learned from? Please share them below.

Here are a few I have collected and am currently using:
Restorative Questions: http://store.iirp.edu/restorative-questions-cards-pack-of-100/
Restorative Practices Handbook: http://store.iirp.edu/the-restorative-practices-handbook/
The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: https://www.amazon.com/Little-Book-Restorative-Discipline-Schools/dp/1561485063
Better Than Carrots or Sticks: https://www.amazon.com/Better-Than-Carrots-Sticks-Restorative/dp/1416620621

Are there people online I should be learning from?

I learn from:
@RyanBJackson1
@SSchweikhard
@Mr_Braden
@brittainka
@momentous
@edutopia
@RJCouncil
@RestoraCircles
@iirpGradSchool

Who are others?

Take a moment and share your answers in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Building Empathy…Changing Behavior…More Questions than Answers”

  1. Matt, I think that starting with developing student empathy is a great place to start! Time is our most precious commodity in education and spending this time on empathy will pay dividends in the end for your entire school. Such a rich post and many things to think about here. Keep up the thinking and the work for the students and teachers at Sigler.

    Jeff

  2. Loved the book “Better Than Carrots or Sticks” (Here's the link to an infographic I created for it: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/14857756-better-than-carrots)…need to practice restorative practices so much they become my first response with students. Look forward to learning more from the resources you've listed Matt. Empathy is no longer something we hope students develop on their own…we must intentionally build empathy within our students, families and staff.

  3. Matt, so thrilled to see you back on here! 🙂 Always learn so much from you. This is a topic close to my heart as a whole-child advocate! Our school district piloted the Restorative practices a few years ago and now have adopted it completely and it has been an amazing change in not only suspensions, but teaching kids to talk it out. It amazes me that when asked how it made you feel, reasons way beyond our imaginations are discovered. I also feel it has made teachers change in how they view situations. I love that you are bringing this topic out to discuss. If we want to raise amazing kids we have to teach these things whenever we can because these are the important things!! Keep asking your questions! We all want to know and learn with you.

  4. Some of the suggestions in this post are easy to implement. Replacing “Why did you do that?” with “What were you thinking at the time?” and ” What have you thought about since?” can bring powerful insights to the students and teachers. I'm looking forward to making this change beginning tomorrow. Also, I will make time to read the resources you included.

  5. Hello, I teach 8th grade students in FWISD, Texas. I have tried a new approach to reach students and I am hoping someone else may benefit from the method. I handwrite a note to the student and fold it up with his/her name on the outside. At some point I pass the note to the student. So far, this has really built pathways for me to connect with students in a very positive manner, with clear expectations, no immediate conflict and each student has followed through on his/her own with whatever particular request I expected in the letter. Please allow me to share my most recent letter: Dear Chuck, I am disappointed by your behavior in my class. I expect much more from you. Your angry outbursts and use of foul language is unacceptable. I will not allow you to act in this manner. You disrespected me in front of the class. I am hurt by your lack of regard for me as your teacher. I expect a note of apology and a commitment to never behave in this manner again. Also, I will not allow you to bully, mistreat or speak down to other students. Hoping for more, Dr. Applewhite
    This morning, Chuck was waiting for me at my door with an apology. I was able to restore our relationship and to explain how his bullying was hurting an already very pained student. He told me thanks for letting him know that he was letting me down and promised to act honorably in my class. Today he was amazing!

Comments are closed.