Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

Detainment: Thinking About the Future of Our Young and Innocent

This school year, I learned about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study (Felitti et al., 1998), which examined survey data from a questionnaire and found that both positive and negative childhood experiences have an immense impact on lifelong health. The survey included questions such as: did a parent in the household swear at you, put you down, humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?; did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?; did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?; did a household member go to prison?

The survey can be found here.

Based on the answers to the aforementioned questions, responses were tallied and correlated with future health outcomes. Some ACEs have been linked to future negative health outcomes such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk of negative health outcomes. ACEs were later categorized as an experience related to abuse, an experience related to neglect, or an experience related to household dysfunction. (This is a very brief summation of the study and is in no way exhaustive of the study methodology, results, discussion, etc.)

Since I learned about ACEs, I’ve been extremely interested in how ACEs impact physical and mental health throughout the rest of a child’s life. I am truly intrigued by how an adverse or traumatic experience during childhood can impact physical and cognitive development. While watching the news lately, I couldn’t help but ask myself how child detainment will impact the physical and cognitive development of all the children taken away from their parents. I’m no scholar when it comes to ACEs, but I’d venture to say that a child being detained and taken away from his/her parents is probably one of the most traumatic things he/she could ever experience.

From this perspective, I feel that any approach to solving a country’s myriad of problems that perniciously harms children obviously does more harm than good. In the immediate sense, this is clearly true. But, based on what we know about adverse child experiences and trauma and the lifelong harm they do, this harm will surely be long-lasting and impact these children for the rest of their lives.

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Celebrities And Their Social Media Blunders: What Are We Teaching Our Young Ones?

Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham, Kathy Griffin, Azealia Banks, Josh Rivers (I’m sure there are more). All these people have one interesting thing in common: they’ve recently used a social media platform to discuss/gripe/complain/assert/share questionable (or flat out disparaging/racist/rude/sexist/etc.) information to copious amounts of people. Consequently, as a result of their online behavior, many of them have issued public apologies, retracted some of their statements, and/or are seeking redemption.

Sure, we see these people in positions of power (it’s not just celebrities) also receiving consequences for their actions. This may demonstrate for children that there are consequences associated with our behaviors. However, the consequences are very reactionary. For the victims, the damage has already been done. Point being, these people in power, with huge social media followings, should never be saying or doing these things to begin with. Our children are witnessing these people in power display this kind of behavior regularly. They see it on TV, they hear it on the radio, they see it on various forms of social media or on the internet, they hear about it from their peers/parents, etc.

As educators, I see it as our responsibility to combat these negative influences and take a more proactive approach to this issue. I’m no expert in digital citizenship. But, based on my limited understanding of the concept, it sounds like it should be an essential part of the curriculum as we continue growing and developing in the digital age. I mean, just based on some of the digital citizenship elements, descriptions, and goals, it’s quite apparent that schools should emphasize:

  • Digital communication – helping students understand the plethora of communication mediums and the standards and responsibilities associated with each medium.
  • Digital etiquette – helping students grasp the notion that various mediums require standards of etiquette. The etiquette of these mediums includes appropriate behavior and language.
  • Digital rights and responsibilities – helping students understand that, yes, they have access to platforms that have the potential to reach thousands of people online. But, with this power comes immense responsibility. Children need to demonstrate responsibility when engaging in online communities.
  • Digital footprint – helping students understand that information exists about them on the internet as a result of their online activity.

Overall, we need to inculcate our children with the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully navigate the precarious terrain that is the online world. They must be able to demonstrate responsibility, empathy, restraint, good decision-making, caution, control, and respect (just to name a few).  I see digital citizenship curricula as a way to help us accomplish that goal.  In a time when narrowing the curriculum is so pervasive, this may sound like I’m asking a lot.  Yet, I truly believe we must educate our children so that they can survive and thrive in the digital world.

Like/Comment/Share! What are your thoughts on the recent celebrity/people in positions of power social media blunders? What should we do about it to help our students? Does your school have digital citizenship curriculum?  If so, how is it structured?  When do you fit it in?  Let me know!

Walk Out or Walk Up: Quit the Divisive Rhetoric and Celebrate the Students

As I’m sure you’re all aware, many students across the nation participated in a Walk Out on March 14th in order to protest government inaction regarding gun control. I’ve seen news coverage of the story across the U.S. I got the chills when I heard some of the student activists speak on the matter. Overall, I was impressed by the demeanor with which many students approached this highly controversial, yet extremely timely and important topic.

Then, I noticed another budding movement on Twitter. I first saw a picture on my feed advertising a “Walk Up.” I immediately became intrigued and conducted further research. This “Walk Up” focused on walking up to other students and being kind in an effort to create better/safer school environments. To me, this completely made sense. The way I see it, in all honesty, regardless of any protests held on a myriad of school-related issues/policies, there will always be students who are ostracized or cast out or alone in every school. Thus, I really gravitated toward this movement, as it seemed to focus more on an issue over which we in education actually have control: being kind and reintegrating students who may be lost or ostracized.

Unfortunately, in regards to both movements, a politically motivated, dichotomous dynamic has presented itself. It seems that adults have successfully oversimplified and debased both ideas/movements to either gun control related or mental health related. People have declared that Walking Out won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: poor school environments and students feeling isolated. People have decried that Walking Up won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: guns. The debate has raged on in the Twitterverse for over a week now.

Whether Walking Out or Walking Up, I think it’s important that as adults, we celebrate the students’ courage, leadership, determination, organization, social awareness, creativity, passion, fortitude, and unity (among other qualities). Granted, some adults are celebrating these efforts. But, I think it’s important to remember: rather than distracting from the students’ achievements by hijacking the foci of these movements, we should acknowledge that Walking Out or Walking Up requires strength and perseverance. I truly believe these students, whether they Walk Out or Walk Up, are striving to make changes in a world where, unfortunately, children have been dying in the one place where they should be the safest.

Also, I mean, does it really have to be so two-sided? Honestly, can’t schools/students engage in both a Walk Out AND a Walk Up? Obviously, the national Walk Out was held March 14th. The Walk Up sounds like an ongoing endeavor.

Let me know what you think!

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School Safety: In Active Shooter Situations, What Do We As Educators Have The Most Control Over?

I’m sure you’ve seen/heard the vociferous debate raging throughout the nation regarding school safety. One side seems to embrace a focus on enhanced gun control and regulations while the other seems to emphasize a focus on better mental health care. The debate is quite controversial, contentious, in depth, and currently divided.

Over the weekend, I was dialoguing with a friend concerning the horrific events in Florida. While listening, I couldn’t help but think, “Sure, this side/that side makes sense. Both sides have valid opinions. Yet, how quickly can any of these types of changes truly be actualized?” During the conversation, I found myself focusing on a bigger, (and in my opinion) more important question… In active shooter situations, what do we as educators have the most control over?

The field of education has been notoriously slow in accepting and implementing new change initiatives (example – the U.S. Department of Labor has decried the current and future shortage of trained STEM workers entering the field. Yet, the field of education hasn’t been successful in addressing this issue because of rampant budget cuts and an accountability movement that forces narrowing of the curriculum). I’m not saying we can’t be the change agents this country needs. Students are gathering and organizing all over the country. But, I just read today that, much to their dismay, students in the Florida capital witnessed legislators vote down gun control legislation while simultaneously choosing to highlight the negative health effects of pornography. These kinds of legislative changes, whether they focus on gun control or mental health support, require extensive amounts of time and excessive levels of consensus and support that may take too long. Because this is an emergency and lives are literally at risk, I think we must focus on what we can do NOW as schools/principals/teachers/students/community members/etc.

Thus, through my research, I’ve found the ALICE Training Institute, which focuses on “options-based” responses for individuals facing violent situations like an active shooter crisis in a school. Traditionally, local law enforcement agencies have advised that schools utilize “lockdown” procedures that instruct teachers and students to do a number of things in an active shooter “lockdown,” such as move to the corner of the classroom, lock the door, huddle in a classroom closet or bathroom, stay away from the windows, STAY PUT, etc. In contrast, the ALICE Institute focuses on empowering individuals to participate in their own survival in the critical time between the start of a violent event and the arrival of law enforcement. I found that many districts are moving in this direction. I know of school districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan making these kinds of changes to their school safety policies. In fact, according to ALICE, if a school district still employs a “Lockdown” response to active shooter situations, the district is at odds with the U.S. Department of Education.

Again, I’m not advocating one side over the other (gun control vs. mental health). I’m saying that we in the field of education should focus on the things over which we have the most control. I want to focus on all that we can do NOW, as opposed to waiting for legislators to make a decision. We should look at adjusting current school safety policies in order to maximize safety and survival for all. Based on my current understanding (which is admittedly limited), an options-based approach that empowers individuals to participate in their own survival sounds more logical and potentially beneficial (in addition to being more in line with what the U.S. Department of Education wants) as opposed to a “lockdown” approach.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me!

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Technology Restriction and Confiscation: There Are Better Strategies for Teaching About Being Safe in a Connected World

Last year, I attended a Protecting God’s Children workshop at a Catholic parish up north. These workshops are required if you plan to work with children in any capacity through the church or in parish schools. A group of approximately 20 people were in attendance that evening. The age range in this group was quite large. We had some teenagers, middle-aged people, and some elderly folks.

Obviously, we talked about the importance of maintaining appropriate relationships with all children. We watched videos and read articles about the safety of children within our care. We discussed various scenarios and were quizzed on making appropriate choices while interacting with children. Pretty standard stuff for anyone interested in getting into education or working with children (public or private).

Interestingly, when we started talking about inappropriate online relationships and social media, an intriguing conversation commenced over appropriate technology usage. A woman in the group started saying that her own children wouldn’t experience these types of problems because she restricts their usage by confiscating their technology before they go to bed at night. In addition, she had their passwords to all their devices and their accounts (which she checked regularly). What is more, as a punishment, she would also take away their phones if they ever misbehaved. One or two other parents chimed in and stated they followed a similar protocol in their homes.

I tried to remain cool, calm, and collected. I tried to refrain from entering the conversation. I tried focusing on other things (like the new Star Wars movie that would soon be in theaters). But, if you know me, you know I have a really hard time with this. Thus, I engaged.

I started with an easy question. “Excuse me… do your children have any social media accounts?” Of course, they responded, “Absolutely not!” (that they know of, LOL). I figured this would be their response. I then decided to ask some leading questions that would surely help. “Do you have video game systems or a SMART TV in your home?” They all said yes. I stated that, if so inclined, one could use either a video game system or a SMART TV to surf the web. They responded that the TV was password protected and that, like phones and tablets, video games were confiscated at a certain time. “What if your child has a project to do that requires him/her to use technology past the technology curfew?” They responded that they would supervise their children as they completed online work. I saw where this was going. But, I thought I would try one more inquiry. “What about when your child goes on a sleep over to a friend’s house?” They stated that they knew the parents of every single friend their kids had, and that they trusted those parents.

I thought with my leading questions, these parents would soon see that they would not only become exhausted in their efforts to monitor their child’s online usage/presence, it would be almost impossible to fully monitor ABSOLUTELY everything. I thought they would see that if a child really wanted to, he/she would find a way online (where there’s a will, there’s a way). I was wrong. They continued to wholeheartedly believe that technology restriction and confiscation would keep their children safe from the dangers of the online world.

I’m not saying don’t set boundaries with children when it comes to technology. However, I’m proposing that rather than trying to hide children from the realities of the online world, we focus on teaching our children how to safely and successfully navigate those precarious situations. Just a few tips:

  • Keep yourself and your children informed about the internet and its rapid changes.
  • Teach kids about the different types of online dangers that exist and what to do if they come across any of them.
  • Teach kids how to keep personal information safe and private.
  • Teach kids about passwords.
  • Encourage your child to come to you if he/she encounters a problem.

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