- Chronic stress makes it harder for children to access coping skills, which can lead to challenging behavior in the classroom.
- Traditional discipline may only make challenging behavior worse by adding stress. Practicing empathy, on the other hand, can be calming.
- Ways to practice empathy include setting aside biases about why people behave badly and genuinely asking people how they are doing.
As our kids and educators return to school this year, we are confronting the reality that this year (which we had all hoped would provide a return to normal) isn’t looking so normal at all.
Kids are headed out of their homes and into actual school buildings this fall, some of whom haven’t been inside a school in over 500 days. Still, that progress comes with the risks of exposure to the Delta variant for kids and educators alike, especially our youngest and unvaccinated students. Both kids and adults enter new school years with anxiety and uncertainty; this year, they are also carrying the effects of this past year with them, which for some include tremendous loss and trauma. To state the obvious, stressed students and stressed educators make for little learning.
How might all this cumulative stress and anxiety manifest itself this year in our classrooms? Last year during remote learning, disengagement replaced disruptive behavior as the most common challenge facing our educators. Unfortunately, this year, we can expect to see more of both – disengaged students and disruptive students.
In the face of these different flavors of challenging behavior, we need to resist the temptation to resort to traditional discipline, which exacerbates the problem by adding stress. Rather, we need to remember that challenging behavior at times like this is simply the downstream effect (or symptom) of trouble accessing skills due to chronic stress. In other words, we need to remember that it’s about skill, not will. Right now, the world is throwing a lot at our kids, their teachers, and parents too. Ironically, it is hardest for us to access the skills that help us tolerate anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty in times of stress like this.
Practicing Empathy in Times of Stress
Now more than ever then, we need to stay true to the philosophy that students do well if they can —and so do educators. We are all doing the best we can to handle what the world throws at us with the skills we have at our disposal at that time. So let’s go easy on each other and ourselves and, most importantly, practice empathy. Empathy means working hard to understand what someone else is experiencing, what they are thinking and feeling.
How can we all practice empathy in the midst of a busy day, especially when we are stressed ourselves?
- Stop and ask how people are doing but don’t settle for the typical, “Good. How are you?” Check to see if they really mean it, and then really listen to listen, not to solve. And make sure to answer the question honestly yourself. Model what it’s like to be genuine and open about how you are doing.
- Start each day with emotional temperature taking with the whole class, regardless of how old the kids are.
- Try to set aside biases about why kids (or adults for that matter) aren’t behaving well. For example, don’t accept the notion that a student is tuning out because they don’t care about school or are lazy. Assume the best of intentions and remember that it’s about skill, not will.
- Finally, remember that we all show stress in different ways.
Stopping to take the time to learn what’s going for someone else is a challenge at school, where time is too scarce. But it might just be the most important way to spend our time this fall because empathy is calming, and no one teaches or learns effectively when anxious and stressed.
Ablon, JS, Pollastri, AR. The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior using Collaborative Problem Solving. New York: Norton; 2018.
Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham