On Patience and Empathy

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I remember a day many years past when a teacher boiled over with frustration with a six- year-old child who routinely sneaked snacks from other children’s lunch boxes. The kids were angry. So was the teacher. She’d tried a variety of strategies including buying snacks to keep in a closet for him.At the end of the day she sat down with a team of teachers and me as the principal. She sighed and said, “I need help.”

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What do you say to a young child bounced from a single mother to a grandmother and eventually to a foster home? A child who gave his own food to a younger brother so he wouldn’t go hungry at night and then learned to hoard other children’s food during the day to assuage his own hunger? What do you do next when no response you make seems to impact a child’s behavior?

Questions of Empathy

A couple of weeks ago #satchat participants considered questions of empathy as a critical point for dialogue among PLN participants. Tricia Shelton (@TdiShelton) shared a Brene Brown RSA short on the Power of Empathy. At the end of the video, Brown comments,  “rarely can a response make something better .. what makes something better is connection.”

Response and connection aren’t one and the same. We often are at a loss for words when a child’s needs overwhelm us. When we just aren’t sure what to say or do, we may fill in the silence with the first words that come to us – words often used in frustration by adults – words that likely won’t change anything about a child’s behaviors.

Planning a good lesson is the easy part. Connecting is often the challenge.

Connecting demands that we see, feel, hear, and experience to truly understand the narrative of a child. Sometimes, we might hear from a peer or a principal “you just need to connect.” It’s not that simple. When a child differs from us – in background, gender, color,  disabilities, personality or a variety of other ways – hearing and feeling his/her story can challenge us to find connections.

Overcome with our own emotional response, we often respond with “the rules” when a child spins out of control. His/her behavior makes it hard for us to even want to connect. Yet, for such a child to feel safe in our community, we have to sustain a commitment to connecting. We can’t walk away from the hard work to make that happen. It takes patience as Luann ChristensenLee (@stardiverr) said in this #satchat tweet.

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 Patience breathes life into connecting. Connecting builds bridges to empathy.

Despite the pressures of our teaching lives, how can we not be patient with our children? Patience is core to our work to tease out what motivates a child’s anger, frustration, pain, or grief. It gives us the time to figure out how to connect with the child. Those connections help us find the empathy we need to remember that children need us to care first and teach second.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Empathy reminds us to pause and make the time to look a child in the eyes so s/he simply knows we are there. It creates the moments when we make ourselves stop and just listen. It helps us check our words and offer our silence. It gives us the few right words we need to help a child stop spinning and the permission to grieve or even anger at their circumstances of life.

 How do we find the empathy inside ourselves so that we can extend it to our children?

Over a long career, I’ve spent time with children dealing with life’s challenges – death of siblings, parents, grandparents and teachers and … pets. I’ve talked with teachers and parents about children lost to grievous illnesses, accidents, and at their own hand. I’ve worked with teachers and principals to find solutions to help children of all ages suffering with pain from abuse, dysfunctional family breakups, and intense rejection by peers and family. Their emotions – adults and children alike – have run the gamut from deep sadness to full-blown rage.

What do you say to a child who experiences life’s challenges in such a profound way that in the moment it feels as if those challenges will never end?

What about the children who bring handicaps with them to school that impact their capability to succeed with the ease of peers around them? The children who don’t have the family resources to pay for field trips or to obtain help with science projects to be completed at home? The left-out children who envy the popular kids who get invited to birthday parties? Or who never will have a family vacation or piano lessons or attend summer soccer camp? What do we say to help children live in an opportunity gap that won’t close for them?

IMG_7945Luann believes we must work hard to be patient as we come to understand we can’t fix the world, but we can be present today for a child. We must be patient in realizing that other people’s agendas don’t account for the child who needs you to stop, listen, and do what’s right in this moment to connect. Patience reminds us to put a child first and the rules second.

Life will never be perfect for any of us who choose to teach. Children’s lives aren’t perfect either. We can’t control either. But we can choose to be still, be patient, and connect. That’s the space where we discover empathy within for those who need us the most.

Oh yeah  – and the kid in the intro story?

When I was a young teacher a mentor once said to me about a hard-to-reach middle schooler, “You are going to spend time with this student. How you choose to spend it is in your control.”

We kicked into a Glasser approach with our first grader and went back to square one to ask “What are we doing and is it working?” We realized we had work to do.  The teacher started with simply giving this little boy time every morning to share anything with her he wanted to share – every morning this happened – his time. She worked hard to be patient as Luann advises. The counselor created a plan with him (not for him) to connect at snack time with a small peer group and to give him the chance to “snack shop” in her office so he could be in control of choosing snacks to put in his backpack. She gave him choices that put him in control, something with which he’d had little experience in his short life. The grandmother continued to struggle with him at home and we tried to help her with a plan for there, too. The child slowly, very slowly, began to connect with other kids and to realize how they felt about their snacks. Nothing about this child’s life became perfect. But we all began to understand his story. We indulged in the patience to connect and we found empathy there.

And for the record, here’s what we didn’t do. We didn’t put him on a behavior plan to work for points or rewards. We didn’t punish him with time outs or losing recess or calls home for stealing snacks. We knew not one of those responses would change anything about his behavior in the long-term. These common behavioral responses would simply reinforce that we were trying to control his actions, rather than allowing him to learn to do that.  In the end, we learned from him and he learned from us.

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Brene Brown says empathy begins with building connections. Isn’t the patience to learn that worth our time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grittiest Kid I Ever Knew

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He wouldn’t have done well on the Impulsivity Test for children on Angela Duckworth’s webpage, but I think he was the grittiest kid I ever saw come through the elementary school where I was principal.

He’d had a horrific young life by the time he was nine – and he walked through the door angry on the day that his latest foster-mother registered him well after school was underway that year. The folder forwarded by his former school was thick with school changes, the worst of grade reports, and assessments by all kinds of professionals who’d been charged to take a look at him based on referrals of one sort or another. He was tough. His first words to me? “I hate this f’ing school.” He’d been there all of five minutes.

I noticed that his blue eyes constantly darted sideways to check out the people in the room. I knew that look. I could feel his intensity almost as heat rolling off his rail thin body and I think today I understood even then that beneath his anger lived a depth of real fear. He was just a child. He was a survivor.

When I first read his records, it was obvious why he was hostile to adults specifically, but others in general. His nuclear family had self-destructed around him and he’d been a tiny victim of that ugliness. Enough said. By the time he reached us, he’d seen at least 16 different home placements, including at least one brief stint in a residential home. He ran through them in a litany one day for me as if he was reciting the alphabet. He showed no emotion.

 I placed him with the best teacher I had and hoped that he would settle down and find a peace that would allow him to learn. He tested below grade level which was consistent with his records, but his new teacher saw capability within him. He loved science. He hated math. He  discovered a love of writing with her. He thought books “sucked.”  When his teacher shared an intense poem of his with me, it was obvious he wasn’t writing subdivision poetry. There were no rainbows or cute puppies in his young life. His words were ones of abandonment.

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He didn’t do homework unless his foster-mother made him and it was war at the kitchen table from the stories she shared. We created sign-off logs and contracts, offered extra time shooting hoops with a male assistant, and checked in with his foster-mother routinely. He turned in next to nothing. But he finally found a bit of a passion when he got into building simple circuits and figured out all kinds of cool things he could do with bulbs and batteries. When he wasn’t fiddling at a science center, he wrote about hating his family and foster siblings or stared out the window. He had no safety net. And, he was nine years old. A prior assessor had labeled him as a slow learner. But, none of us thought that at all when he forgot long enough that he lived in a child’s version of hell to show that he was a curious, interested kid who loved to learn.

He’d end up yelling at someone in school pretty much every day. Sometimes the teacher. Sometimes other kids. Sometimes … me. Once I invited him to come for a “lunch-bunch” Wednesday in my office and to bring some classmates. He invited no one. He came and wandered my office, picking up science gizmos I kept for just that purpose. He was intrigued with my framed black rattlesnake skin hanging above my desk and wondered if I’d shot it. I told him no that it had been found by a friend – a roadkill in New Mexico. Because I loved snakes, I told the boy the story of how I acquired that skin. My desktop computer caught his attention and he wanted to know if he could type on it. I let him do that a bit and I remember the delete key mesmerized him – he typed his name and deleted it over and over again. These were pre-laptop days, pre-video game days, pre-almost-every-kid has a device days. He was amazingly focused.

When we finally sat down to eat lunch together, I asked him if he liked school. I will never forget his response in a somewhat agitated voice. “I hate it here. Kids here don’t like to fight. They won’t fight. I like to fight.” I smiled because we were a school that used Glasser’s control theory as a philosophy to underpin community values. Our kindergarteners began early with conversations about solving problems with others by using words. It worked in the sandboxes and in their kitchen center. By the time our kids were nine like this little boy, they might roughhouse a bit on the playground but they, in general, just weren’t  physically aggressive with each other unless someone really lost it.

I asked him why he liked to fight and he went back to wandering my office. No answer. I was ignored. Was he rude? Not really. Just not willing to talk about something that likely made him uncomfortable. Then he turned. “I like to fight because it makes me feel good. That’s why.” It’s all he said. I filed it away. There was no need to share it with the psychologist he saw every week. We all knew that anger was his weapon and his tool to escape class, the playground, the cafeteria – anywhere he felt unsafe. Especially foster families.

I came to value this nine-year old boy. His story has stuck with me for a very long time. I can still see the dusting of freckles on his nose, his darting blue eyes, and his pale arms learning against my desk as he typed away, standing at my desk. He was with us for three months and then disappeared into the lost world of foster children. We got a call from his next school asking about him and what we’d done that had worked since his grades were better at our school than anywhere else in his record.  Let me be clear. We weren’t perfect for him or with him. I’m not laying claim to any savior mythology. But, I think we understood what he needed from us, mostly, and we didn’t need impulsivity test data to tell us that. What we did need was what we valued as a staff in our work with all our kids – a sense of empathy, trust, and respect.

We didn’t have much to share with the counselor who called. He’s smarter than his past files show, we said. He loves science and experiments. He can write poetry when he wants to. We shared that he was pretty well-behaved while with us other than the time he pushed an assistant while getting off the bus one day. Angry.  Who wouldn’t be, we asked?

I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life. And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took –  from his anger to his distractedness –  was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry.

I still wonder, when I think of him, where he is today. I like to imagine that he found the perfect family and went on to graduate from college, maybe a science major. I like to avoid thinking that he’s in prison or dead. However, my dreams and my nightmares are both possible. I do know this. He was one of the most resilient little guys I ever knew. I didn’t expect him to focus all the time on school work, to become a model student holding on to his bootstraps. Instead, I expected him to find some slack with us, a little safety valve of a school where he could find relief from what Paul Tough reports from medical research as allostatic stress – a huge interference with a child’s working memory.

Finally, I’m not a fan of Angela Duckworth’s references to Sir Francis Galton. This little boy was the kind of child Galton demonized in his Victorian Eugenics pseudo-science. He could have been the poster child who the Commonwealth of Virginia sterilized under its Eugenics Laws, and he was the kid we could have handled in very wrong ways through the systems we employ to label children such as him because of his learning gaps, behaviors, and personality.

I feel this way about Duckworth and her Grit surveys because ethically I don’t like seeing Sir Francis Galton, father of the Eugenics Movement and social Darwinist, cited as a rationale by any modern-day researcher in regards to children and schooling. There is no good reason. It’s that simple to me.

While reminiscing tonight about the grittiest 9-year-old I ever encountered,  it was as if he reached out to remind me today why I feel the way the I do. And, I remember good times with him that transcended his anger, distractedness, and lack of focus. I remember him well.

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