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?