Reflective Practice: A pathway to empathy

Social and emotional learning in practice  promotes an inner journey by the professionals who are integrating SEL into their schools and classrooms. The late Donald Schon, an organizational learning theorist, professor, and author, in his work posited that a healthy learning organization is the outgrowth of reflective practice. He defines reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”. The focus on continuous learning is key because it represents the challenge of doing things differently if current practices are not working as well as they could be.

A reflective practitioner steps back mindfully; seeking unique responses to every day challenges and learns from this reflective mindset.   The field of education is one of the only professions where practitioners are not provided on a regular basis with opportunities to reflect on their practices and share with their colleagues what they have discovered.  In the field of medicine for example, if a discovery is made or a frustration is felt, doctors come together to explore what can be done and how things can be done better, collectively seeking to serve the greater good.  This practice might serve to save a person’s life.

Teachers, who come together as reflective practitioners, might also be saving the life of a student, or at least helping to create a happier and more productive one. Reflective practice is the foundation of an emotionally safe school as it serves many functions. Whether in the classroom with students, team room with committee members, or faculty room with colleagues, reflective practice will enhance the quality of the school experience, making it more positive, efficient, and effective.

Changing the response

The first step and probably the most challenging one to take for the reflective practitioner is to look within at our tendencies and the internal struggles we have with students, colleagues and parents.  We will start by looking at the relationships a teacher has with students.

Answer this question:

What do kids do that drive you crazy?

This question is framed in this way because there are times when a student’s behavior is confusing, frustrating and emotionally draining. It is in these times when it is critical to analyze what responses are not working.  In 1987, long before the best selling book Chicken Soup for the Soul was created, I heard Jack Canfield, one of its editors, speak at an educational conference in Vermont.  In his talk, he presented the equation:

 E + R = O

 The event plus your response equals the outcome

Since first hearing it, I have shared this little equation with many teachers with great impact in workshops and training experiences.  The critical practice is to focus your energies on the R of the equation. The only thing that will happen if you try to change the event or blame the event for what is happening is to feel frustration and eventually burnout. It is far more empowering and less stressful to articulate what you have control over in your life.

In the life of an educator, if you can determine what you do have influence over, and focus your emotions there, you will not only be more effective but happier as well.  E + R = O symbolizes the work we do every day: we can make a difference in the lives of our students. What derails us at times is when we take the behaviors of our students personally. Once this happens, our effectiveness wanes and our energy for the work is lessened.

Let’s return to the question: What do kids do that drive you crazy?

 Driving you crazy is another way of saying that you react emotionally rather than rationally. Emotional reactions to the behaviors that push your buttons can be traced back to some of the personal values that direct our lives.

 Emotional Imprints

One’s personal values are learned at a very young age from the people and events that surround us.  These experiences are known as emotional imprinting and they lay the architecture for the emotional structure of our lives. An imprint, like a tattoo is a forever phenomenon. Imprints are non-negotiable  and are most profound in the first 15 years of life.  They come at us as value statements or family mores and belief systems. Through the years, our imprints are embedded on our psyche and we are often unaware that they even exist.

An example of an imprint is punctuality. If it was instilled into you that you better be home for dinner on time or you would be in trouble, the imprinted value is that being on time is important and a message that punctuality is a sign of respect. A second imprint from this example is that it is important to eat dinner together as a family.  Many years later, this trait of punctuality is a good thing.  People know they can count on you as someone who will always be on time.  Additionally, if you have a family, you most likely hold the belief that it is important to have dinner together when you can. You place a high “value” on this.  However, as with all things there is the other side as well.  The polarity experience plays out when a student arrives late to class or hands a paper in late. If your imprint is strong enough you might react from an emotional and irrational place and damage the relationship in the process.  It is not about being right or wrong or letting go of the things important to you. More so, it is about knowing not only what is important to you but also why you value this so much and even deeper, what are the imprints of your students?

A quick litmus test for what your imprints are is to identify what your buttons or trigger points are. In other words, what do your students do that drive you crazy and in the process makes you react in irrational or destructive ways?  This same reflection can be applied to all of your professional relationships with colleagues, supervisors and parents.  If your imprints unconsciously drive you, you might not get the desired outcome from your professional relationships.  Again, it is not so much to change your imprints but to make yourself aware of them. Even if upon reflection you reject certain imprints or belief systems from your childhood, in times of stress you often will return to what is most familiar, not necessarily what makes the most sense.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) references how a person manages his or her emotions when under pressure.  The entry point for developing one’s eq is self-awareness of how you respond toward others in stressful situations in a way that enhances success and happiness in work and life.  This takes a great deal of self-reflection and in order to feel safe in exploring new ways of responding, there needs to be the conditions of a supportive and nurturing school culture in which caring, compassion and trust are the norm. When people feel connected within (understanding how they feel and why), and then seek to create empathic and compassionate connections with others, success and achievement will flourish because motivation will be high. EQ in practice helps people have what Dr. William Glasser, author of  The Quality School, calls a needs satisfying experience, one in which a person’s emotional needs are being met.

Often, when people think of measuring a person’s abilities and performance, IQ (intelligence quotient) is initially what comes to mind.  IQ, which on some level is a part of the paradigm of standardization and high stakes testing, lives at the surface in what is often considered to be the hard path towards gaining a competitive advantage: how smart you are.  EQ, which is sometimes referred to as how you are smart, lies beneath the surface, along what many consider to be the soft path. EQ skills are not soft at all but ultimately necessary, not only as a measurement of success but also as an entry point to meaningful school, work, and life experience.


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David A. Levine’s ( work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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