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Spread your empathy like confetti and create an atmosphere where pupils feel valued and able to be honest about their actions, says Ginny Bootman...
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I have taught longer than I haven’t, and my teaching has changed so much in that time. I have gone from expecting respect, begging for respect to finally realising that the best way to get respect is to earn it.
In my first ever teaching practice in inner-city Liverpool, I remember watching my soon-to-be class and observing the teacher ‘in action’. When a Y6 girl used a string of expletives that made my hair curl, the teacher ordered her to stand up until she apologised.
Thus followed a standoff of embarrassing proportions between an 11-year-old with attitude and an increasingly perspiring adult.
It became quite clear after this incident that the school had enlisted a student teacher to support the class teacher rather than vice versa.
This was my first experience of how not to gain respect!
My journey into the world of empathy came about completely by surprise. It was on the back of the need to understand the world of a child who had been adopted and I needed guidance regarding attachment.
It will forever be known by me as ‘the training to beat all training’, as well as the training I wish I had attended decades before. It unlocked a side of me that I actually never knew existed.
Formerly looked-after children can have attachment issues which need careful management. The clinical psychologist running the course helped me coin the phrase ‘kindness breeds kindness’.
Children thrive on kindness and by providing a safe environment, pupils feel valued and able to be honest about their actions. It also reinforces Maslow before Bloom.
Children who feel safe, valued and listened to will take chances and be honest because they know that they will still be valued and their honesty will be appreciated.
I have seen this work with all types of children. The quiet, loud, extroverts and introverts. In this case one size does fit all.
An empathy-based approach has many aspects to it. These include a need for positivity. When you are positive with a child, they are more likely to respond than if they are talked down to.
I have experienced a whole afternoon being wasted when children are frogmarched out one at a time to be interrogated about an incident that happened at lunchtime – the result of which was a completely disrupted afternoon with no definite outcome but lots of dagger stares between individuals in my class, which then became a whisper of grumblings the following playtime.
We, as adults, need to accept that children can feel hard done by because of the actions of others, whether teachers or classmates. It is important that we listen to their points of view and empathise with them.
Once a child feels listened to, their barriers come down and they internalise what is being said to them.
I had a great chance to play my empathy card recently when two girls approached me, one very perturbed and accusing the other of rifling through her school bag. There was lots of finger wagging and gesticulation and the vibes were not good. Cue Mrs Empathy.
I told the girls I wouldn’t like it if someone went into my handbag without asking – in fact, I would be very annoyed. Suddenly the whole atmosphere changed and the focus was on me and how awful that would be for me.
Quick as a flash, the girls’ mood changed.
Suddenly, they were comparing handbags and saying what they liked about each other’s, and I was surplus to requirements.
The work Of Mrs Empathy was done.
Don’t be fooled; the effect isn’t always as immediate as this.
However, the more empathy is embedded in the school, the greater the children’s honesty.
For example, recently I walked in on my classroom, stating that I needed to speak to a pupil about an incident. Without a flicker, the child identified themselves, disclosed to the whole class the misdemeanour they had spearheaded and why they wouldn’t do it again.
All of that occurred without the need for the empathy wand.
As well as #kindnessbreedskindness, a saying in my classroom is #spreadkindnesslikeconfetti.
It is hugely satisfying to see children who might find this aspect of school life challenging eventually opening up and empathising with their fellow classmates through this approach.
Children in my class adhere to school values and rules alongside our empathy approach. It is a vehicle which works in parallel with, not instead of, robust school rules.
Ginny Bootman is a speaker on the subject of looked-after children and the role of empathy in the classroom. She is a SENCo at Evolve Church Academy, Northamptonshire. Follow her on Twitter at @sencogirl.
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