Teaching From Behind a Mask or Screen

Teaching From Behind a Mask or Screen

Soon, we will know whether we are all returning to campus-based, virtual, or hybrid schooling. Regardless of what happens, we will likely be interacting professionally from behind masks to reduce the accidental transmission of the COVID-19 virus. On some level, we will also continue to interact virtually to limit gatherings or hybridize instruction.

I am not here to debate the mask issue. Required or not, I am “all in” on wearing them. Even if it only reduces the spread by a fraction of a percent, I feel that I have the moral obligation to wear one. So, instead of trying to argue my way out of it, I am proactively planning ahead to limit the impact of masks and the limitations of the virtual world. Let’s get productive!

We can put our minds to some very productive things, like figuring out how to interact with others when some of their most critical non-verbal cues are behind a mask. In turn, how can we assist our listeners with other signals besides those our full-faces typically provide?

There may likely be a virtual component to our teaching and administrative practices when we return. Whether you are involved in a hybrid model, part online instruction, or an entirely virtual model, there are some tips included here that apply to the virtual world. They may be able to see your face, but they lose some of your personality and full-body language. I note these below as well.

Building and Maintaining Rapport

Building relationships is one of the most critical factors for maximizing the effectiveness of teaching practices. So, I will discuss building rapport. I make an argument for being creative and theatrical in your teaching practices. Then, I share a series of random ideas. Perhaps something will inspire you!

  • Consider making a video or voice-over slide show that tells your students (or staff) about who you are. What are your hobbies? Do you have an interesting family history? What are you passionate about? Play it in class or virtually. This idea addresses the mask issue, as you can use images of you without you wearing your mask.
  • Watch this video on how to read another person’s emotions when they are wearing a mask by recognizing their micro-expressions. Now, get in front of a mirror and practice making your facial expressions more evident while wearing a mask.
  • Externalize the checking-in process. Try not to make assumptions when you see an individual who may be upset, sad, frustrated, or angry. Agree as a class (or staff) on how to check-in. For example, you could teach them that when you say, “How can I help?” you mean that you have seen that they might be upset or frustrated, and you are ready to problem-solve with them.
  • When in a virtual world, teach your students and staff how to send you private messages during class or a meeting. Encourage them to convey concerns, frustrations, and such in this manner to keep information flowing for the rest of the group. Just be sure to monitor that outlet!

Be Creative and Theatrical

Think about all the ways actors portray emotions and meaning when wearing a mask (body language, over-emphasized movements, voice tone, and props are an excellent place to start.

Here is just one example of tying non-verbals in with theatrical motivators:

  • Before making a critical point that ties in with the lesson objective directly, put your hands in the air and call out, “As you can see…” in an easily discernible way.
  • After you make the point or convey the skill, take a bow. Better yet, create a signature bow to inject some fun.
  • The bow signals the students to respond in-line with how confident they feel about their understanding of what they heard or saw during the instruction. 
    • Hands over eyes = I understand so well that I could teach it with my eyes closed
    • Snapping fingers = I kind of understand; could you review/do another example?
    • Clapping = I am pretty sure I understand; might need some practice

Random Ideas

  • Teach your students or staff ways to give you feedback on their understanding from a distance using signals, signs, or technology. Perhaps they can hold up a question mark sign if what you just said confused them. Maybe a stop sign if they need you to repeat what you just said. The Fist of Five strategy is an excellent and adaptable formative assessment you can do on the fly, even virtually.
  • Be prepared to face boredom and sleepiness. Get them moving now and again; even it is chair aerobics.
  • Make videos of yourself mask-free (record in a safe environment!) for use throughout the week. This video could be an opening message, it could be information they use for a homework assignment, a science demonstration, or it could be you making letter sounds so younger students can see the shape of your mouth.
  • Give homework assignments with the option to video record themselves (while mask-free). This option teaches public speaking and allows them to express themselves to their peers with their whole face in view.
  • Consider adding features to your lesson that are quality edutainment
Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

Year after year, I have watched my fellow teachers selflessly give drastically more of themselves than they are required to by their primary job description because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. They spend hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) from their own income to create safe and inviting classrooms with activities that engage the senses of their students. Many tutor students during every free moment they have before school, during their minimal lunchtime, and after school has let out. Since much of their ‘planning’ time is taken up by conferences, meetings, and completing required paperwork, they chip at their personal time to manage the tasks that are impossible to complete otherwise.

I see the same thing with school administrators who assume the stance that they be the first one in the building and the last one out (which in my experience has been most). They plan and attend an extensive amount of school activities, juggle the mandates from the district and state, and attend to the constant flow of administrative requirements. They must do this all while attending to the needs and desires of their staff. They also chip away at their personal time to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of an educational leader.

Educator burnout has been cited as one of the leading causes for educators leaving the profession for as long as I can remember. However, many of the colleagues I have watched leave the profession citing ‘burnout’ described something far closer to demoralization. Though, I will admit that I did not recognize it until I read Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession and How They Can Stay by Doris Santoro.

The line of teachers entering the profession has gotten shorter and shorter. Going into the COVID-19 closures, we were already in a critical, nationwide teacher shortage. Veteran teachers were already feeling the strain of teacher shortages with larger class sizes, more duties, and the near-constant need to support long-term substitutes and new-to-the-profession teachers. Alternative certification pathways are rapidly becoming a lifeline for districts as they seek to fill vacancies, especially in their higher needs schools.

We are hemorrhaging good teachers, and there is no stockpile of qualified candidates to fill the voids. We have to stop the bleeding, and that means addressing the issue of demoralization, both for ourselves and our colleagues.

Demoralization Versus Burnout

One thing that has always irritated me was the way that ‘burnout’ puts the emphasis on the shortcomings of the educator. It centralizes the blame on the struggling educator for not being able to continue in the profession due to a lack of resilience, dedication, and skill sets. It is often dismissed by citing the low pay or the demands of a culture hell-bent on maintaining a standardized testing focus. People just assumed that more teachers were coming, so those who burn out are simply absorbed into other professions as the world kept spinning.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is most often caused by prolonged stress. Educators who feel burnout describe feeling overwhelmed, emotionally spent, and no longer able to meet the constant demands of the profession.

Demoralization looks almost identical at this point, but there is one major difference: the presence of a moral source. When faced with consistent and pervasive moral conflicts with their work, educators can begin to feel that they have no power to alter mandates they believe could be harmful to their students or staff. They watch things happen that damage and denigrate the teaching profession while feeling powerless to make positive changes.

Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”

Doris Santoro ~ Philosopher of Education, Bowdoin College (and former classroom teacher)

To put this in perspective, demoralization is one of many processes used during warfare to erode morale 0n the other side and to encourage enemies to surrender or defect. It is psychologically damaging to stay in a state of demoralization for both individuals and organizations. I do not draw this comparison lightly, nor am I implying that it is being done intentionally to educators. I simply want you to understand the gravity of demoralization in order to mobilize you to action.

Causes and Effects of Demoralization

The causes leading to demoralization are a little different for everyone, but there are some overarching themes.

  • Lack of workplace trust
  • Ineffective or absent emotional and mental health supports
  • Having no voice and choice with regard to mandates and management
  • Feeling micromanaged
  • Being forced to take actions while feeling morally in conflict with them, especially if your struggle is not acknowledged
  • Not receiving feedback and/or appreciation
  • Casual disregard of time and workload by leaders
  • “Lip Service” – being asked for advice and insight with no discernible response to concerns raised

Demoralization takes time as a process. We must catch it early. Then, we should focus on how to prevent it in the first place. It is important that you recognize that feelings of powerlessness play a huge role in the development of demoralization. When dealing with someone who is showing the signs of demoralization (even if it is yourself), finding where the powerlessness stems from is crucial to identifying how to intervene and improve the situation.

Dealing with Demoralization as a Teacher

As you have been reading, you may have developed or confirmed a suspicion that you are feeling demoralized. You are not alone. Chances are you work with several colleagues who are in the same boat as you. Your bosses may even be dealing with it. In truth, much of the nation is feeling demoralized, given the absolute chaos of the pandemic and social crises in our general lives.

The members of our society will be looking for us to manage our own feelings while providing for the needs of our community’s children. That means that the education community must pull together and address demoralization as a whole. It is the only way to stop the nearly constant loss of experienced and effective teachers and educational leaders. There is no option: We have to be healthy and empowered as individuals in order to provide our students with all that they will need.

Ways to address and combat demoralization for yourself:

  • Build or become part of an authentic professional community (even if you have to leave your school or even the district to find one that fits)
  • Address the frustration you are feeling
  • Educate your social community and seek their support
  • Become your students’ ally (they are dealing with demoralization, too!)
  • Practice and maintain cognitive flexibility
  • Educate yourself and progress your career
  • Make sure your basic and higher needs are taken care of
  • Get involved in policy-making or with organizations that affect policy-making
  • Act on your passions in the field (start a club, join a task force, etc.)
  • Seek the support of a trained, mental health professional
  • Identify ways to address the physical and mental health components of demoralization (exercise, meditation, healthy routines for sleep and eating)
  • Constructively communicate your needs to your leadership
  • Practice self-care as a habit

Addressing Demoralization as a Leader

While I wrote the above section focusing on teachers, school leaders are also in a precarious position to suffer the effects of demoralization. All of the suggestions for addressing it listed above apply to school administrators as well.

Please note that by creating a school environment for your teachers that has components to address and prevent demoralization, you are creating an environment that can do the same for you.

  • When a teacher brings a concern to your attention, look for the deeper moral concern behind it
  • Recognize that most teacher concerns revolve around three key issues: their ability to be responsive to students’ needs, their ability to meet the demands of the job (time), and things that impact their wellbeing (emotional and mental health)
  • Even if you disagree with a member of your staff on issues, you can still acknowledge their concern and validate their experience
  • Be the gateway for issues and initiatives that will impact your teachers. Recognize what is non-negotiable and help them navigate what can be ignored or sidelined
  • Frequently meet one-on-one or in small groups with your staff to provide support and encouragement
  • Nurture a school culture that champions transparency, empathy, and empowerment
  • Set the expectation that teachers self-care and provide resources/time for it
Mindfulness to Improve Your Life

Mindfulness to Improve Your Life

When you genuinely practice mindfulness, your experience of life changes. For many, it feels as if life becomes more intentional as your center of power shifts. When you are consistent with applying the skills, you can truly come to understand how important it is to be present in your life in an effective way. Prepare for feelings of powerlessness and anxiety to diminish. 

First, you begin to experience more “space” around your thoughts. There is less mental clutter, and your baseline for negative emotions seems much higher. In time, you become less reactionary to unpleasant thoughts and experiences. For those of us who experience anxiety and/or ADHD, this can be a life-changing experience. It certainly was for me. 

As you more intentionally connect with your thoughts, you start to realize how much time you spend struggling with the past and the future. Ironically, all of this struggling serves little purpose. Can you take action in the past? What about in the future? Think about that for a moment. Now consider the toll that stress takes on your body. Most of your stress comes from thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Worrying robs you of your experience of the here and now. 

Then, it dawns on you that the only moment in time you have any power to choose and act is the very moment you exist within. Outside of the current moment, your past and future actions are simply memories and projected thoughts. As I discuss later, this is why habits and routines are so important. All of your manifest power exists in the current moment. Mindfulness practices cause us to consciously bring all of our senses and knowledge into the present moment, along with our reasoning skills and metacognition. This can be very impactful when you are a teacher dealing with a classroom management situation or if you are an administrator who gets some stressful news that affects your staff in a big way.

This presence with our thoughts, in turn, evolves into the powerful and liberating realization that you play more of a role in the outcomes of your life if you mindfully experience what is going on around you while harnessing the immense power of choice and action within the current moment you exist within

Over time, you will train yourself to use your mind as a tool rather than your mind using you to run its negative and harmful narratives. When you do not allow your mind to live in the past or future unchecked, your worrying should begin to diminish. Another positive side effect of a quieter, more controlled mind is that you may start to recall essential lessons and advice you have received in the past right when you can apply them. Best of all, it changes your relationship with anxiety and frustration.

The Resistance Within

I found that setting the goal to practice mindfulness only frustrated me as other priorities pushed it to the side. I had to decide that meditation and mindful moments were a priority and that I was going to make them a habit. After researching how to establish habits, I made a plan, built-in some peer accountability, and made mindfulness a habit. 

Establishing a new, healthier habit that provided me with positive replacement behaviors was FAR more natural than working to eliminate or change my old, less beneficial behaviors through sheer will and external motivators. 

After practicing mindfulness daily for three months (the minimum time I set for myself), the positive impact was so profound that the benefits became rewarding enough to break through my resistance ceiling. After almost two years of dedicated practice, I now crave to do a variety of mindfulness practices on the regular. I do them so often that I can even do them in the presence of others at work, with or without them knowing.

It takes differing amounts of time for repeated action to become a habit for each of us. You will have to find ways to motivate yourself to begin and sustain a mindfulness practice before the self-perpetuating motivation loop begins. Even after you successfully establish your practice, you might lapse, and you may find yourself looking for the motivation to start again. No matter what, start again.

Here are some tips for breaking through resistance.

  • Keep your practice simple. If setting up an elaborate area or wearing specific clothes comes before merely doing the exercise, you are simply adding layers that make procrastination more likely. All I need for my meditations is somewhere to sit and the guided meditation I plan to use. 
  • Use your tech to access free and low-cost guided meditations. I have used the Headspace app on my phone for going on two years. It has been more effective than anything else I have tried. I also scour YouTube for guided meditations with specific focuses, such as Loving-Kindness and Breath Awareness meditations.
  • Do it every day, even if it is only for five minutes. I had to do it at the same time every day for months to establish the habit. I later began scheduling it at different times of the day to generalize the skills and benefits involved.
  • Embed your meditation in an established routine. I first chose to do mine during my morning routine: after my coffee, but before I visually map my day. You might do it right after lunch or during your evening routine.  
  • Stop waiting for motivation to do it, and just do it. The motivation will come later for some of you. 

Tame Your Monkey Mind

The number one excuse that people use to explain why they don’t meditate is that they cannot quieten their minds enough to meditate. The tendency for your mind to swing wildly from one thought to another is referred to by some as the “monkey mind.”

The misunderstanding that you need a quiet and controlled mind to begin meditating is detrimental to your success. Accept your monkey mind. Don’t judge it; start training it. That is one of the primary purposes of meditation. The images of the serene meditating masters who sit for extended periods speak to the outcome of an avid and long-term dedication to the practice, not to the starting point. You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and rip out a classic hit or compose your opus in one sitting. You must adopt a beginner’s mindset, learn the theory and necessary skills, and then consistently practice with a growth mindset. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are the same way.

Two of the best tools for taming the monkey mind, from my experience and knowledge of talking with others, are Breath Awareness meditations and the labeling technique. I will discuss both below.

Before you get into the necessary details of mindfulness practices, you may want to read about several of the fundamental paradigm shifts that you must make for your mindfulness practice to be most effective. I have summarized them in my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”

Conduct Body Scans at the Beginning of Meditations

At the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I struggled with the body scan. It didn’t make sense to me, and it wasn’t until about a year after I began my practice that somebody explained it to me. I will save you some time and explain the purpose.

The purpose of the body scan is to reconnect with your physical self and to become in touch with the physical sensations you are experiencing in the current moment without judgment. In the process, you also release tension in all parts of your body as you focus on each one successively. You can do a brief scan within five minutes, or use a 15-60 minute meditation to scan more thoroughly. There are many guided meditations out there that walk you through a body scan.

If I am waking up or trying to keep my energy up, I begin my body scan at my feet and move up my body. If I am trying to relax or self-calm, I prefer to start at the top of my head and scan down. Whether to start at your feet or the top of your head is a personal choice. With practice, you will find which one you prefer. Some guided body scan meditations take 15 minutes or more like several of these.

Be With Your Breath

It took me two weeks of sitting through guided meditation before I had my first experience with truly being with my breath. Breath awareness meditations are among my favorite interventions when I need to quieten my mind. Coupled with the labeling technique below, this is where you will begin your journey to the seat of your real power. 

Meditation: Labeling

Of all the things I have learned about meditation, the strategy of labeling has been the most impactful on both my anxiety and my ability to manage uncomfortable thoughts and experiences. Here is a brief lesson on the basic labeling technique. Note that the only two labels I use are “thinking” and “feeling.” This choice is a personal preference, so you should explore your options and use the label(s) that are best for you. Don’t slap the label on and admire it. Simply note the label as gently as touching the edge of a feather to glass and return to your meditation or mindfulness focus. Sometimes, you will feel like you are constantly labeling (hello, monkey mind), but in time this will diminish in frequency.

What Does This Have to Do With the Anxiety Paradox?

One of the key ingredients for perpetuating anxiety disorders is resistance. The more we stand in resistance to anxiety, the more of an impact it has upon our lives. A notable paradox of anxiety is that it often gets worse when we resist it. Through mindfulness, particularly meditation, you will slowly change the ways you respond to thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, this includes many of the behaviors that trigger and perpetuate the anxiety response. Mindfulness is about letting go of resistance and judgment, which both lead to self-perpetuating anxiety.

Fascinating Science You Can Research Further

Research suggests that when we train the brain to be more mindful, we can actually change the brain’s physical structure. 

Consistent mindfulness practices, including meditation, can lead to a shrinking of grey matter in the amygdala (this is a good thing), which plays a huge role in anxiety disorders when overactive. It can lead to an increase of grey matter in the creativity and thought centers of the pre-frontal cortex, where reason and decision-making occur. There can be an increase in the production of positive brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can be reduced in the body’s systems. This fact is also a good thing, as long-term exposure to heightened cortisol levels has many adverse effects on the body.

Simple Mindfulness Activities 

Mindfulness has become so second nature to me that my thoughts naturally gravitate to the question, “Do I want to do this activity mindfully?” Here are several resources for starting or adding to your mindfulness practice.

Stay mindful. Stay intentional. Seize your power of now!

Coaching Frustration with Mindfulness and Metacognition

Coaching Frustration with Mindfulness and Metacognition

Picture the scene:

A classroom full of students working on what looks like math problems. One student in the middle of the room begins to get restless. He starts making sounds of frustration. He snaps his pencil in half. The teacher recognizes the signs and becomes very authoritative and calm as she moves in to stave off the next stage. However, something sets him off before she gets there. He clears his desk with one sweep of his arm. She arrives at his desk, and he yells, “I can’t do this shit!” directly at her. Then, he quickly leaves the room. He walks into the main office and sits down. The woman at the front desk asks, “What do you need?” “Man, my teacher made me mad,” the student replies.

Now, switch gears and picture this:

You are an instructional coach observing a first-year teacher who has been complaining about a student losing his temper and “trashing the room.” The teacher is moving from student to student, giving very shallow feedback to each on how they are doing. She uses phrases like “good job” and “I’m so proud of you. Keep working!” Every once in awhile, she says, “That one’s not right, and you didn’t finish this one. I will come back in a few minutes, and I would love to see both of them done correctly.” She looks over as a young man snaps his pencil in half. She takes a deep breath. You’ve noticed the young man escalating some time ago. She starts to move toward him and is loudly trying to calm him down as she approaches. He clears his desk and yells at her that he can’t do the work, along with some profanity. He leaves the room, and the teacher goes about quietening down the remaining students. She then calls the front office to let them know that Dave has left class again. After the students have left and you are alone, the teacher bursts into tears and starts going on about how angry she is that nothing ever seems to happen to the student when he acts out like that. She says she tries to be helpful, but that he always blows up at her. She ends her rant with how teaching isn’t what she thought it would be. 


I have seen scenes like this play out in countless classrooms at both the elementary and secondary levels, including my own. After years of experience, I often can sense another person’s frustration before they even sense it within themselves. For sixteen years, I taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. There’s no way even to count how many teachers I have had to coach through their own frustration or guide them in how to address the feeling in their students.

Mindfulness and metacognition are handy tools to use, whether you are a teacher who wants to learn how to coach students through frustration or you are an instructional coach who needs to train a teacher to reduce acting out behaviors caused by frustration.

The Secret Jobs of Frustration and Anger

Frustration is an emotion I deal with every day, both within myself and with the teachers and students that I coach. I could easily choose to see frustration as a “bad” thing to push away, but then I would completely deny myself or the individual the opportunity to grow in really positive ways.

When I was going through a particularly challenging time wherein my anxiety was out of control, I found myself getting frustrated and angry often. My therapist explained that I must identify the emotion(s) behind the frustration and anger. 

Over the next nine months, through books and mindfulness practices, I would learn how to lean into the frustration, become completely mindful of what was happening around each occurrence, and apply metacognitive strategies to identify the roots and move through the frustration. 

Frustration is no longer an emotion I dread. For you see, it is a signal emotion that alerts you to pay attention to something that is going on. Frustration is the feeling of struggling to hold back another negative feeling. 

Individuals often hold back on expressing anger. Frustration then grows and can suddenly erupt into an outburst when something triggers the disruption of emotional self-regulation.

Something fundamental to note: Anger is a secondary emotion. It plays an active role in protecting the angry individual from another feeling that makes them feel more vulnerable, such as:

  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Hurt (feeling betrayed falls in this category)
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Overwhelmedness
  • Overstimulation
  • Impatience

In the student scenario above, it stands to reason that the frustrated student was angry because he was either fearful or ashamed of his seeming inability to do math well. Additionally, he could have been embarrassed by the teacher calling him attention when he was in this state.

In the teacher scenario, her frustration and anger possibly hid that she was afraid of failing as a teacher or that she was ashamed of the anxiety she had been experiencing about coming back to work each morning for fear of how this student would behave each day.

Frustration signals that there are other negative emotions beneath it that need to be addressed to improve the situation.

Where Mindfulness and Metacognition Come In

Mindfulness practices will help you tune into the frustration at its early stages so you can identify and address the issues causing the negative feelings underneath. It will also help emotional self-regulation and other executive functions develop with practice.

Metacognition will help you to identify the path to take to address the frustration and its underlying causes. Metacognition is thinking about thinking.

For Hennessey (1999), metacognition is the 

  • “awareness of one’s own thinking, 
  • awareness of the content of one’s conception, 
  • as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes, 
  • an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in [relation] to further learning, and 
  • an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”

To coach any individual through frustration to decisive action, is a simple process in theory. Remember, however, that the frustration you are seeing could either be from or cause a series of patterned behaviors that may be difficult and time-consuming to change. For example, procrastination, work avoidance, and lashing out can all develop because of poorly addressed frustration.

One Process That Has Been Successful for Me

  • After an episode of frustration, guide the individual (or yourself) to process through the emotions of frustration and anger using metacognitive strategies to identify the negative feeling(s) driving them. This phase will take a lot of active listening or deep introspection (listening to your thoughts as you ask yourself questions). 
  • Metacognition strategies for young students are foundational.
  • Here, use mindfulness practices to calm the nervous system and lead to clearer thinking.
  • Use reflective questions that are invitational to activate metacognition during this process. These types of questions help the individual go beyond reflection into problem-solving.
  • Support the further development of mindfulness practices so the individual can become more aware of when frustration is rising. Once they establish this awareness, they can begin to apply de-escalation strategies and the ideas that came out of their problem-solving stage. 

With this approach, the coached individual regains, retains, and develops their emotional self-regulation skills. It is a cyclical process: each time they experience frustration, they practice their mindfulness. Each time they practice mindfulness, they are able to better regulate their emotions and use metacognitive strategies to make a plan.

Their plan should begin with an analysis of what they can and cannot control. Then, they can make decisions or take advice on changes they could make and strategies they can use in those areas they can control. Continued support will likely be necessary as they change established behavior patterns and establish new, more productive ones.

Stay Tuned for Next Week…

I will cover accessible mindfulness practices for beginners and intermediate practitioners in my article next week. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive future articles directly in your email in-box.

Stay mindful. Be intentional. You are not alone.

References

Hennessey, M. G. (1999). Probing the Dimensions of Metacognition Implications for Conceptual Change Teaching-Learning. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Instruction in Empathy Must Be Balanced

Instruction in Empathy Must Be Balanced

Writing an article about the importance of preparing early to teach empathy in response to current events seemed like an easy home run, but then I started researching and realized that focusing solely on empathy would be an unbalanced approach.

Much like the term ‘mindfulness,’ empathy has taken on a pop-culture meaning that is far simpler than the nuanced reality that it is. In order to teach something, it is important to understand the content fully. With this in mind, I went in search of what skills should be taught so that a healthy sense of empathy surfaces in our students.

The deeper you dig down the empathy hole, the more difficult it is to find sources that don’t associate empathy with morality. As a teacher, I start to get unsettled here. Now we’re talking about teaching morality?! Whoa, wait a minute. This is a weird gray area for educators. It is general practice in most American communities for families to impart moral teachings to a child. We, as educators, are to model positive universal truths (i.e. kindness, integrity) and the positive morals appropriate to our community and national culture.

Come on now. If you have ever been a teacher, you know full well you have played a role in the moral development of the students you have taught.

Deeper still: How can we, as educators, objectively teach students the skills necessary to be moral and empathic members of the community, while setting aside our own biases and misunderstandings, if necessary?

Now I am getting to the big question: What factors will maximize the likelihood that our education system helps provide the community with new members who are both capable of empathy and predisposed to continue improving both their own and their community’s well-being through moral acts?

I am going to first break down the components of empathy, each of which must be coached and taught for authentic and intentional empathy to take place. Then, I will discuss executive functions and their role in empathy (and…dare I say…morality). But before I do, note the most important factor.

Even with all of these things in place in the classrooms, there is one key ingredient that makes it at all viable: a deep, culturally responsive, and enduring partnership with the parents of our students and the larger community that they live within.

Understanding the Components of Empathy

There isn’t a great deal of literature on the components of Empathy. Most academic papers all pointed back to a single source: Decenty and Cowell’s 2014 article, “Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?” They describe empathy as a “catch-all” term for three decidedly different processes: Emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective-taking.

Some level of these three characteristics may be instinctual and initiated very early in a child’s development. However, instruction in the areas that inform appropriate behaviors around empathy is critical during the time students’ brains are developing their prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many things essential to social interaction: how we regulate emotions, control our impulsive behavior, assess risk, and make long-term plans. It isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. Take note! The things I just mentioned are executive functions, which I will certainly get to shortly.

Meanwhile, take a look at the three proposed processes forming authentic empathy.

Emotional Sharing: The experience of feeling distressed at observing others in distress is known as emotional sharing.

Empathic Concern: The motivation to care for an individual who is either vulnerable or distressed is referred to as empathic concern.

Perspective Taking: When you intentionally put yourself into the mindset of another individual and try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling, you are taking on their perspective.

I have seen each of these processes played out NUMEROUS times on playgrounds, in cafeterias, and at track practice (which I coached). Our high expectations of our students must include high expectations around their use of intentional empathy. So how do we get them there with the consistency of high expectations in all grades?

Let’s Get a Round of Applause for…

Executive Functions

One quote sent me down a rabbit hole that changed my entire view of teaching empathy in the context of conflict. “In resource allocation situations, [when morality and empathy are in conflict], empathy can become a source of immoral behavior” (Batson et al., 1995).

As I processed that last statement, something became very clear to me. It is one thing to teach empathy, but what is the point if empathy can be subverted so easily by the need to belong? That led me down a path to anti-bullying instruction. I began to see a pattern emerging across this and all of the socio-emotional curricula I have taught throughout my career in special education and teacher training.

The common thread was that true empathy is made more intentional by the thinker’s executive functioning skills. If we are going to teach our students empathy, we must also strengthen their executive functioning abilities. I propose that this will also have the wonderful consequence of positively impacting student engagement.

What exactly are executive functioning skills?

As you read through this list of commonly recognized executive functioning skills, ponder two things. First, what functions are necessary for intentional empathy? Secondly, which ones are essential for school success? (Hint: They are all essential for both empathy and school success. More bang for your buck!)

I have included resources for teaching and strengthening each of the following examples of executive functions across all age groups after each function.

Sustaining Attention:

The ability to maintain attentional focus on relevant stimuli, such as listening to others, watching a presentation, and listening to instruction. In regard to empathy, this comes into play when you consider active listening, which is necessary to fully understand the experiences of others.

Impulse Control

The ability to refrain or delay response to a sudden strong urge or desire to act. Giving the brain time to fully understand and process information is imperative to intentional empathy. This is also a very important skill in the emotional self-regulation toolbox. You could look at impulse control as empathy for your future self, as it allows you to step into your own shoes and consider the effects of your behaviors before you act.

Emotional Self-Regulation

The ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts, particularly the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. The link to empathy and moral action is clear with this function. Understanding one’s own emotions is key to the ability to control one’s emotional expression and responses to the experience of empathy. This is a key function that is often negatively impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma.

Planning/Prioritizing

This involves the ability to select the most important/time-sensitive tasks, think about the activities required to achieve the task, and to make a plan to meet the goals of the task. When deciding what actions to take during and after an empathic response, planning is important. This is especially true when dealing with a moral issue or when attempting to change factors that are causing distress to an individual or larger groups.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to switch between thinking about multiple different concepts, tasks, or strategies simultaneously. This is a key function in being able to adapt to new situations and environments. This skill allows us to persist with current behavioral strategies for as long as they are productive at achieving goals and to be able to switch approaches and strategies when there is a change in the situation or environment. This is especially important when there is a plethora of information that is available, which with the internet is the norm. It is a required skill for perspective-taking, which is very important for intentional empathy.

Working Memory

The ability to keep anything you need in mind while you are doing something, like a phone number as you are dialing or keeping story events in order as you process the meaning of a book. This is essential when processing cause and effect accurately.

Self-Monitoring

The ability to observe and evaluate one’s own behavior or keeping track of one’s performance in order to make adjustments. This is an important function for becoming an independent learner.

Task Initiation

This is our ability to become motivated, to take on new tasks, to persevere at those tasks until their completion, even if we encounter challenges. It is one thing to have an empathic response. It is a whole other matter to initiate and persevere at tasks which deal with systemic changes.

Organization

The ability to put things together in a logical order, often by creating systems. As we watched the Nation’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that they became more and more organized. Organizing our behaviors is one way to make the maximum impact when we begin taking action. This is also crucial for every type of schooling and career.

Concept Formation

The ability to sort specific experiences and information into general rules or classes. Concept formation greatly impacts how students respond when they practice intentional empathy and make decisions about how to react.

Understanding Different Points of View

This is essentially perspective-taking, being able to understand a situation from the point of view of another person.

Next Week: I Will Discuss Metacognition and Mindfulness

One of the best tools you can provide your students with as they strengthen their executive functioning skills are metacognitive strategies and skills. Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking. If you would like to prime the pump, check out this resource on metacognition from Vanderbuilt University.

As you process this information on executive functions, consider how you can embed practices and strategies for their development within your content area and for your specific age groups. These are skills that will pay dividends in their ability to function as empathic learners.