How Leading with Empathy Can Create Positive Change

FSDB deaf elementary students1As an educator, it is important to pay attention to the latest research and trends related to effective instruction. As a special educator, this may be particularly important. But as an administrator, I often find myself relying heavily on my own observations and findings from “the field.” Working as an administrator of an elementary school serving deaf and hard of hearing students, children are often in my office requesting assistance. Sometimes they arrive on their own, asking for help solving a problem. More often, though, they are brought to the office by an adult who asks for collaboration on a discipline issue.

The word “collaboration” here is really important. In a traditional approach, the administrator may be the final stop, and may have the final say, when it comes to discipline. However, I have found it is more effective to collaborate with both the student and the staff member escorting the student. When children display misconduct, it is our job to figure out why. What does the child need?  What might he or she be asking for through this outburst of anger? This can be especially important when interacting with deaf or hard of hearing students who are also struggling with a language delay – which happens so often. When my approach becomes one of trying to understand, rather than trying to find an appropriate consequence, I am able to know the student’s thoughts, feelings, and fears more intimately and am able to develop a strong and positive relationship.

FSDB Deaf-Elementary-GardenWhen I ask the same questions of the adults, I become a support for them, showing empathy regarding the conflict they did not create, while also collaborating to find an appropriate resolution. This questioning of the adult reminds the student that staff members also have an emotional perspective, and such perspectives can lead to actions. Leading with empathy for everyone involved can produce amazing discussions and amazing results.

Leading with empathy. This can sometimes be considered being “soft” on misbehavior. However, in my work, I have found it solves more problems than being “tough” ever has. When students are upset, a genuine affirmation of their feelings can open doors to communication, bonding, and improved self-control. While that may sound difficult, it only takes a simple, “I am so sorry you are going through this; how can I help?” delivered with respect, and compassion. When we can do that for children, we can help them to become empathetic and compassionate individuals.

happy_heidi_paradeWhen we invite them into the collaboration, we can help them become problem-solvers. If I have learned one thing from 22 years in Deaf Education, I have learned this: The world needs more problem solvers, and we can create them through empathetic thoughts, words, and actions. Leading with empathy builds a foundation that allows students to experience growth socially, emotionally, and academically because it allows them to acquire, develop, and practice real-world problem solving skills. And yes, sometimes I have to consequate kids because there are some behaviors that need a punitive response. But sometimes living through the conflict, and coming out on the other side, is consequence enough. When was the last time you got sent to Detention Hall because of a fight with your spouse? The disagreement and the resolution of that disagreement was consequence enough for you. And here’s the important part – involvement in working through conflict becomes a positive peace-making experience for everyone involved. Our kids and school staff deserve such experiences. I’ve learned that they become better people having had them.

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