Character as a Differentiator

As a young person, you want to stand out from the crowd? Is an extra 0.1 on your grade point average going to achieve that? Will one additional extra curricular activity on your biodata make the difference? In this day, it’s all pretty unlikely that your academic and other activities are going to make you significantly discernible from the mass of students applying for University places, or later for internships or jobs?

No, but as this well-written New York Times article makes clear, what will always make a young person stand out from the crowd is character.

New York Times – Check This Box If You’re A Good Person

It’s vitally important that our response, or that of our children, shouldn’t be to carry out altruistic acts for show or to tick boxes/ have others perceive us as empathic, kind and sensitive. It has to come from a genuine desire to help others, to treat others with respect and equality.

One question that will inevitably come to mind – can we teach this? How can we increase the likelihood of empathy in our children? This is a highly relevant and important debate in our schools as “compassion” is one of the values highlighted within the mission of the Tenby Schools, along with integrity. High empathy, caring and kindness won’t happen just because we tell our children that it’s right or the appropriate way to think and be towards others.

Firstly, I believe the likelihood is increased significantly when we, the adults, model empathy – in other words we show ourselves to be warm, kind, caring and compassionate to others – especially where there is difference. We need to show our children the mental processes of being understanding, thoughtful of others/ other-centric.

Over the last 15-20 years we went through a situation where, in education and in parenting there was so much emphasis placed upon building self-esteem. This led to adults stressing specialness, uniqueness and feeling good about oneself. Regrettably, as the children impacted move in to adulthood we’re seeing massive shifts towards narcissism and away from empathy, caring and compassion. The child brought up in the high self esteem environment is more likely to be seeking verification of themselves, endorsement of their feelings of self-worth. However, the child brought up to see being empathic to others will, more likely, find their self actualisation in acts of kindness and positivity towards others.

In schools, I believe there’s been a lot of good and positive work in this direction that can help us to move further. One example is the scope for using tools like Jenny Moseley’s Quality Circle Time with children of all ages. These processes allow children to be more reflective of the effect of their actions and behaviours on others and how they feel according to how others act. In this way, the children learn for themselves and guide each other to be more understanding of what others need and expect from them.

It’s positive that we’re seeing more interest in schools putting a focus on social and emotional development. I’m particularly hopeful for programmes like the Ashoka Foundation’s “Start Empathy” Changemaker schools. It’s vitally important, though, to not treat empathy as just another subject area in school, to be packaged as a set of lessons or even just parceled as part of PSHE to be ‘delivered’ to children. Rather, it has to be built in to the ethos of the school, an integral part of everything from discipline policies to approaches to sports, learning and play time.

There is much work to be done. We have to do more for these children. Schools and education systems or societies that turn out predominantly narcissistic, self-absorbed children are going to find that they haven’t served them well to live their lives most effectively. They certainly won’t have prepared them well to be leaders of others in their lives. All this will, increasingly, make it likely that their university selection chances will be less.

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World Economic Forum – The Future of Education

WEF Education

The world Economic Forum is largely an economics and business think tank. However, the influential body recognises that one of the most important drivers of future economic growth is education – today and in the future. The graphic above is not dissimilar to those produced by ‘Route 21’, the campaign for twenty first century learning. It comes from an interesting report that shares some of the key insights in to the provision of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

World Economic Forum – 5 Charts That Explain The future of Education

The report links to a fuller report that raises some concerns that are frankly not too surprising – change is happening, but not nearly fast enough. All stakeholders who care about the future of children have to get up to speed and the educators have to put in the hard work of envisioning how the SEL needs change the way schools operate and run.

Angry Children

For some children, a struggle to control intensity when they are feeling angry can be debilitating and humiliating. It can also, in the worst situations make them a danger to others or to themselves. All too often, it also has the effect of creating negative spirals in their personal relationships with family, peers or educators.

So, it's vital that we help them to deal with their anger and to build an arsenal of tools and strategies to deal with situations when they are angered. This is the first critical point - we should not be trying to teach children that they have no right to ever feel angry or that it is somehow something they should feel terribly guilty about. Rather, we want them to be able to recognise triggers, understand their own anger (and that of others) for what it is and to deal with it in ways that are calibrated to the reality of the situation they're in without creating negative long term consequences.

The short little video above and the article link below contain some good ideas, certainly as starting points;

Parent Herald - 5 Tips To Calm An Angry Kid

I would have been keen to see more of the advice focused on prevention. Making sure that your child is getting adequate and regular sleep, has a good diet and gets some good physical exercise on a regular basis are three ways that are proven to reduce the frequency and intensity of anger from the child. Also, as in earlier articles about screen time, it's useful to try to limit the levels of stimulation through electronic gadgets etc.

As educators we have a vital role to play in helping children to build emotional intelligence. For many children smaller families (less or no siblings) and busy/ distracted parents mean that they get less time devoted to the management of emotions in the home. It would be very easy for teachers to bemoan the implications this brings to classrooms, especially in early years education, or alternatively to adopt strict, rigid, disciplinarian routines and regimes to 'control' and button down the children, but these don't contribute meaningfully to their emotional development.

I believe two of the most important aspects highlighted by the video are the vocabulary to talk about and describe emotions and feelings and the opportunity to reflect and discuss their feelings about anger and other strong emotions.

By far, one of the best vehicles for such development is the concept of 'Quality Circle Time' as developed by Jenny Mosley. Sadly, this is a concept that I've seen much abused by too many teachers. Circle Time doesn't mean sitting on the floor in a circle doing Maths sums! Rather, for children of all ages it offers an empathic, safe environment to talk about feelings and emotions, to reflect and explore triggers and to truly hear each other in a non-threatening way to understand how their own actions may trigger certain emotions and feelings in their peers and also to hear how others deal with their strong emotions.

Jenny Mosley's Quality Circle Time For Educational Training And Resources
(The link above provides access to lots of information about how to use circle time effectively, research and validation for the process and ideas for materials, tools and themes for running effective circle time sessions)

Educators can't pretend away the feelings and emotions of children. When those emotions get in the way of learning (their own or others') then it doesn't matter how good the teacher, their lesson plan or material - learning won't be effective. At the same time, you can't brush children's emotions in to a corner with suppression and coercive classroom management techniques (so that the problems just emerge somewhere else). So, educators need to have the tools and strategies, and devote the time to emotional and social development that includes building children's understanding of anger and their tools for dealing with it.

Social and Emotional Learning

When the UNESCO Delors Committee identified the various types of learning that are important during a child’s school life, one that they saw as critical was ‘Learning to Be’. At times it can seem that there’s so much pressure to focus upon ‘Learning to Know’ and ‘Learning to Do’ that this critical area gets squeezed out, or is treated as merely an add-on activity (especially with outliers where there are discernible behavioural challenges which are making the teacher’s job harder.

A few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, if we’re not giving due attention to SEL skills and competencies, can we really say that education today is child-centric or learner-centric? Aren’t we still in a situation where we’re treating the “stuff” to be learned as more important than the learners? Aren’t we then still processing children through and array of knowledge, content and material, testing to see who it stuck to and simply operating an adapted model of the factory based approach to education?

When a young person has low levels of social and emotional skills, how effective can they ever really be as learners? Further, how effective will they be in the wider world after school? If we ‘don’t have time’ to address these needs, are we setting them up for likely failure in pretty much everything else they do? Should we still be debating whether or not it’s appropriate to endeavour to ‘teach the whole child’?

Then, I start to wonder – are there a lot of teachers who shy away from SEL because it’s uncomfortable ground for them personally? Especially when we’re confronted with the kind of evidence highlighted in the headline of the following article – research that suggests SEL skills levels are a better predictor of future success than IQ.

Virgin – Unite – Ashoka – Why Teachers Need Social and Emotional Learning Too

I can understand the reservations of teachers when it’s suggested that the solution to developing higher levels of SEL for pupils is ‘bolt on’ programmes touted by independent companies. I believe that these skills are far better developed through integrated, organically developed efforts within a school, unique to the needs of the pupils, not attempting to administer an add-on programme as another block of learning.

One of the keys, in my view, is teachers who are attuned to the learnable moments for SEL as they arise throughout the school day. When positive or negative incidents and events happen in children’s interrelations the opportunities arise to address them, reflect on them and to capture the learning.

There is much to ponder on …..

(Incidentally, there’s a link in the article that seems to be broken – for The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child. I found an alternative link here that has some links to videos and other resources:
The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child

There are also lots of resources in the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ Initiative Section of the ASCD website:
ASCD – Whole Child