An ethos born in the staffroom

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
Training teachers to cultivate empathy can break the cycle of bullying in schools, writes Vinciane Rycroft

Ian, aged 8, throws his younger brother Robin to the ground. Tears and screaming. It's the fifth or sixth time already today. "I'm strong, I'm Superman!" The boys have just lost their mother after two years of an extremely painful illness. As educators, we witness this very human story again and again, every day. It shows clearly the process of bullying. Now, how do we respond?

Daniel Favre is a teacher, teacher-trainer and professor in neuroscience and education. His work studies the process of youth violence. It also shows how supporting teachers in cultivating empathy can break the cycle of youth violence and improve maths results.

His 50-hour programme trains educators to minimise pupils' fear of learning and dogmatic perceptions. Regardless of their subject, teachers learn six different skills: to distinguish clearly between error and fault when giving feedback to pupils; to encourage emotional literacy; to facilitate teamwork; to emphasise our common humanity; to establish a non-violent mode of authority; and to develop strong listening skills and empathy.

"Empathy", Favre says, "is actually the foundation of the whole programme, and our research shows that through training most teachers' behaviour changes, and young people copy this change. Over a period of two years their empathy increases and their results in maths too."

It is tempting to design anti-bullying programmes for young people and to forget to train teachers to develop their own emotional awareness and give them the space and the tools to take care of themselves. But what would we think of a school that taught young people about recycling without introducing a recycling scheme in each classroom?

Teachers can be resistant to applying these tools to themselves. At the education charity Mind with Heart's teacher-training sessions on mindfulness and empathy, participants are very eager to move on to how they can apply the strategies to their pupils. Even though the main objective of the training is clearly presented as enhancing personal well-being and efficacy, it takes teachers a while to sit back and think: "OK, this training is about coming home."

Last year, Katherine Weare and Melanie Nind, professors at the University of Southampton, analysed 52 good quality reviews published worldwide since 1990 on promoting mental health and well-being and increasing social and emotional competence in schools. A main finding was that a whole-school approach and introducing a calm and respectful school ethos are key.

"It is clear that effective prevention of violence and bullying needs to start with in-depth teacher education, so that teachers address their own prejudices and learn how to help pupils work on theirs," says Weare.

There is also plenty of evidence that teachers can be trained to pass on these skills to pupils. One example is the work of the ERASE-Stress programme, in which Dr Rony Berger from Tel Aviv University trains teachers from 12 different countries in resilience and compassion. These teachers then deliver the same programme to young people dealing with the aftermath of terrorism and war. Research shows the efficacy of this programme in simultaneously reducing pupils' distress levels and their tendency to behave aggressively and stereotype other young people.

"If you want to understand bullying in a school, begin by looking at what goes on in the staffroom," says education consultant Nikki Daniel, who has been working for seven years on mentoring, behaviour change and emotional literacy. "The style of leadership in a school, the teaching climate and the dynamics among staff are a good place to start. This is not to point the finger, but rather to understand that empathy and compassion need to start with oneself."

As educators and carers we need to be at ease with ourselves and take the time to cultivate empathy, kindness and compassion towards ourselves. Then we can transfer our attention to others, especially children and young people, in a truly authentic and meaningful way.

Daniel Favre, Katherine Weare, Rony Berger and Nikki Daniel are among the speakers at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference for education, health and social care professionals taking place today and tomorrow in London. Vinciane Rycroft is the director of Mind with Heart, which is coordinating the conference partnership. See www.mindwithheart.org.uk.

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