Middle School – An Important Time To Teach Empathy and Compassion

August 18, 2011

Middle School – An Important Time To Teach Empathy and Compassion

middle schoolThe middle school years are an important time to teach empathy, and compassion. Pre-teens have the full range of feelings while still willing to acknowledge and communicate about them. How We Learn to Hide, Deny And Suppress Feelings This awareness has been made very clear to me as a middle and high school assembly speaker on healthy choices. During my Legacy of Hope® assemblies, students are asked to identify the feelings various characters in the assembly are expressing. Middle school students identify 3 times as many emotions than high school students and 10 times as many as parents do in parent education programs. Audiences are then asked why they think this is so. The answer invariably is that people hide, deny and suppress their feelings as they get older to protect themselves from ridicule, rejection and social norms that say to express feelings is considered weakness. As a result, by high school, teens have been indoctrinated to hide, deny and suppress various feelings for fear of rejection, taunts, shame and repercussions. As a result, the middle school years are a critical time for parents, educators and counselors to allow and even encourage preteens to express and discuss their feelings without making them wrong. It is only through the ability to identify feelings, talk about them without judgment or ridicule, and then relate them to what others may be feeling that young people develop empathy and compassion. Helping Preteens Develop Empathy And Compassion Allow adolescents to talk about even their most angry, jealous, judgmental and insecure emotions. They learn from supportive teachers and parents to:
  1. Stop and identify feelings before taking action
  2. Express them with safe and non-judgmental adults
  3. Discover healthy choices for coping with feelings such as:
    • asking for what they need using a calm voice
    • setting a boundary when being bullied or abused
    • making amends when they have been inappropriate
Middle school teens are quick studies when it comes to such things as learning how to express anger in a healthy way, how to release blame and shame, andmiddle school years how to respond thoughtfully rather than to react with anger in relationships. They understand that other students have fear of not being liked, just like them. They can learn not to take their fears out on others/bully them and not to succumb to being bullied by communicating about their feelings with teachers, counselors and parents. When they feel listened to and understood, they will then be willing to do the same for others. This is when they develop empathy and compassion. As a prevention speaker, it is clear that alcohol, prescription drug abuse and illegal drug use is rampant in America’s youth. It is also clear that substance abuse is an unhealthy coping mechanism adopted by youth who have not had a safe adult to communicate their feelings to, who have not been treated with compassion and empathy, and, therefore, have no concept as to how else to cope with disturbing emotions. Middle school teachers have the opportunity to provide a healthy emotional communication to their students and teach social and emotional skills as well as subject matter, enhancing a student’s self-esteem and teach-ability for life. Suggestions For The School And Classroom Environment • First and foremost, teachers and administrators need to value and respect feelings in people to be able to do so for their students. • Recognize that students who are acting out are doing so because of feelings they do not know how else to handle including aggressive behavior, isolating/withdrawal, class clown, annoying other students. • Work on building trust with a student before talking about feelings or they are likely to shut down. Trust can be built by making them feel valued which begins with inclusion, giving them small, non-threatening tasks to help in the classroom, and acknowledge them for their help. • Take time with the student after class, before school or during lunch to ask them how they are doing today. Start sharing stories about when you know other students were upset, angry, hurt, etc. and how tough that can be. • Ask the student to share a story about anyone they know that has had upset, angry, hurt feelings/been abused, etc. Then ask them how they fell about what that person went through. Then ask if they have ever felt that way as well. This is the door-opener. • If a student is in a serious abusive, bullying, grieving or upsetting circumstance, acknowledge that situations and feelings can be tough, and that there is more help if the student wants to go with you to see the counselor. Middle School Learning Empathy The Difference Is You According to the National Middle School Association (NMSA), youth between the ages of 10-15 years old undergo more extensive physical, mental, social, moral, and emotional changes than at any other time in life, with the possible exception of infancy. This period of life is a distinct, developmental period in which attitudes and values develop that will largely determine a teen’s later behavior. Teachers, counselors and parents, you can be the difference! As primary role models and guides to young adolescents, teaching and parenting young adolescents is an awesome responsibility and an important time for adults to be actively involved in pre-teens’ emotional growth and well-being.



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