Rituals of Empathy and Social-Emotional Learning

“If you’ve even been stressed-out between the time when you woke up and when you got to class or work, raise your hand.”

Move This World (MTW) starts their training sessions at schools with this prompt. When students raise their own hands and then look around to see their principal, their teachers, and other students all raising their hands, there’s a moment of belonging and validation. By acknowledging that teachers can have bad days (shock–they aren’t robots!), emotional days, happy days, and tired days- students start to see their teachers as human and can better relate to them.

By getting students involved in a conversation about their own emotional states, like stress, sadness, or excitement, teachers can get a read on where they are at and how conducive that state is to learning. For example, a student that hasn’t eaten breakfast and went out the door arguing with a parent that morning may need some additional time to manage emotions through a walk, a dance, or just talking before focusing on classwork. The benefit of this is for the whole classroom, because that one student will be less likely to distract others, antagonize negative situations, or be defiant in front of the rest of the class.

Everyday Rituals

Teachers and students alike will agree–stress happens to all of us. MTW helps bring the power of social-emotional learning (SEL) in classrooms and workplaces in short creative practices with big impact. They offer online tools for grades pre-K to 12th, as well as workplace tools for those of us outside the classroom life. With 10 years of research and development under their belt, they’ve created a simple and effective set of activities with enough data around why they work to sway the skeptical holdouts. MTW calls these exercises rituals because the idea is that you practice them every day, ritualistically, rather than as the need arises (because really, that’s too late).

Here’s a great video compilation of classrooms doing the rituals that MTW teaches: 10 Emogers (ways to manage emotions), Mindful Morning, and Mindful Breathing. If you are a technology-enabled classroom, MTW has some strategies for implementing these practices in your blended classroom.


Experiential Social-Emotional Learning

I attended a full day EXSEL (EXperiential Social-Emotional Learning) session this May in New York city, lead by US Program Director Anya Warburg. Warburg and her team guided us through a day of creative practices that were instantly applicable to not just classrooms, but boardrooms and conference rooms as well. On paper, it is hard to describe how meaningful these interactions were. We created dances, poetry, and moving statues together. We clapped, we cheered, and yelled together. Attendees opened up about their lives and shared deeply sensitive stories about their passions for students and teaching. The creative practices were safe; no ever felt like there was an option to fail. Most attendees were local teachers and counselors who wanted to improve their classroom management skills. Many of them talked about being leaders for change at their institutions because these types of practices create a new culture of awareness, reflection, and connection.

One of the final activities we did was pretending to be one of your problem students 30 years in the future, as if they’d really maximized their potential. The power of envisioning what it would take to help a student make those leaps, embodying that and pretending to speak on their behalf– I can’t begin to describe the swell of emotions each teacher felt, as the realized how they played a role in helping that troubled student see their real potential to be successful. The resilience many new teachers start with resurfaced and we felt more powerful to make an impact on the lives of the people we meet.

Warburg shared data from one of their school-wide implementations (below). These impressive data points are just the beginning of a larger conversation that MTW is part of. The phase MTW uses to promote their work is “you can’t learn when you’re afraid“. Brain science backs this up repeatedly— when flight/fight feelings take hold, our rational brain shuts down. What MTW does that makes them different is they teach practices as part of a culture. Students and teachers (very important that teachers participate!) do these morning exercises every day, so that when they actually have a crisis moment, they are equipped with tools to help themselves. Trying to teach someone good habits when they are in the middle of a crisis isn’t sustainable, so MTW makes it an everyday part of learning with these short rituals that have significant impacts on the whole school environment.

The Numbers

Climate Improvement from Baltimore City Public School: Move This World partner from school year 2013-2014 to school year 2014-2015:

  • 75% decrease in suspension incidents by fighting
  • 57% decrease in suspended students
  • 42% decrease in total suspension incidents
  • 39% decrease in students with multiple suspensions
  • 14% decrease in students at risk for chronic absenteeism<
  • 38% increase in staff who feel safe at this school

I walked away from New York with a better sense of how to educate, how to communicate, and how to generally be a better human in this crazy world of ours. These practices taught me that you can take a room full of nervous strangers and transform them into collaborative teams that feel empowered to create together.

I’d advocate we start using these metacognitive tools and mindful practices whenever we engage with other humans. My argument would be that going through SEL training makes being human easier. By understanding where people are coming from and how to connect with them at that level, whether student or co-worker, we validate them by honoring what they are going through and allow for more meaningful conversations to happen. Just take a moment to image what your life would be like if there was more acceptance, openness, and forgiveness. Take a breath–feel what that would feel like. Kind of awesome, right? I, for one, am excited to be entering this new age of empathy. Let’s use what Move This World teaches us to share, connect with others, and build a community around these practices that benefit all of us stranded on this blue marble in space.

Empathy–it’s not just for futuristic sci-fi robots!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, US Department of Education.

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