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The Importance of Compassion in Schools

university of Derby logoDr Frances Maratos, Reader in Emotion Science at the University of Derby discusses the importance of compassion and why it could be crucial in schools.  

What are compassion based initiatives?

The compassion based approach was originally developed for individuals suffering with affective disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety) and has, at its core, the idea that the mindful development of compassion can lead to more balance within our emotional systems (within the brain). This, over time, leads to increased wellbeing. To date, there is much research supporting how compassion based practices can improve wellbeing in terms of physical and mental health and compassion based initiatives have been shown to be of benefit to individuals’ wellbeing in a number of settings such as in the armed forces and business environments. However, what is lacking is evaluation of these approaches in school settings.

What is involved in compassion and why is it so important in schools?

In the compassion approach we are currently trialing with schools we have been educating those who work with children/adolescents (e.g. teachers, teaching assistants) as to the functioning of the human brain and how this can set us up for all kinds of difficulties, including psychological and social problems, especially when combined with certain environmental factors. This can then often leads to well-being barriers, including detrimental psychological and physical functioning. Therefore a core part of the initiative is the sharing of a variety of practices that psychologist and others have developed over many years to help use our bodies to calm our mind, and to use our mind to calm our bodies.  In combination, these techniques can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. For example, the exercises we introduce have been shown to reduce stress hormones circulating in the body as well as down-regulate threat-systems within the brain, both of which lead to improved feelings of physical and psychological well-being.

Should compassion be part of schools’ ethos?

Yes. We are aware of current successful pilots all over the world in which the compassion ethos is being put into practice, this includes schools in the US, Australia and Israel to name but a few, and we are currently sharing best practices. Of note, in the UK, statistics show that more and more teachers are leaving the profession now than ever before (a rise of 11{f98ab9da6e43684717765399dbc028477ca7088953dd2111044a924f88fe30dd} in the last three years) for reasons of increased stress, excessive workload, bureaucracy and behaviour issues. Adding to this is recent news of the rise in child and adolescent mental health issues, including teenage suicide. A compassionate approach has at its core a focus on our emotions, including understanding why we and others act the way we do, exercises that will help regulate are emotions and how those working in educational settings can best support each other for the benefit of staff and students alike (the flow of compassion). 

What can compassion mean in a classroom?

It can allow for a greater understanding of behavior and new approaches for dealing with behaviors teachers find stressful as well as difficult situations with children, parents and co-workers. It can also be much fun for pupils, allowing pupils of all ages more understanding of why they feel the way they do, why they might act the way they do and how to understand/help each other through the use of innovative exercises. As one colleague working in this field states ‘it’s helped to de-stigmatize normal children’s behaviour, promotes how to encourage children to take responsibility and for teachers to be ok with children acting, well as children. This then removes the need for punishment and has encouraged listening and skills development rather than threats.’  This is perhaps crucial in a time where teachers are under ever increasing pressures to hit targets, and children are feeling the effects of being increasingly assessed.

Our research and what we are doing to introduce compassion in schools

There are currently a number of compassion based initiatives that aim to improve the wellbeing of both staff and students across a range of primary and secondary schools. However, to date, such initiatives, within school settings, have not been subject to scientifically rigorous evaluation. Given this we are currently evaluating the feasibility and effectiveness of conducting Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) with staff in a school in the East Midlands.

So what does the Derby approach involve?

We trialled a six-session CMT intervention with all staff of a particular school which specialises in educating children with social, emotional and behavioural needs . The specific CMT intervention covered insight into the evolution of the human brain and its part in bringing about psychological and social problems, as well as how such stressors can lead to poorer physical and mental wellbeing. A main focus of the CMT initiative was to introduce compassion-based practices to staff to improve their wellbeing. We are now in the process of evaluating the initiative, and feedback received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive with staff understanding how the training imparted can lead to improvements in their own wellbeing.

We are keen to trial the CMT intervention with further schools in the East Midlands over the summer 2017 term, for more information or to get your school involved, contact Dr Frances Maratos on f.maratos@derby.ac.uk, 01332 593053.

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