In 2011, I began studying the effects of trauma in education. It quickly became obvious that policy, practice, and procedure were not only causing the trauma I saw in schools, but perpetuating it. Educational Trauma is the term I use to capture the spectrum of harm inadvertently perpetrated and perpetuated in schools. It’s an epidemic of student anxiety, stress, depression, suicidality, ADHD diagnoses, the use of criminal justice as discipline in low income communities, and finally the penultimate example of Educational Trauma: The School-to-Prison Pipeline.
Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes.
Most children are exposed to traditional schooling, and therefore are being exposed to poisonous pedagogy, a term introduced by Alice Miller to identify the practices people say they promote for the good of children, but which are truly toxic to children. There are many poisonous pedagogies being perpetuated across the nation, with testing being the most prominent. Testing is known to be a flawed measure of academic achievement. It measures test taking skills, not aptitude, learning, or skill. We have data to support this claim, and yet we tie teachers’ jobs and students’ futures to these maligned measures.
In 2011, after identifying how rampant Educational Trauma is, I founded The Connect Group, a non-profit organization with the mission of connecting communities with innovative educational solutions. Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk on schools killing creativity inspired me to learn everything I could about how we educate young people. I went to Israel and met with a woman who combined music and reading instruction to improve literacy outcomes. I immersed myself, and my own children, in online learning, community based instruction, and mixed age democratic educational models. Along with youngsters and their parents, I co-founded The Connect Group School, a one-year pilot program where we co-designed an empathic education model with students as collaborators. Here’s how it all went!
As I’ve tried and failed, tried and tried, and succeeded too, I’ve realized that there is a lot of groundwork to cover before the majority of people will be ready to embrace empathic education. For example, we need a collective refusal to test students for their learning, and return dignity back to them. We all learn new things –everyday! Testing people to gauge their level of learning is humiliating. It serves no other purpose than to rank people based upon faulty data, and it tends to conform to racist, sexist, and oppressive practices. The New Jim Crow is a book by Michelle Alexander that chronicles the ways segregation and racism are alive and thriving in modern America. It is my claim that schools are the breeding ground for these practices, and testing is how we initiate the practice of differentiation. Education will never transform as long as we remain complicit in testing, the use of criminal justice as discipline, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
So, I coined a term, wrote about it in Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect, (eds Thomas et al, 2015) and piloted an innovative educational model meant to combat Educational Trauma. And still there is hardly any change. It seemed to me that not only am I impatient for change, for awareness of harm in schools, and for the complete cessation of poisonous pedagogies, but that there are a lot of suffering students, parents, and educators. While they are suffering, there is little change that can arise, because one of the effects of trauma is that people get paralyzed, and fail to act when necessary. Rather than focusing on systemic change, I feel the need to serve individuals who are suffering so they can find their way out of educationally traumatizing situations. This honors my deep experience as a clinical and forensic psychologist while also serving the educational needs of the nation. Currently, The Connect Group serves clinicians, educators, parents, and teens all over North America. There is no limit to the need for our services as empathy and compassion are human essentials.
When I introduced empathy to education in my community, I called it Empathic Education for Compassionate Nation (EECN.) It seems that empathy is needed so we can mitigate suffering in schools, which is an act of compassion. To that end, I serve educators, parents, students, and clinicians in deepening their skills of empathy, self-empathy, compassion, and self-compassion. Later this year, my next book will be published which contains over 130 practices clinicians, parents, and educators can use to train teens in cultivating their own self-compassion practice. There are so many different roads to take in the web of Educational Trauma; self-compassion for teens is one way to help them steel themselves with mindful awareness, self-kindness, and shared humanity, while creating new ways of relating to problematic situations. Self-compassion for teens is one example of EECN.
It’s a long journey to the heart of the Self. With self-compassion for teens, students can be empowered to find their own path along that journey.