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Wednesday Wisdom

Elevating Empathy

- Reflect -

I am starting this week’s Wednesday Wisdom with an apology, to all ‘allergy parents’ or indeed anyone who lives with a severe allergy or allergies: I’m sorry I didn’t know what you go through. I feel motivated to say this following a webinar that I hosted last week with Professor Adam Fox of ‘Allergy London’ and Sarah Knight (CEO of The Allergy Team). This was a webinar for school staff across our Tooled Up Schools and addressed optimal strategies for reducing severe risk in school settings.

Before this webinar, I had some understanding of the importance of allergy care in schools and at home, but I had never heard anyone’s ‘lived experience’. Sarah Knight of The Allergy Team articulated what it was like to be an “allergy mum” to two children with complex allergies, and how the lives of families with children with allergies often can centre around fear and hope: will my child be safe today? Will they be ok at the birthday party? Will they be ok on the school trip? Has the new catering manager or school nurse been briefed? As an allergy parent, it appears you place a lot of hope in others and that’s tough. You hope that staff are knowledgeable, well-trained, organised and have communicated all necessary information about your child’s conditions to relevant colleagues. You hope for the best, on a daily basis! I should add that school staff also hope – that parents have sent them all relevant information about their children’s medical needs and meds, in a timely fashion. When supporting children with allergies, communication is absolutely essential.

Allergy parents often have to be more assertive than they want to be. For example, they might have to ask about cake ingredients three weeks before a party. Some people might label this as ‘neurotic’ or ‘demanding’. However, allergy parents have typically experienced their child having a severe allergic reaction in the past, a frightening one, perhaps one that may have killed them. So, if we put ourselves in their shoes, our empathy level should increase significantly and we can adjust our response accordingly. I recoil in horror, thinking back to a time when I booked a restaurant for dinner with family friends. Their son had a shellfish allergy (which I had known about but forgot about) and had booked… a fish restaurant for our meal out. Ugh. Why did I do that? I still remember how our friends made an apology to us when they gently reminded us they couldn’t do that. 

Nearly all of us have experienced allergy parents apologetically explaining that their child can’t eat what we have made for tea or provided at the birthday party. They should never have to do that. Sarah described a common scene at social occasions where allergy parents might have to trawl through discarded packaging or the dustbin, to find out what on earth their child had just consumed or was about to consume. This can’t be right. If we genuinely want to be inclusive and kind hosts, we should care deeply about what allergy parents go through every time they send their child to an event or social occasion and try our best to support them. 

Allergy parents don’t want to stand out, and don’t want their children to feel different either. They know what research has shown, that being different in a school can heighten the risk of being teased. So they have the added worry of how other children will react to their child’s unique requirements. Sarah talked of how children with allergies can be ‘blamed’ when menus change in school or the nice biscuits replaced with something that doesn’t threaten their life! We know that allergy bullying is fairly common; children with a food allergy are twice as likely to be bullied as those without one. They might be mocked about their limited lunchtime diet or for sitting at a certain table at lunchtime. In rare cases, they might even be threatened or made to eat food that isn’t safe for them.

It is not just children with allergies who are at risk. Children who stand out as different from their peers may be subject to the same exclusionary behaviours. This might be due to their skin colour, religion, social background, hair, sexuality or gender. Children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities are significantly more likely to be bullied than their peers. Research by the Anti-Bullying Alliance shows that 36% of pupils with SEN experience frequent bullying compared to 25% of those without SEN. Children with a learning disability or autism are particularly at risk and, in general, neurodiverse individuals are much more likely to be bullied than those who are neurotypical. One recent survey found that a staggering 75% of autistic young people have experienced bullying and only half said they felt safe at school.  

It’s reassuring to know that most children who encounter bullying and unkindness from peers, particularly if it is brief, recover well with support from friends and family. However, those who have been through something more traumatic can experience long-term effects and the resultant feelings of isolation and alienation can be challenging to overcome. 

This is why all of us should reiterate the importance of being kind to others to our children, not just every so often, but regularly. We often ask our children how their day was at school, but do we ever ask them if they completed an act of kindness or witnessed one? If they tell a story about someone being annoying in class, do we respond in ways that reinforce kindness or promote exclusion? For example, it is easier to encourage a child to exclude someone else from play because it is a quick remedy for peer conflict. Instead, we might try to help them develop social strategies for working through difficulties or communicating their needs. If we can teach our children to be curious and compassionate about other children’s challenging behaviour, it can be a good starting point. 

- Motivate -

Helping children to celebrate difference, in appearance, the way we think, our physical ability, sexuality, gender, race, culture or language – is vital. It’s not a question of mere tolerance. It’s a question of valuing the contributions of those around us, acknowledging people’s differing starting points, challenging misconceptions, questioning stereotypes and promoting kindness and care for others.

Last weekend, I took my children to Amsterdam to visit Anne Frank’s House; a place that exists as a solemn reminder of the extreme consequences of ‘othering’, ostracisation, and exclusion and remind us all about what can happen when hatred for others is politicised, galvanised and evil exercised. 

Clearly, it is an extremely poignant, albeit harrowing experience to be there and to consider what the Frank family (and millions of others) went through. At the beginning of the visit, we listened to a talk by a historian who talked about how the hatred of Jewish people began slowly and insidiously. She talked of children being pulled up to the top of the class and other students made to discuss what Jews ‘looked like’. Soon, a series of prohibitions began, exclusions and the arrival of the stigmatising yellow star. This talk prompted our own family discussions about the origins of hatred (beginning with feeling threatened, with small acts that belittle), fuelled by greed, ignorance or perhaps the desire for economic, political or personal power. My children were astonished that the Franks had been kept alive by the kindness of brave helpers over a period of two years, only to be betrayed, on the cusp of liberation, by someone who clearly thought they had something to gain personally. We talked about the personal values that the helpers must have held; they believed in doing what was right, what was human, what was kind, what was fair. 

On the way home from that trip, as I reminded my children about outstanding homework that needed to be completed, I reflected on the values that they perceive I may value more than others. Do I value academic achievement over character, over kindness? I certainly don’t, but is that clear to them? Is there as much chit-chat in family life about the treatment of others as there is about doing well in school? 

In considering any potential disparity between parental and children’s views of value hierarchies at home, I came across the work of Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard, who runs a project called Making Caring Common. The project’s mission is producing research and resources that contribute to building a world where children learn to care about others, treat people well day to day, seek fairness and “do what is right even at times at a cost to themselves”.  

In 2014, the Making Caring Common project carried out a national survey in the US and released a report called The Children We Mean to Raise. It examined the messages that adults send to children about values and how children interpret them. They found that a large majority of participants, across a wide spectrum of races, cultures and classes, reported valuing achievement and personal happiness over being a good person and behaving kindly to others, and that they thought their peers did too. The young people also felt that the adults around them were more concerned about achievement than caring. In fact, they were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement that, “My parents are prouder of me if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school”. 

Weissbourd’s research begs an important question and gives us something to reflect on as parents. Could there be a gap between our rhetoric and our daily reality?  Could well-intentioned preoccupations with personal achievement and happiness be drowning out our messages about the way that we should behave towards others?  Might some of the messages that we give be causing problems? 

This report was published almost nine years ago now, and was based on research in a US population. Most schools, certainly in the UK, now go to great lengths to firmly embed character education and core values into their curriculums and cultures. The importance of kindness, honesty, respect and responsibility is stressed daily in schools up and down the country and all over the world. 

However, this research made me reflect on the importance of auditing whether or not the things that we do and say in everyday family life match our real values and priorities. As Professor Weissbourd writes, “The challenge is for adults to ‘walk the talk’, inspiring, motivating, and expecting caring and fairness in young people day to day, even at times when these values collide with children’s moment to moment happiness or achievement.”

In short, we need to model the kind of attitude we want our children to adopt and a focus on empathy is a terrific place to start. A classroom or home-based game of literally stepping into someone’s shoes can be a fun and engaging way to think differently and more flexibly about how others might be feeling. You might say to your children, “imagine, it is your first day at school, how does it feel? How do you hope that others might treat you?”, or “imagine you have heard other children talking about you and being unkind, how do you think that would feel? How might that influence the way you act?, “Imagine you find out that there is a Whatsapp group named after you, how would that feel?”. You get the point. Empathy is an exercise and it is good for adults and children alike to do the shoe game once in a while. There is a deep humanity accessible via the lens of empathy and it might just keep toxic judgement, discrimination, unkindness, hatred and prejudice at bay.

- Support -

It is frequently said that the school environment, the classroom, or playground environments are microcosms of society and that it is within these daily contexts that our children navigate their way towards acceptance, understanding and towards a positive sense of self.

Unfortunately, for some children, peer interaction can cause social and emotional problems, difficulties and in extreme cases, exacerbate mental health difficulties. In every classroom, there will be children who are having a tricky time at home, who are grieving, who are struggling with social interaction or learning, anxiety or trying to cope.  

I recently heard from a parent whose autistic son has vocal tics when he is particularly anxious. These mean that he can vocalise (shout out) when he feels stressed in situations where it might be entirely inappropriate (in this case, during the Head’s speech on open day). You can imagine the telling-off he might get by anyone who doesn’t quite understand the purpose and function of his vocalisation nor have any knowledge of this particular child. You can imagine the pressure on a child not to do that, when every impulse is driving towards an action that they feel helps them calm down. This is one tangible example of how something that might seem rude on the face of it, but absolutely isn’t.

So how can we move toward creating a more accepting world for all young people? How can we ensure schools are safe environments for children and homes are places where understanding, empathy and compassion are highly valued? Like so many things, it starts with caring and conversation. All parents can talk about difference, diversity and neurodiversity with their own children. Encouraging kindness and empathy towards people who don’t think, present or express themselves in exactly the same way as we do is hugely important.

Kindness and empathy have far-reaching psychological and social consequences in themselves. There’s a solid evidence base showing that practising kindness has a positive impact on our mental health, as well as educational and interpersonal benefits. Altruism is linked to higher levels of life satisfaction, positive emotions and subjective happiness. Empathetic skills can be taught, modelled and valued, with lessons conducted daily within the school of family life. 

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

If you’re looking for more support and resources on the topic of kindness, have a look at our library. It features a whole section of resources devoted to promoting kindness, including interviews with leading researchers in this field, family fundraising ideas, a 100 acts of kindness activity (which includes prompts for kindness online) and a list of books that can help to cultivate kindness and empathy. If you would like to know more about Sarah Knight’s work at The Allergy Team, make sure to visit their website. They also offer a school membership that will provide your school with the knowledge and resources needed to bolster any allergy planning.

While we’re nudging our children towards embracing kindness and empathy, we still need to address the topic of hate and toxicity, so our children can learn about what they might encounter in the world and how to influence others for the better. We have two upcoming webinars that can help. In March, we’re joined by criminologist, Dr Lisa Sugiura for a webinar on misogyny and sexism. There is significant misunderstanding about the phenomenon, and this negatively impacts attempts to tackle it. Understanding and defining what misogyny and sexism actually mean is crucial to dismantling them and achieving gender equality.

Somebody who built a prominent online presence through misogynistic and sexist ideologies is Andrew Tate. Unfortunately, this toxic influencer has a vast fan base among boys and men worldwide. In April, Dr Sugiura returns for a webinar that takes a closer look at Tate, his methodologies, his appeal and what we can do to mitigate the risk that exposure to such material can bring.

For those interested in neurodiversity, please note that we are hosting an online conference “All About Autism” to be held on the 21st April and this is open to anyone within our TUE schools who wishes to attend. We have 11 fabulous and interesting speakers booked and we are looking forward to learning and sharing new knowledge. If you wish to attend, please contact rhonda@tooledupeducation.com

It’s winter and we want to make you feel warm, cosy and loved by reminding you that there is still time to win a Thermomix TM6 kitchen appliance worth over £1000.

So, make our day and tell us what we do that warms your heart. You can send a short video, a quick email, write us a poem, sing a song or do a dance routine. All members of our Tooled Up community are invited to join in the fun. We will pop all of your messages into a random draw and the lucky winner will be announced on St Valentine’s Day – Tuesday 14th February 2023.

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Have a great week.