By Liz Bergren
Shame is hard to talk about. It’s a complex emotion, and many of us don’t know how to verbalize its existence in our lives. Dr. Brené Brown, a New York Times best-selling author on the topic, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Like any emotion, shame has some purpose: It can maintain our moral compass, and it can regulate our social behavior by helping us forgive and accept wrongdoing.
However, any emotion that goes on too long can become toxic. Donald Nathanson, founder and director of the Tomkins Institute (until his death in December 2017), said that shame can easily become toxic because of our brain’s inclination to relive shame experiences. Early shame experiences in our lives can play out over and over again, leading to long-term feelings of worthlessness. In a 2003 report “The Name of the Game Is Shame,” Nathanson lists shame triggers: “matters of size, strength, ability, skill; dependence/independence; competition; sense of self; personal attractiveness; sexuality; issues of seeing and being seen; wishes and fears about closeness. Failure in any of these areas triggers shame, just as success brings on a moment of pride.”
Many of our shame experiences happen early in our lives and become unforgettable. Some are so tragic that we suffer long-term mental health issues as a result. Children experience shame through the words and actions of those who care for them. An insensitive teacher can have a devastating impact on children’s early educational experiences. Certain pedagogical practices can either increase shame responses or decrease them. For example, grouping lower achieving students together can ultimately lead to exposure of students’ weaknesses—a trigger of shame. Exchanging papers and having peers grade them exposes weaknesses as well. Certain strategies used for classroom management can also lead to shame, such as facing a student’s desk toward a wall or yelling demoralizing statements at a disruptive child.
To help eliminate or alleviate shame triggers in school, model and teach empathy and include lessons on emotional intelligence. Dr. Brown’s work on shame resilience revolves around authenticity, vulnerability, and empathy. In a 2015 interview, she urges adults to teach children to dig in to their emotional experiences. Avoid the temptation to fix something that goes wrong for kids, but rather let them feel the emotions produced by failure.
Maybe you see one of your students really struggling to understand a certain problem or concept, or you have a student with persistent behavior problems. You can tell by her facial expressions that she is frustrated or not fully comprehending. Approach that student quietly, assess her understanding, acknowledge the emotion you’re observing and validate it and reassure her. An important step that we can often neglect is to allow an emotion to persist, feel it, and then let it pass. Often, we want to immediately stop the feeling or do something to numb it. Instead, we can teach kids to face an uncomfortable emotion, name it, learn from it, and keep plugging away. Don’t let students connect their mistakes, failures, and wrongdoings to their core identities. There is no such thing as a bad kid, only bad behavior and poor decision-making.
Common classroom practices like ability grouping can have detrimental effects on children if not done in a way that encourages problem-solving and critical thinking. According to Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock in Classroom Instruction That Works, effective learning groups must have at least the following elements: “the work must involve every member of the group; each person has a valid job to perform with a known standard of completion; each member is invested in completing the task or learning goal; and each member is accountable individually and collectively.” Keep your grouping as flexible as possible and allow students to have some input.
Regarding classroom management and discipline, allow students to have a say in classroom rules. Design and brainstorm rules together with them so that there is a common understanding of consequences for certain behaviors. Make sure to privately discuss individual behavior issues, avoid techniques that include public statements that point out a single student’s wrongdoings.
Dr. Brown’s work has been transformative for me as a practitioner, individual, parent, and educator. It has led me to think about how to integrate shame resilience into my work with kids. I encourage you to do your own research on shame. Practice vulnerability in your life and make empathy the foundation for your teaching. Be warm and approachable to students so that they can come to you when they struggle. Regardless of the subject you teach, use teachable moments to build students’ emotional intelligence or work social-emotional learning into your curriculum.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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