Empathy and Validation Is Empowering
“The existence of your neighbor’s pain is not dependent upon your belief in it.” – Jesse Williams
Although it’s been several years since I came upon this quote online, the words still resonate daily. I am reminded of their significance as my observations, feelings, and choices are questioned by individuals with different experiences. I am reminded when a factual recounting of events is casually dismissed as perception or a suggestion that something significant must have been left out.
We all have biases that can impact how we view the world. But we also have unique experience and knowledge that inform those views. Closing one’s eyes to someone’s challenges or insight, simply because it does not match our own, is a disservice to everyone involved. Agreement is not a prerequisite to understanding.
Encourage the Effort
I ask you to read the quote above again. Now think of a struggling learner who’s been told a challenging task is easy. Or imagine a child who has been told he isn’t trying hard enough. Think of the parent who knows there’s something wrong and is determined to advocate for that child. Yet, he encounters repeated obstacles and frustration instead of support. Dismissing someone’s concerns, challenges, or effort, doesn’t remove their struggles. Instead, it can further isolate the individual and compound their trials.
One of the earliest lessons I learned when studying to become a teacher was the significance of saying “You’re right. It is hard”, when a child expresses frustration or difficulty while trying to complete a task. Acknowledging that experience and effort can mean the difference between a child shutting down and giving up and one who’s able to consider alternatives and continue working towards a goal. It can also counter the negative thoughts about self-worth that often result in these moments.
Remembering the Lessons of Childhood
As the parent of a young child, I find I’m often taking note of the careful way individuality, consideration, and empathy are addressed in shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Sesame Street that encourage learning and growth. As an adult and experienced educator who has worked with countless students and families over the years, I find myself wondering when those lessons are lost or why we seem to forget their importance as children move through school.
The need for validation and empathy does not decrease as we get older. And the learner who is trying extra hard with little progress and watching peers seemingly apply the same steps to the same tasks with better results, may not just crave, but need both desperately.
What Matters More, the Result or the Journey?
I understand there’s a lot of debate about acknowledgements, such as participation trophies. And maybe there’s a conversation to be had about finding more meaningful ways to recognize effort. But is the student who won the race, debate, match, or tournament the only one that worked hard? What about the child who is battling illness, physical ailment, or emotional challenges, but still expended every ounce of energy possible in order to cross that finish line?
Or the child who had to walk, run, or, bike several miles just to reach the competition, who is already exhausted at the start, but sees it through to the end?
Is Your Child Struggling?
Now that the school year is in full swing, there are a number of things you can look for that may indicate there are challenges impacting your child’s achievement and and/or involvement at school.
- What is the same? If there were difficulties or struggles last year, has anything changed? Do the same apprehensions, grades, and responses from teacher and student inhabit most days? Are behaviors that were dismissed by some as laziness or lack of focus persisting even when you know you child cares about the assignment and result?
- What’s different? Are there sudden negative changes in achievement, attitude, work completion, or feedback from teachers? Why?
Encourage the Effort
Our children use verbal and nonverbal cues to communicate their thoughts and needs from the moment they enter our world. We learn to interpret their silence, lethargy, discomfort and cries in order to provide what they need to feel secure as they grow and thrive.
Those same cues might be frantically signaling words they’re unable to say. “I need you to understand that I’m trying. I’m doing everything I keep hearing I’m supposed to do, and nothing seems to work. I am worried there may be something wrong with me. I’m going to stop trying. At least then it’ll be my choice. It won’t mean I’ve failed.” These are words most struggling learners feel, but never say. Acknowledging that what they are trying to accomplish is challenging can help.
It’s important to help all learners understand that everyone has unique challenges and strengths, some of which they may not have discovered yet. These simple words can mean the difference between giving up and seeking a path forward. Explain that learning challenges have nothing to do with intellectual ability, but may mean a student has to work far harder than they should to achieve results. Acknowledge that you see that effort.
Learning more about specific challenges, appropriate accommodations, and interventions, can break that cycle and can help everyone realize what’s possible.