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Deborah Schoeberlein Headshot

Grow Empathy and Cut the Roots of Bullying

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Something's missing from all the recent discourse on Phoebe Prince and bulling -- and, no surprise, it's the same thing that was tragically absent at South Hadley High last year: mindfulness (paying attention to what's happening in the current moment).

Right now, there's a huge buzz about bullies, victims and bystanders. And, there should be. But, buzzing tends to drown out the sounds of reason, and the frenzy for retribution can easily distract us from the roots of the problem.

The roots of bullying grow strong when mindfulness, and the qualities of empathy, compassion and kindness are weak. It's much harder to bully when you see other people as "people like me" rather than some sort of dehumanized "other" (or the ugly epithet de jour).

If we want to stop bullying, we can start by promoting the very qualities that prevent it. There's good news about this . . . research shows that empathy can be taught, and that social and emotional learning improves outcomes for kids, in terms of overall wellness and academic performance.

We've got to prioritize teaching the protective factors, rather than simply punishing the perpetrators, and we have start within ourselves, and then teach our children. It's time to bring mindfulness to our own experience, intentions and actions. It's uncomfortable, for sure. But recognizing our pain, grief, anger and fear helps us stay aware of our humanity.

Begin with noticing how you feel right now; and make no mistake, this takes guts. It might mean diving into your heartbreak, before you breath in compassion, for yourself and others. Or maybe it's time to go into your anger, and find empathy -- for Phoebe, her family, and all the people who seem (from the outside) to have "let it happen."

And, maybe, when you're ready, examine whether you can stand firm against the horror of wrong behaviors without cutting off concern for those whose actions lead to the most horrible outcome possible. Yes, the perpetrators must be held accountable -- but we can't throw them away as "other" because doing so repeats the very behavior we seek to eradicate.

Kids pay attention to "what we, as adults do," far more than "what we say." How we respond to the horror of what happened in South Hadley will be more important that all of our angry or righteous words. We need to be firm and fair, courageous and compassionate.

We need to model training our minds and watching our emotions and action. It's easy to say "I wouldn't have let that happen" but who among us hasn't tasted the ingredients of bullying: the desire for attention, deep-seated fear, the disdain that leads to hate and the rush that comes from claiming power over others? We weren't there, and we can't know what we would have done. But we are here, and we cultivate mindfulness now and through doing so, prime ourselves to behave constructively in the future.

Scientists tell us that the emotional mind is a heck of a lot faster than the thinking mind, and that's probably why we've survived so long as a species. But, unmanaged emotions fuel thoughtless behaviors, and anger often leads to more hatred and violence. We've got to give our thinking mind a chance to catch up so we can respond with greater balance. Practicing mindfulness prepares us to pause in the midst of intense emotion and this protects and strengthens us, and our communities.

Once we know where we are -- emotionally, intellectually and yes, physically (as in that gut-wrenching sense of pain or the desire to strike out an hit something) -- we're in position to respond skillfully and break the cycle that perpetuates the violence. Fire doesn't stop fire . . . unmanaged emotions won't cut the roots of bullying. But empathy, compassion, kindness and the courage to do what's right seed the soil for a better world.

Deborah Schoeberlein is the author of Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything. She has more than twenty years' experience teaching fifth- through twelfth-grade students, developing curricular materials, providing professional development for teachers, and pursuing freelance journalism. Currently, she directs a multi-site school-based health center for kindergarten- through twelfth- grade students and their teachers.

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