Compassion & Care in the Classroom

 In Connection, Research

Practicing Relational Authority as we emerge from the pandemic 

We’re coming up on the end of what has been one of the strangest years in history.  As adults increasingly turn their attention to post-pandemic life, with vaccines on the horizon or in process for millions, it’s important to remember that many young people aren’t looking that far ahead, yet. Many are just struggling to get to the finish line of a difficult academic year.

In the past year, we’ve witnessed educators around the country take a break from their regularly scheduled teaching in order to facilitate a kind of mental or emotional health “check-in” with students. This deep, thoughtful empathy is critical to being seen as a trusted adult in the life of a young person.

I wanted to learn more about what these check-ins have been like for the teachers and educators making space in their curriculum to plan them. So I reached out to Dr. Kyle Nelson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, who recently shared on social media about the positive response she got from students for the simple but critical way she took time out to check in on her students over Zoom in a creative, intentional way.

Her structured approach was illuminating. Right away I realized it aligned with the research we’ve been doing at Springtide about how to develop Relational Authority with young people—a framework for building trust rooted in listening, integrity, transparency, care, and expertise. Her story reminded me how critical Relational Authority will be when it comes to supporting young people through the final months of the pandemic.

“I’ve always tried to teach from a place of empathy and compassion as a default,” Dr. Nelson told us, “but at the same time, I want to be prepared and make every class worth the student’s time—not just the time they’re there, but worth the time they spent preparing, as well.” Her approach to using class time for a mental health check-in was no different. Rather than simply ask “How is everyone doing?” she thoughtfully structured the time in a way that led to a much more nuanced and in-depth discussion than she would have otherwise gotten with a vague or general question.

She described how she started by making a word cloud using an external, interactive software from Menti.com. Students typed and submitted words that described how they felt, and then saw their words and their classmates’ populating on screen. The more times a word was mentioned, the larger the word would become. Words like “Tired” “Anxious” and “Overwhelmed” came to the top along with words like “Optimistic” and “Excited.”  Dr. Nelson explained, the combination of all of those words really allowed us to normalize the experience of having so many emotions wrapped up all at the same time,” and the anonymous submission prevented any individual from being put on the spot. Following this exercise, she invited students to ask any question they wanted in the chat box—again, anonymously. These ranged from asking about favorite shows on Netflix to is everyone behind, or is it just me?”

What Dr. Nelson is doing in these two structured exercises is allowing her students to practice self-disclosure without the risk of vulnerability. By revealing certain feelings, thoughts, or questions anonymously, they can see they’re not alone—but no one had to “admit it” first.

After talking about the questions as a group and listening to all the responses, she shared her own feelingsand even snuck a quick sociological analysis of the pandemic (of course!)She made sure to point to resources available to all students at her university, including specific examples: peers, faculty, the writing center, campus counselors, and more.

Without knowing it, Dr. Nelson managed to exercise all 5 elements of Relational Authority: Listening, Transparency, Integrity, Care, and Expertise. She led with listening, encouraged transparency both in facilitating risk-free sharing and sharing her own story; she had integrity in the way she handled their questions, and showed both care and expertise by using her role as an educator to create this kind of space to check-in safely with a sound pedagogical structure.

If the goal was to help students feel heard, seen, and safe to share more—the exercise was incredibly effective.  We’re not surprised about that, given that 91% of young people ages 13-25 tell us they trust adults who practice all five dimensions of Relational Authority. Students reached out to thank her afterward, telling her “I have felt so alone being alone,” but seeing that they were all going through something difficult together made them feel a little better. One student even called it “isolation solidarity,” expressing a sense of gratitude for the way the conversation connected everyone, even if that connection was through a shared sense of loneliness or trial.  

Last week we launched The New Normal: 8 Ways to Care for Gen Z in a Post-Pandemic World, complete with Exercises in Empathy that will help adults see how they can support young people as we all transition out of the pandemic. We encourage you to download The State of Religion & Young People 2020 to learn more about Relational Authority, and to download The New Normal to find these exercises in empathy—both for free—to be better equipped to care for the young people in your life as they emerge from life in lockdown.

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