The Empathetic Consciousness

If there is one adolescent trait that I value and quite frankly bet on every time, it is that adolescents are of the most resilient creatures on earth.   Certainly more so than adults.  This resilience is catalytic in their growth, and in helping them and their parents deal with challenges, whether they are academic, social, athletic, artistic, spiritual, etc.  Today’s catastrophic event is often forgotten by tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the far lower level of resilience found in adults oftentimes makes working through such challenges more difficult than necessary. As a parent, I have developed great empathy for how a parent receives information from other people about their child.  As an educator, I am able to combine that empathy with the aforementioned understanding of the adolescent resilience.

The conversations that blend these two nuances are oftentimes in reaction to a volatile moment or series of circumstances.  So the crafting, framing, and navigating such interactions while always keeping the empathic consciousness takes practice, and quite honestly, experiencing some conversations that don’t go well- and then reflecting on and learning from them.

In working with teachers, we often discuss what it means to be a parent of an adolescent and how we need to communicate with such understandings foremost in our minds.  Middle school is often the time when parents cease to be their child’s ultimate school teacher.  Adolescents are testing the waters of independence, and the result is that they seek detachment from their parents in a variety of ways. Adolescents seek support for academic, social, creative, and athletic challenges far less from their parents, and increasingly from peers.

Likewise, the relationship between adolescent student and teacher evolves.  Students are starting to navigate their identity less as adolescents and more as pre-adults.  Adolescence has been described as “adulthood with a safety net”.  As a result, students are starting to see their teachers less as the parent at school, and more as the cool aunt or uncle, and in some cases, their buddy.

It is important to understand how this shift affects parents, and thus the parent- school relationship.  No longer acting as primary teacher and confidante, parents experience their own emotional separation anxiety which has a direct effect on the parent-teacher relationship.  The trust dynamics and potential skepticism are different than with younger children and their teachers.  Understanding this emotional shift is integral when communicating with parents.

The old adage “kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” applies equally to parents.  When we communicate with parents, information IS important, but less so than conveying very clearly that the teachers really care about the student.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment.

As educators, we need to make kids feel safe, secure, like they belong, and confident before helping them self-actualize, which is a vulnerable process that cannot take place unless the other needs are satisfied.  But doesn’t this hierarchy also apply to how we relate to the parents? Parents need to feel like their child is safe, secure, and valued as part of the community.  Being mindful of these needs for student and parent alike allows for all communication with parents to be positive and supportive, even when we have to discuss challenges.

Ultimately, while we can count on that adolescent resilience every time, what we need to focus on when communicating with parents is that while we have 20-24 students to discuss, they have one child in your class, and in each conversation, we need to treat that child, and that conversation like the most important one we have.

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