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Learning to #apologize, the art of healing!

April 4, 2017

In K-12 schools, communities composed of intricate webs of student-student, adult-student, and adult-adult social interactions, we tend to expend minimal energy designing or adopting programs that help students and adults navigate complex social interactions.  When relationship problems do arise, we handle them in the moment usually with more reactive rather than proactive focus.  Of course, some schools bring in social-emotional curriculum to help students learn to thrive in their school community.  This is certainly an important first step.

But in the end, do we hold ourselves accountable for defining the indicators and outcomes we want to achieve through our efforts?  Do we place as much value on a student’s social-emotional growth as we do on their academic growth?  Consider this, we eagerly assess a student on a scale of A-F or 100-0, hopefully not zero, with regard to their academic growth.  Academic achievement or grading conversations consume considerable time and energy in a teacher’s, student’s or parent’s school experience.  However, we spend little quality time discussing a student’s social-emotional growth, and we certainly don’t “grade it.”  You’ve heard the saying, “what we assess is what we value!”

In this post, I’m suggesting schools spend time thinking about, designing, and implementing programs, structures, and conversations centered on the social-emotional growth of students, and make use of research in neuroscience which confirms that social-emotional learning supports overall cognitive growth.

Healthy social-emotional development in young children correlates with healthy cognitive development and therefore creates a strong foundation for future school achievement. (1)

Neuroscientists are conducting research on different aspects of how a person navigates interpersonal relationships.  The research is providing a window into how the decisions we make in relationships impact our overall emotional health and happiness.  For example, Sabrina Strang and colleagues published a 2014 study, Neural Correlates of Receiving an Apology and Active Forgiveness, which illustrated that the act of apologizing and forgiving activate neural pathways that lead to the development of a stronger empathy response.  The authors write:

Activation in a network of frontal, temporal and parietal regions is often found in empathy processes. Empathy includes emotional as well as cognitive processes. By simulating the emotional experience of others we can intuitively understand what the other person feels.

In schools, do we model for students the power of an apology?  Do we design learning environments where students are taught how to work through complex interpersonal relationships?  Do we encourage them to process their feelings, apologize when they hurt others, and forgive those who violate boundaries?  As adults, do we model these healing behaviors for students as we navigate public adult-adult relationships?  My experiences in a variety of schools has been that these programs or experiences are hit-and-miss, and generally only happen when a situation becomes a crisis.

On March 30, 2017, Krista Tippett published her On Being interview with Layli Long Soldier, “a writer, a mother, a citizen of the U.S. and of the Oglala Lakota Nation.”  She is the author of the book of poetry, Whereas.  You can read an excerpt on the Poetry Foundation website (click here).  In the interview, Long Soldier reflects on the impact of personal and national apologies on her psyche or our national psyche.  She tells a power story about her father’s apology to her about not being there in her formative years.

And when I was in my 20s, he came to visit one time and unexpectedly, he was sitting at breakfast with me and apologized for not being there. And I think there was something in the way he said it. He cried when he said it. And I could feel it, I could physically feel that he meant it. And really — and I can say this to this day — in that moment, all of it was gone. Like, all that stuff I’d been carrying around — it was gone. It was lifted. And I feel, in many ways, we started new from that point on. I really have not had the need to go back and rehash things with him and so on. We started from that place forward. We’ve known each other in a different way.

She goes on to comment that:

I think there has to be a kind of trust building in order for any kind of apology to be effective, whether it’s interpersonal or at a national level.

In her interview, she references the United States congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009, which was enacted as part of the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act.  The apology was not public, and was buried deep in the document (click here).  Layli Long Soldier heard about the apology months after it was official, but never through any public forum.  I had not heard of the apology because it was never part of our national dialogue.  Former President Obama’s failed to understand how making this public was instrumental to the healing process.  Here is a quote from the apology (click here for more details):

To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.

An apology is only meaningful if it comes from the heart.  The words, expressions, and sentiments have to resonate with those who are on the receiving end of the apology.  If you listen to Layli Long Soldier’s interview, then it’s clear the US apology to Native Americans did not come from the collective heart of the American people.  It was a legally crafted set of words, buried deep within another document, that we were afraid to share.  I would conclude that our national psyche, our social-emotional health, was still unapologetic for all the hurt we caused Native Americans.  A public apology by then President Obama, in the form of a ceremony at a sacred Native American site, would have been a more meaningful resolution to the long history of pain we caused.

In our schools, we need to teach students how to give and accept apologies as a way to heal.  Healing is a process and an art.  It requires a strong inner voice and a moral grounding that allows for an expression of vulnerability.  Being vulnerable is a quality that leads to establishing trusting relationships.

(1) Ready 4 K, The Importance of Social and  Emotional Development in Young Children, Megan Waltz (click here)

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