According to a study conducted at Yale University and published online in the Journal of Educational Psychology earlier this year, emotional connection in the classroom can have a major impact on students’ success in school. Students tend to thrive in classroom environments in which teachers are sensitive to students’ needs; teacher-student relationships are warm, caring, nurturing, and congenial; teachers take students’ perspectives into account; teachers refrain from using sarcasm and harsh disciplinary practices; teachers express warmth towards, respect for, and interest in students; teachers encourage student cooperation; and teachers are aware of the students’ emotional and academic needs.
This phenomenon has been very apparent here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club when our Empathy superpowers are in full effect. For instance, when one of our Big-Brained Superheroes was briefly engaged in an unproductive interaction with another one, rather than immediately criticize his behavior (it’s not as if he didn’t already know it was wrong), we expressed some understanding. We told him that we understood where he was coming from and that it was ok for him to “hang out in his limbic system for a bit” before reciting The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Oath, which he did. And instead of having the incident devolve into a power struggle (as these things so often do) with hurt feelings and moping all around, our young Big-Brained Superhero came back to us ready to re-engage in the activities we were all enjoying. Everybody learned.
However, the big challenge we’ve had is finding the right balance between the more prescriptive style of authority that a lot of our Big-Brained Superheroes are far more versed in and the more cooperative approach outlined in the study described above. One of the benefits of being an after-school program is that we have an even greater opportunity to make these emotional connections than we might have as conventional school teachers. But one of the drawbacks is that we lack the institutional authority that conventional school teachers can typically assert, and this lack of institutional authority does present its own set of challenges.
Respect is one of the superpowers we’re working to build and exercise. The need to demonstrate Respect to generally recognized authority figures has a certain—somewhat obvious—logic inherent in it; the need to demonstrate Respect to everyone and everything else may require a bit more abstract reasoning. One method of getting our young Big-Brained Superheroes to consistently demonstrate respect to us might be to assume an air of authority even without the institutional backing. But even if that suffices for us, we still aren’t addressing the deeper, more abstract, problem of Respect for all things that we all need to build. And this is where we come full circle…can we eventually get to Respect through Empathy? If so, is that the better (if not the most direct) path?