Untangling the Web

Less face-to-face interaction stunts empathy and compassion

by Matthew Howell

Recently, I came across a student who was madly scribbling indecipherable lines in crayon on a sheet of paper.  We were in the cafeteria. He was sitting at a table with peers, but at the far end- he was with others, yet by himself.

As I watched from a distance he cycled through the colors; red then green, back to red, purple, yellow, back to green, all at a feverish pace.  He was pressing so firmly on the paper that I thought it might rip, or at a minimum a crayon would break from the strain.  

As the students around him got up from the table to go outside for recess, he continued scribbling, seemingly oblivious.  When nearly everyone had exited the cafeteria I walked over to the table and asked, “So what are you drawing?”

“It’s a spider web with a fly in it,” the student responded.

I looked closely at the work and tried to see his interpretation with my own eyes.  “Sure” I said, “I can see the web but not the fly.”

The young man lifted his head and made eye contact with me. He said, “The fly is in there, you just don’t see it because you don’t know where to look.  See,” he said, pointing to a black dot buried in the jumbled nest of lines, “The spider is right here in the center.”

With that, he stuffed the paper between his binder and notebook.  He stood, wished me a good day and walked off, seemingly happy to catch up with his friends.

The exchange got me thinking about how our students see themselves in our schools and the world at large.  While I cannot attest that this student and his artwork intended to convey a sense of being lost in a swirl of chaos and commotion, I could not help but draw the conclusion myself.  

As educators we are on the front lines of a shifting society. It is our job to ensure that students are not snarled in the web of activity that is modern learning.  Below are three tips that have helped me to find the students who are trapped in center of the web:

Technology and the Din of White Noise:

People have never been as inundated by a constant stream of information, images, noise and ideas as they are today. Immediate access to the internet in various forms has impacted students in measurable and not so measurable ways. With this rapid and continued development, it can be difficult to fully understand the way that this influences the human psyche, especially in students who are in the early stages of development.

What we do know for certain is that access to the Internet comes at a price. Students experience far less face to face communication than previous generations, which leads to the underdevelopment of empathy and the misunderstanding of once common social cues. Bullying is also rampant and pervasive on the Internet in all demographics.

To offset this, create spaces and activities in your schools and classrooms for students to detach from their devices. This is extremely valuable for the learner, as the removal of the stimulation will help regulate brain activity and open up cognitive capacity for creativity and reflection.     

What Happens at Home Comes to School

When I greet my students at arrival in the morning I am aware that many of them have already been exposed to a stream of information, and much of it is often traumatizing and negative.  I try to imagine them waking in a house where the television is turned to the news. Maybe they have their own unfiltered news feed on their telephones as well.

The parents, not for a lack of caring, may be engrossed by the same streams of information. The time for discussion could be nonexistent. Still, the subconscious mind is powerful, and in these instances the cortisol levels are proven to rise wildly. Even when the stimulation is indirect or unacknowledged, the brain still processes the information and formulates an involuntary response such as anxiety or fear.

On OffThese same young people could be listening to the latest reports on the car ride in as well. When they enter the building, they are flung headlong into the mad dash that is modern education without the opportunity to process the information.

It is important that educators cultivate an active awareness this dynamic exists. Pay attention to your students’ verbal and nonverbal cues. Develop sensitivity that an off switch may not exist for your students. This will allow a more compassionate approach in trying times.  

Eliminate the Cracks

In the best environments there are students who can go unnoticed. People with unmet needs will seek attention without fail, often in the most counterproductive ways.

One way to make certain that the students in your school are in a nurturing relationship with a trusted and caring adult is to do a school wide roster check.

Simply take the name of each student and post them on your walls during the safety and privacy of a faculty meeting. You can easily do this with chart paper or printed rosters. Have all members of your staff circulate the room and place a checkmark next to the students they have a positive rapport with.  Does every student have someone who knows their interests? Does each student have someone who helps them with goal setting?

There are plenty of questions you can generate to frame the activity. In the end, it is essential that each student has at least one person at a minimum. Learners need a constant stream of support and encouragement to flourish.  This will ensure that no one goes unnoticed.

While the student’s drawing I mentioned earlier may have been nothing more than a dash of lines and a release of stress, it cannot be denied that our job as educators and leaders is constantly changing and full of challenge. It is more important now than ever that we find our students where they are, and give them the tools they need to arrive where they want to be.

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