Empathy Takes Practice

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

by Co-Executive Director, Diana Ayala

Every time I hear the word empathy outside of my work environment I begin to pay close attention to that conversation. Since when did empathy become a trend? More people are talking about it; more people are being trained on empathy. Even when I called my phone company, I noticed that their representative was ‘giving me empathy’.

Only empathy is not something that you ‘do’ to another person –  it’s the ability to stay present and connected to the other person, and the ability to stay connected with another human being takes practice…empathy takes practice.

I recently attended a training for a room full of school counselors. The Echo trainer gave out a handout on empathy and asked the participants to pair up with someone else. They were instructed to take three minutes to share a challenge they’ve had during the week and for the other person to practice empathy and empathic listening. As I shared my challenge with my partner, I noticed that she immediately wanted to give me advice. Although her intentions were to be helpful, she was struggling with empathy. She kept looking at the handout where we clearly say What Empathy is Not:

Fix it “What will help is…”

Advice “I think you should…”

Interrogate “How did it happen?”

Console “It wasn’t your fault.”

Sympathize “You poor thing, I feel awful for you.”

Commiserate “He did that to you? The jerk!”

One-up “You should hear what happened to…”

The three minutes were up and I noticed my partner’s relief that it was time to switch. She spent her three minutes sharing that her challenge was to come to a training where we would be discussing being “mushy”. She didn’t think it was necessary for anyone to bring their personal feelings to work. She had voiced her opinion on the manner and co-workers would tease her about how ‘tough’ she was, and although it was done in a playful manner she didn’t like it. She told me “Don’t get me wrong, I want to be able to be more ‘friendly’, but part of me thinks that it is not necessary to do that at work.”

As she was sharing her challenge all I could think of was, “Oh man! How in the world am I going to give this woman empathy…” (notice that all of a sudden, I start to think it is something I give rather than staying connected) “…and I have to be good because I work here!” So after some quick self-empathy for the situation I found myself in, I said:

“Wow, it sounds like you came to work feeling a bit nervous about today’s training, is that true?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“It sounds like maybe you were worried that your co-workers would be talking about you during the training and maybe all you want is to feel accepted for who you are by your co-workers?”

She nodded her head with a ‘yes’ and our time was up.

When the trainers asked if anyone wanted to share back how the exercise went, she quickly raised her hand and she said:

“I felt empathy! In three minutes I was able to feel empathy from someone whom I just met!”

Of course I was relieved! But nonetheless, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to stay connected with another human being and why practice is so necessary. Why don’t you try if for yourself? How long can you listen to someone without wanting to advise, console or offer comparisons to make them feel better? Check out author Brené Brown’s very amusing take on the subject in this great video on empathy.

Do’s and Don’ts of a Trauma-Informed Compassionate Classroom

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Classroom Kids

The summer break is upon us and right now parents and teachers are taking a much-deserved deep breath before jumping into the new school year. One of the programs Echo provides each summer is the salary-point Trauma- Informed Compassionate Classrooms training to help educators meet their professional development requirements and to give them the space to think about the classroom environment they would optimally like to create while not yet inundated with the day-to- day demands of the school year.

We were inspired by reading this article to create a short list of ‘Do’s and Don’ts of the Trauma-Informed, Compassionate Classroom’. We agree, that there is really only one ‘don’t’ and that is let’s not punish kids for behaviors that are trauma symptoms.

Here are a few ‘do’s’ to consider:

1) Create a safe space for all children to learn. What does that mean? Most school personnel don’t need much coaching about how to ensure physical safety but what about emotional safety?

2) Predictability: When children have been traumatized, they are on high alert, always expecting the next blow. Maybe they live with an unpredictable parent who buys them toys and hugs them one minute, and descends into an alcohol-fueled rage the next. Writing up the day’s schedule on the board and preparing students for transitions (“We’re going to be clearing up in 5 minutes and then we are going to go to the sports field”) helps create predictability and thus a sense of safety.

3) Trustworthiness: You promised the class they would get free time after they completed an exercise, but then someone asked a question and you took the time to explain something that you realized you should have covered in the lesson. These understandable changes of plan might seem like small beans to us, but to a child who has been around adults who constantly break their promises it can confirm what is already a deep-seated suspicion – that adults are untrustworthy. If we can provide stability and trustworthiness it will allow a child to begin to change their perceptions about how safe the world is.

4) Control: Do you get upset when your carefully laid plans are upset or when a child wants to go in a direction you had not prepared for? Many of us who experienced high levels of control growing up felt disempowered, and as a result we have an understandable urge to remain in control all the time! This is magnified for a trauma survivor whose physical or emotional safety was compromised because they had no power to protect themself at the time of the trauma. How can we begin to empower our students and offer ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ strategies so that we don’t reinforce these harmful power dynamics?

5) Regulation: In many cases the behaviors that cause problems in classrooms (or at home) are a child’s best attempt to communicate something to you, the adult. How much they hurt, how confused they are, how scared, how overwhelmed. Or even how exuberant and full of energy they feel when our schedule is demanding that they sit quiet and concentrate. Sometimes children need calming down, sometimes they need energizing, and by paying attention to this we can keep the whole class in what is called “The Resiliency Zone” – the place where our higher brain is online and we can access learning and memory. Children who have experienced toxic stress or trauma are easily bumped out of this zone. As a teacher, it is good to have tools for keeping kids in the Resiliency Zone as well as methods to help kids deal with the big behaviors that come with getting stuck on hyperarousal (anger, fear, anxiety) or hypoarousal (checked out, numb).

This is an abbreviated list, but if you would like to learn more about Trauma- Informed, Compassionate Classrooms and the practical tools for creating safe, stable, nurturing environments for kids, please sign up for our 2-day training. And speaking of tools, if you need help remembering these important DOs and DON’Ts check out the great, visual guide  available for download on our Resource Page.

The ACEs You Don’t Know…Adverse Community Experiences

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Echo has recently expanded its focus to look at Adverse Community Experiences. What is that, you may ask. The Adverse

DeGruy Photo Childhood Experiences Study is now almost two decades old, and it has revolutionized the way we look at physical, mental and social problems. The take-away message is that adversity has long-lasting and sometimes devastating effects on later life, but as the science shows, a safe, stable nurturing relationship with a caring adult can help children heal and build resilience.

However, no individual, and no family, exists in a vacuum. What about the toxic stresses that weigh heavily on certain communities? How does poverty, racism, forced displacement, homelessness or community violence, for example, affect the health and wellbeing of communities and the individuals who live in them?

This is the question that we will be attempting to answer in our 2017 “Changing the Paradigm” conference. Dr. Joy Degruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”, has agreed to be our keynote speaker. Stay tuned for more!

In the meantime, how are we incorporating this work into what we do at Echo?

Well, unsurprisingly, community trauma and community resilience have a lot to do with strong, connected relationships – the lack or the presence thereof. Often our individual or collective trauma gets in the way of creating those relationships – we have a history that inclines us to fear and mistrust. That fear and our attempts to cope with a scary situation may have at one time actually protected us, but now maybe they no longer serve us.

As psychologist, Darejan Javakhishvili, says in her work on displaced communities, without being able to get to the real persecutor (because they are dead, too powerful, or are in the country you fled), the ‘enemy’ is an empty frame of aggression, which freely floats around and tries to fit the first available object. The easier target is ‘the other’ – a different person or group – which results in intolerance towards different opinion, attitudes and mentality.

It takes consciousness and intent not to fall into the trap of creating enemy images. Trauma tends to polarize the mind, to group people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, to live as if you are fighting your childhood oppressor in every person who holds a different opinion or thinks differently to you. We none of us are immune, including the proponents of trauma-informed nonviolent parenting! Diana Ayala, Co-Executive Director at Echo, has long argued that we need to try to understand the ‘dominant’ paradigm of parenting and have empathy for those who have such a hard time giving up punishment and rewards as a means of controlling behavior.

 

The Echo Team.

2016 Changing the Paradigm Post Conference Blog Post

Monday, April 4th, 2016

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Echo Parenting & Education Changing the Paradigm Conference 2016 

“See it, believe it, act on it!” That was the exhortation at the end of the Building Trauma-Informed Schools & Communities conference last week. Around 250 people gathered to share experiences, best practices, questions and dreams as Echo hosted the first ever national conference on trauma-informed schools.

We were fortunate to have many extraordinary thought leaders, including Dr. Ross Greene “Lost at School” and “The Explosive Child” who flew across country to deliver his presentation to a captivated audience. (Please check our website for his slideshow coming soon.)

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Our second Day One keynote was Dr. Susan Craig “Reaching and Teaching Children who Hurt” and “Trauma Sensitive Schools” who serenaded the participants with a rendition of “Happy Talk”.

Other highlights included hearing from the team from Sally Ride Elementary, which is the pilot site for Echo’s Whole School Initiative.

Sally Ride team: Parent representatives including Katia Tovar (center), Catherine Daley, principal (right of center) and Lizeth Toscano, Echo parent educator (far right)

 

 

 

We also heard from Pia Escudero, head of School Mental Health for LAUSD and Superintendent Robert Martinez (pictured left).

Workshop Highlights

 

Popular workshops included a Restorative Justice circle from Roosevelt High School, Jose Arreola on the mental health of undocumented students and resiliency building from Elaine Miller-Karas.

Photo Gallery

 

Want to see photographs of you and your colleagues at the conference? We have the entire album available.

 

Echo Co-Directors, Diana Ayala (left), Louise Godbold (right) and Jane Stevens, founder of ACESConnection.org (center)

Conference Feedback

We were happy to get back many evaluations extolling the event, but if you attended the conference and didn’t get a chance to fill in an evaluation, could you please complete the online version. We work hard to incorporate your feedback in each successive conference, so please take the time to tell us what you liked and didn’t like.

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Journey to Healing – Our Year End Appeal

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015
 With support from community partners like you, last year alone Echo trained nearly 2,500 parents through community classes and classes in domestic violence shelters…parents like Karen Gonzalez who was featured in a recent NPR broadcast.
Here is an extract from the story:

 

“After years of physical abuse, Karen Gonzalez finally fled her home in November 2011 after she said her boyfriend tried to strangle her. She hadn’t realized just how much the experience had affected her and her three children.

“My body would feel stressed or tight or I couldn’t breath or I would hold my breath and I didn’t even realize, ‘Oh, wow, I’m not breathing,’” Gonzalez remembers.

Then 29, she struggled to meet her family’s clothes, food and other needs, then realized that her children also had been traumatized. They acted out, had trouble in school, and developed fears of many things.

She said her life changed when Echo Parenting & Education came to her shelter and invited her to a parenting class. 

Gonzalez said she learned that how she responded to her children’s behavioral issues mattered. She was taught “how to break the cycle of violence, how to look at the children [with] compassion and [with] love — basic human needs that we’re all trying to meet,” she said.

Gonzalez felt she received life-changing benefits from the Echo trainings, so she took the 100-hour certification course and now conducts classes herself.”

Through Echo’s classes, many families experience what it is to overcome generational trauma and all parents learn how to create loving, connected relationships so that children can grow up happy and healthy…and continue this legacy to their own children.

A contribution of $500 sends a whole family through our 10-class parenting series and covers the cost of providing safe, caring childcare while parents are in class. With your gift of $50, $100, $500 or any amount, you can be assured that you are helping Echo change lives of many families from different backgrounds and experiences.

Please send your contribution today or visit our website to make an online donation. And thank you for your support, in all its manifest ways.

Sincerely,
 
Carol Melville
Board Chair, Echo Parenting & Education