The Case for a Culture of Caring in Schools

March 20, 2018
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Children need adults, more than ever, to help them in cultivating and sustaining empathy.

A 2010 University of Michigan meta-analysis claimed that in the US, we’ve seen a 40% decline in the empathy of young adults. This drop was measured across 14,000 college students between the years 1979 and 2009.
There wasn’t a cause pinpointed for this decline, although the researchers couldn’t help but speculate in their comments that it had something to do with the dawn of social media, the popularity of violent video games, or even the airing of celebrity reality shows—the vestiges of what they dubbed “Generation Me.”
But there’s a danger in dismissing an entire swath of our culture with a “kids today” judgment—it doesn’t offer a solution for how to cultivate compassion and safety in our youngest citizens. And if we want to build a kinder, safer, and more tolerant world, we need to work with children and young adults in cultivating caring and empathy by modeling it for them as adults.
Children themselves have reported that they’re eager to get the kind of modeling and direction from adults that can help them grow their empathy and perpetuate kindness with their peers. In a 2017 survey of children ages 9 to 11 about kindness and caring, 83% said it would be easier to be kinder to one another if they each had an adult who really cared about and listened to them.
That’s not all. 77% of those same children said that it would be helpful if an adult modeled what to do and say in challenging situations—which supported yet another finding of the study—that the biggest thing stopping children from being kind to one another is not knowing how to respond when they see a peer being picked on or ostracized.
In her article, “Four Ways to Nurture Kindness,” Dr. Michele Borba points out that acts of kindness aren’t merely a feel-good behavior that children exhibit as a point of good manners. Acts of kindness stimulate and foster the development of empathy in the brains of children, along with improving health and reducing anxiety.
Kindness, Dr. Borba notes, “spreads faster in environments that foster it. That premise applies to our homes, classrooms, schools, neighborhoods, and communities. Perhaps our biggest mistake: we don’t model kindness nearly enough.”

Schools are an ideal environment for adults to cultivate the violence prevention values of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security that children can take into the rest of the world.

Schools are an ideal place to develop cultures of caring—by modeling the values of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security, adults can improve the climate of the educational setting for themselves as much as they do for children. And a profoundly positive offshoot of that, according to Dr. Borba, is that kindness and empathy can spread far faster in such a supportive setting.
A culture of caring in schools is rooted in a daily commitment to students and staff—and not to an emergencies-only attitude about behavior management. A proactive, supportive approach makes a critical difference, because waiting until an issue escalates removes the possibility for growth and learning, and ultimately hinders the sustainability of a culture of caring and safety in a school. Says PBIS and educational expert Cyndi Pitonyak, “We don’t give swimming lessons when somebody is drowning.”
CPI training supports a proactive approach to building a culture of caring and safety by establishing a common language and values that staff can share across their school system. It teaches adults to understand behavior—their students’ and their own—as a form of communication, allowing them to constructively address behaviors before they escalate.
This proactive team approach, in which all the adults who participate in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training are equipped to facilitate a culture of caring, takes the burden off a single staff member to identify and address behaviors on their own. It’s been an unfortunate reality for too long that such professionals are overextended in their supportive roles.Training is a meaningful way for colleagues to help shoulder the burden of ongoing assessment and intervention. Empowering adults through training means that every school staff member can consistently model the behaviors that show students how to more effectively manage their behavior and treat one another supportively. It means that every staff member learns how to better interpret behaviors and respond appropriately.
CPI training also helps education professionals navigate their own careers in a more constructive and positive way. Educator and interventionist Carleen Doucet has observed, “You can have the best academic curriculum that you want, but if you don't have a behavioral component, and a strong behavioral component such as CPI, [staff will] fail every time.” Training empowers educators by giving them a consistent, time-tested approach to coping with the full continuum of behaviors they might observe or experience at work that keeps them safer from things like fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma.
“What we have learned through our journey,” write experienced educators Jennifer Taylor and Doug Johnson, “is that hope has to be supported by specific and deliberate action. In order to have hope, we must also have a plan.”
This echoes the findings shared at the beginning of this post. Children are asking us to create cultures of caring where they can learn to manage their behavior in a positive way. It’s not enough, then, for us as adults to simply hope for a safer, more caring world. It’s critical that we identify the core values that support its existence, teach the behaviors that correspond to those values by modeling them for our children and for each other, and continuously evaluate what strategies can best support a culture of caring so that teachers can focus on teaching, and students can truly thrive.
This isn’t an easy task—it takes time and real commitment to implement the training across school staff that affirms and sustains a culture of caring and safety. But it’s worth it. And it’s even essential—after all, our future as a society is at stake.

Collaboration builds community, and CPI training keeps the classroom community consistently safe and positive.

CPI training’s core values of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security provide trusted anchors that schools can center a suite of effective policies and strategies around. The training process requires the implementation of a team approach that bridges staff across departments and utilizes respectful, professional collaboration. Strategies for effective prevention and debriefing draw upon the shared insights and experiences of staff, students, and families to promote consistency across the school—and everybody must participate to ensure that the culture of caring and safety thrives sustainably.

Recently, Milwaukee Public Schools restorative practices coordinator Drew deLutio shared how facilitating a culture of caring has helped to proactively address behavioral issues and improve student outcomes. “We start developing genuine community in classrooms by creating shared agreements rooted in the values of both teacher and students.”

CPI’s training facilitates the safety-based strategies to implement restorative practices in classrooms and aligns well with day-to-day PBIS approaches. CPI training ultimately supports a comprehensive and lasting improvement in school climate—which has become a critical indicator of staff satisfaction, student success, and school safety.

Students might be making the case for greater cultures of caring in our schools, but ultimately, everybody benefits from learning and modeling the behaviors that cultivate empathy and de-escalate aggression. When adults and students collaborate in building a culture of caring and safety, they collectively find themselves equipped with the confidence, compassion, and empathy to support one another, and ultimately, make a meaningful contribution to the world.

It’s telling that within the same era that researchers track lower empathy rates among young adults, our children are more vocal than ever that they want to be active participants in cultures of caring. All that’s left to do, then, is to commit to collaborating with them to build communities of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security in our schools. Meaningful violence prevention training is a beautiful place to start.

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