Compassion Fatigue

In findings recently reported by Public Agenda (www.publicagenda.org), 40 percent of K-12 classroom teachers in the U.S. were characterized as “disheartened.” These teachers voiced high levels of frustration about disorder in the classroom (nearly 75 percent cited discipline and behavior problems as major issues), felt there was an undue focus on testing, and experienced their principals as unsupportive. While some educators I know expressed surprise that the percentage of disheartened teachers wasn’t higher than 40 percent, the news wasn’t all bad: the other 60 percent of teachers were characterized as either “contented” or “idealists”. Not coincidentally, the contented teachers were more likely to report excellent working conditions and were teaching in middle- or higher-income schools, whereas more than half of the disheartened teachers were working in low-income schools.

It’s possible that these findings tell us more about differences between schools than about differences among teachers. All public schools are fixated on high-stakes testing these days, and all schools have students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. But some schools have a substantial percentage of students at risk for doing poorly on testing, and it is often these same schools that have disproportionately large numbers of behaviorally challenging students. These students sometimes come from very unfortunate circumstances (trauma, neglect, family dysfunction, etc.) and exhibit a wide variety of maladaptive behaviors: hyperactivity, poor impulse control, inattention, inflexibility, poor tolerance for frustration, poor problem solving, social skills deficits, irritability, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse…the types of things one would see in a mental health clinic. Of course, there’s the rub, since schools weren’t designed to be mental health clinics and teachers aren’t typically trained as mental health professionals.

What happens when a teacher needs to be responsive to the needs of many students with diverse academic difficulties while simultaneously addressing the myriad needs of students exhibiting maladaptive behavior, but has little or no training in understanding and handling kids’ behavioral challenges, feels pressured by high-stakes testing, has significant time constraints, and feels unsupported by school leaders? One can only imagine that this combination heightens the likelihood that a teacher with become disheartened.

I was recently reading about a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue, and found myself pondering its possible relevance to disheartened teachers. Compassion fatigue refers to a decrease in a person’s capacity to empathize with those who are suffering. While compassion fatigue has most often been connected with those caring for soldiers with combat stress, teachers have been identified as another population in which the phenomenon occurs. Symptoms can include feelings of incompetence, self-doubt, a decrease in productivity, and a pervasive negative attitude. Compassion fatigue can affect entire organizations and systems, with characteristics including high absenteeism, cynicism, inflexibility, friction among staff and between staff and administrators, strong reluctance toward change, inability of staff to believe that improvement is possible, lack of a vision for the future, and a resistance to helping people who are suffering.

In disheartened teachers, I can see compassion fatigue cutting in two directions. If a teacher is experiencing a reduced capacity for compassion, then that would be a particularly ominous development for students with behavioral challenges. That’s because, in many places, there often isn’t an overabundance of compassion for these students in the first place. And, in providing an automatic, rote response (typically involving punishment) to challenging behavior, the prototypical school discipline program only makes things worse. Because detentions, suspensions, and other punishments are frequently ineffective for the students to whom they are most frequently applied, such procedures don’t relieve the suffering of these students or the suffering of their classmates, parents, and teachers (though their popularity is at least partly attributable to the brief respite they provide to teachers and classmates when disruptive students are temporarily removed from the classroom).

But teachers are also on the receiving end of our society’s collective compassion fatigue. There aren’t many people who truly understand the demands being placed on teachers in our most troubled schools or who have an appreciation for the resulting (often unaddressed) legitimate concerns of teachers in those schools. The Public Agenda report tells us that there are a lot of teachers who are suffering. I can think of nothing more disheartening than having legitimate concerns that never get addressed.

Of course, parents of behaviorally challenging kids already know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of compassion fatigue. It’s not uncommon for parents to be blamed in one way or another for their children’s challenging behavior, perhaps especially at school. If a child is challenging at school it’s a pretty sure-fire bet he’s challenging at home as well. So his parents are suffering, too. Blaming them only increases their suffering, increases the likelihood of adversarial interactions, and makes it harder to work together to make things better. I wonder what percentage of parents of behaviorally challenging kids would qualify as disheartened! And many such parents know well how hard it is to stay the compassionate course when a kid’s behavioral challenges remain misunderstood and unresolved.

As you might expect, I’m thinking Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) has something to offer in addressing some of the primary concerns of disheartened teachers. To be sure, CPS isn’t a cure for all that ails schools, but it can definitely move things in the right direction when it comes to student behavior problems and disorder in the classroom. It can help adults better understand challenging behavior…not as the byproduct of passive, permissive, inconsistent, noncontingent parenting but rather as the result of a developmental delay in some key cognitive skill areas, including flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. CPS can help parents and teachers understand that challenging behavior occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a kid’s capacity to respond adaptively (of course, that’s when all of us behave maladaptively). But CPS can also help adults understand that challenging behavior is highly predictable and occurs under certain conditions (these are called unsolved problems), thereby facilitating proactive, planful intervention (rather then the reactive, emergent interventions that typify many school discipline programs). CPS provides a process (called Plan B) through which information can be gathered from challenging students so these unsolved problems are well understood and durably solved (so they don’t precipitate challenging behavior anymore). And CPS can also provide a mechanism for ensuring that the concerns of teachers, administrators, and parents are heard, clarified, understood, and addressed, too. Simply put, CPS provides the right lenses, a means of getting organized, and the skills to make things better…and you don’t need to be a mental health professional to get good at it.

If we started making greater headway with the behaviorally challenging kids in our schools, we’d have a lot more time and energy to prepare for high-stakes testing (and a lot fewer disheartened teachers). But if we’re focused primarily on high-stakes testing, we’ll continue losing vast numbers of behaviorally challenging kids (and the numbers of disheartened teachers will remain unchanged). There’s hard work ahead…but you’re working hard already…and nothing is more heartening than seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. As noted on the website of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (www.compassionfatigue.org), healing an organization takes time, patience, commitment, and a group effort.

Need help on the journey? That’s why I created Lives in the Balance. If you can, be sure to listen in on (and even participate in) my radio program for educators every Monday at 3:30 Eastern time (or listen to the archived version any time you want…details on the home page of this website). A radio program specifically geared toward parents starts in January 2010. If there are other forms of support that you’d find helpful, be sure to let me know about them by using the Contact page on this website.

Ross Greene, November 10, 2009