by Richard Taylor-West
Headmaster, Shoreham College
It was Neil Sedaka who famously sang ‘ breaking up is hard to do’, wasn’t it? He had a point of course; it is. It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone we have shared time with and invested in, emotionally. It’s hard to say goodbye, move on and process that change. Sometimes it leads to deep grief. It is equally true, I think, that ‘making up’ can be very hard to do, as well.
Making up involves all kinds of qualities and skills. We need to be self-aware; we need to have empathy and understand the impact of our words and actions for others; we need ultimately to be able to make ourselves vulnerable and place ourselves in the power of others, in a sense, by saying “I’m sorry and I hope you can accept that from me.” We need to have the appropriate language at our disposal.
I might be, according to my birth certificate, into my fifth decade. (I struggle to believe this at times, until I try to lift heavy objects) and I am by no means certain that I have wholly mastered the arts of these human challenges. Are we surprised, I ask myself, if we find children are not really able to do it, at times? I don’t know why, if we are.
As young people grow and develop, they need to be coached and given the chance to develop these skills and I am of the opinion that this has become more and more tricky for some young people. I am not at all convinced, for instance, that the Internet, for all its huge advantages in some ways, is helping with this. It is undoubtedly creating new ways of communicating.
Dr Aric Sigman, an expert in neuro science and psychology, is a colleague with whom I have worked delivering presentations and workshops to young people and he has pointed out that, after years of research, there is some evidence that overuse of devices amongst young people may be rewiring their brains in such a way that they are less capable of having ‘empathy’ for others. There is some strange unnerving distance emerging in social interaction. He wrote: “When using the Internet, for example, the areas of the brain associated with empathy showed virtually no increase in stimulation’ and so their brains may not be developing ‘fundamental social skills’ ”
(‘The Impact of Social Media and Screen Time’).
This is a fairly sobering idea. After all, if they don’t have empathy for others then understanding why they need to say sorry is going to be a challenge, let alone actually being able to then deliver these messages, know how to, or even what it really means to make up, after a break up. Logically, if this is the case, then it seems possible to me that their experiences of human interaction and exchange are going to be frustrating, broken and may lead to anxiety simply for this reason.
It seems then that we need to do all that we can to ensure that, if this is happening, it does not get too much of a hold. We need to prepare young people to realise that successfully managing relationships with others is tricky, challenging, can be learned and is ultimately very rewarding and important, if we get a hold on it.
At our school, as with many schools of course, we try to tackle this area of work with energy. Our PSHE (Personal Social Health Education) sessions and programmes from Early Years through to Year 11 are tailored to contribute to this project. From the moment they are with us, we aim to teach them to be reflective and develop cognitive frameworks for reflecting on their behaviour towards others and its impact. We run sessions and workshops with titles like: ‘Making Good Relationships and Respecting Others’.
Through our programmes, tutorials and assemblies, we look at topics that include the ability for students to reflect on who they are, whilst at the same time learning to respect differences in others. This work encourages self-awareness and empathy, which seem key to ‘making up’ and ‘breaking up’.
I think the challenge for all schools going forward is going to be nurturing young people in terms of ensuring they are resilient and able to deal with changing relationships. We need to help them to understand that relationships change, why feelings can develop and even come and go. We need to show them that
this is essentially part of life and not necessarily the end of the world and something to catastrophise (a horrible, but quite useful word).
Perhaps though, most of all, we need to ensure that we teach them ‘empathy’ and essential ingredient of ‘love’ and ‘kindness’. Without having the ability for the former, the latter qualities are, I would argue, pretty difficult to develop at all. Dr Sigman has rather worried me on that front.
Between parents and schools there is quite an important job to do. We can prevent our young people thinking that people are ‘things’ that exist at the end of a fibre-optic, from the perceived safety of their bedrooms and that real communication happens when we talk face to face, understand body language, respect others and ourselves and listen to each other carefully. (All of which many adults are not good at doing either.)
As one website for training states: “Listening is so important that many top employers provide listening skills training for their employees. This is not surprising when you consider that good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity with fewer mistakes, and increased sharing of information that in turn can lead to more creative and innovative work.” (Skills You Need, 2018)
I would say it runs even deeper than this. Our young people need to listen with empathy and kindness when forging relationships. If they do learn to, they may need to break up less often, or make up less often too. When either does happen, they will still need to be able to listen to themselves, in order to process their emotions and move on constructively. It will certainly help them to live in families, communities and work in teams.
Please call 01273 592681 to find out more about what Shoreham College can offer you, or to arrange a personal visit at any time of the school year.