Home Opinion Kids these days: Creating compassionate classrooms

Kids these days: Creating compassionate classrooms

Sisters Adrian and Azzy out to breakfast at Short Stacks

I recently posted on Facebook about wanting a culture of compassion at school, after my child got in trouble at school for caring about her friend. 

During recess my daughter noticed her friend sitting by herself on the steps of the school crying, and waiting for her dad to pick her up after being sent home from school. A group of young girls including my child gathered around their friends to try to make her feel a little better. Adults immediately swarmed them demanding that they go back to the playground and leave their friend to sit on the steps alone crying. When the students refused to stop supporting their friend during recess, the principal was called to handle the situation. The teachers couldn’t seem to understand why their students would rather comfort a friend than go back to enjoying their recess on the playground.

When this situation was explained to me, I began to wonder what my child should have done. Could I be proud of her for being obedient and listening to her teachers even if that meant she would be less compassionate towards her friend? 

The space for understanding why a child is struggling to listen at home or at school is erased by our cultural relationship to dominating young people, instead of being in conversation with young people. 

For years, I have told the story of why my father dropped out of school at the age of 12 like this; my father‘s mother died when he was three years old, and when he went to school all he wanted was a mom, all he wanted was someone to love him, and if he couldn’t get that basic need meant he couldn’t get anything. I use this story to explain why the most important thing you can start with is loving your students. Many kids go home to supportive loving families and that’s great, but for the children who don’t have that at home love is the bridge to learning. 

We need to normalize caring about each other at school. This means making space for kids to explain why they made a mistake, it means when young people mess up we can’t use it against them to the greatest possible extent and expect them to trust us, it means adults being honest about their flaws and ability to get things wrong, too. Compassion means forgiveness, connection and recovering from hard times in community. In a compassionate community, no one is disposable and everyone is more than their biggest mistakes. Care moves us away from blame and towards solutions. Care makes space for identifying misunderstandings and finding common ground. 

There is another side of compassion in the classroom that I experienced myself as a young Black girl growing up in Madison. When I was in first grade my best friend had really awful separation anxiety; she would cry for about the first half hour of every school day and our teacher treated it as a disturbance and would send her out into the hallway to cry, and our teacher would send me out into the hallway to comfort her. One day a student brought a snake to class for show and tell. I was so excited to see it that I left my best friend in the hallway crying and when my teacher asked where she was, I said “she was still too sad to come into the classroom.” My teacher sent me back out in the hallway and told me I wasn’t a very good friend for leaving her there alone. 

Compassion in the classroom cannot turn some students into caretakers, it cannot interrupt learning, or enforce the idea that some students are responsible for the feelings of other students. Compassion in the classroom has to be a tool adults use to create healthy boundaries, understanding, and trust between educators and young people. 

Compassion in the classroom, like so many other things, is easier said than done. I can admit compassion in the classroom is hard, still, there is a difference between something being complex and something being impossible. By creating more compassionate schools we humanize both educators and young people. By creating compassionate classrooms we encourage humility and community. It is worth it to raise compassionate children, and at the end of the day, I am proud to have a kid who notices someone crying alone and can’t help but care. 


Parenting question: how do you express compassion towards your children? 

Political question: what do you think the first steps are to creating a more caring community? 

Play question: Try playing out big motion in safe ways with your kiddos. Create a safe space to talk about what it’s like to be sad or overwhelmed or happy. Act out feelings and discuss why it’s OK that people have emotional responses sometimes. 


Until April my beloved reader I leave you with this: 

“Education functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

—Paulo Freire,

Pedagogy of the Oppressed


Please feel free to email me at [email protected].