With a special curiosity, in love with life, with a lot of confidence in our inner power to be good with ourselves and to do good for those around us, Lila Vasilescu (director of the Verita Foundation) initiated projects and activities with children from disadvantaged environments, starting from the belief that the state of presence and involvement of adults working with these children is extremely important. She discovered empathy, compassion and the need to contribute along the way, and so a beautiful community of involved and responsible people was born. The various certifications, courses and retreats she participated strengthened her belief that one can work with this incredible tool that is the human mind. About all theses, but also about many others things, in the interview below.
What is compassion in education?
I will answer with a small exercise of imagination. In a school where educators would get support and resources in order to have more compassion for themselves and their students:
Our children would learn that emotions are part of our life, they would learn to recognize and manage them better, influencing both esential life skills and academic results.
Our educators would understand the direct conection between emotions and the learning process, methods of training our children’s attention, which is one of the most important ability children need in school and the importance of the personal level of stress in this work as well as relevant practices and tools that contribute to their mental, emotional and health wellbeing.
Schools would prioritize building healthier relationships between students, between teachers and students and between staff and we would see educational communities based on more trust, cooperation and compassion.
Our society would contribute to educating children that are more self aware, with better resilience and more motivation to learn and to become responsible adults leading balanced and fulfilling lives.
We believe that education can, and indeed should, be expanded to foster the values and competencies that lead to greater happiness for both individuals and society at large, an idea that is rapidly gaining support in a variety of circles.
In this context, compassion refers to cultivating a way of relating to oneself, others, and humanity as a whole through kindness, empathy, and a concern for both happiness and suffering.
Nobel-prize winning economist Dr. James Heckman, who advocates for the inclusion of life skills in education, cites research indicating that success in life depends on these skills, which are just as important as performance on cognitive aptitude tests. Increasingly, employers in multiple fields are recognizing the importance of life skills when it comes to hiring criteria.
Because all students, and indeed all human beings, experience varying levels of safety and threat, all students can benefit from learning about their nervous systems and how to regulate stress through body-based practices and the cultivation of “body literacy.” These practices provide students with immediate tools for dealing with stress that can be used on a daily basis, thereby reducing hyper- and hypo-activity, and helping them to be better prepared for learning. These tools, which have proven very popular with educators and students alike, also serve as an important foundation for the subsequent cultivation of emotional awareness and focused attention.
How can an educator that respects the principles of compassion manage a conflict between two students?
An educator that has completed a social emotional learning program which emphasizes the importance of self compassion and compassion in relationship with others understands that behind any behavior there is a trigger and different stimuli that have led to it and when it comes to children, thise triggers can vary from physiological needs to unmet emotional needs.
Students do not leave their emotions at the door when they enter the classroom in the morning.
They are still thinking about the argument they had with their parents, about the way they felt when someone yelled at them in the bus or about the Math test they will have later that day.
SEL (Social Emotional Learning) helps students understand that they are not a blank page every morning and it motivates educators to work with this reality instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
When there’s a conflict between two students, the educator can influence to a great extent the outcome of the conflict simply by how his attitude will be. Compassion cannot be taught, it can be modelled. We cannot ask our children to manifest behaviors or values that we cannot model to them.
An educator that keeps calm, doesn’t raise his voice and doesn’t deny the powerful emotions displayed in front of him has the chance to connect with the two students and to offer them the possibility of managing the situation in a wiser way.
Furthermore, he can use that conflictual context in order to generate an opportunity for learning.
During the emergency state there has been a lot of talking about students and parents but relatively less abour teachers. How did Verita School teachers deal with stress and anxiety during those times?
Teachers all over the world woke up to a completely new reality and had to adapt extremely fast to this new situation. A good educator has this super power so to speak, of always adapting because the classroom is an extremely dynamic and spontaneous environment.
However, the magic comes with the connection educators have with their students and that happens face to face, every day.
This pandemic has cut access to this connection and educators found it really hard to manage this reality. Still, they were incredibly creative and resilient.
It was hard, the workload was bigger as we have moved to the online learning platform the second day after the school closed and all educators had to use online teaching instruments while trying to compensate the lack of physical presence with live sessions behind screens.
For a truly accurate feedback , I have asked Julie (Iulia Dincă), one of our amazing teachers about this experience and I believe her answer is generous and clarifying:
„For me, the most important thing in dealing with stress was knowing that we had the leadership team there for us any time we needed it. Either with an advice, or with help in creating your online material or with support when talking to a parent, it was very comforting to know that you could count on them no matter what.
Another way to deal with stress and anxiety was relying on my teacher-friends. We have a big family style community at Verita and I knew that when I was feeling down I could call another teacher and talk about it. Sometimes I would call just to be listened to, other times to get some advice and see things from another person’s perspective. But I knew I had many people to count on.
The third way for me was mindfulness. At the beginning of the home learning period we got a subscription to a wellness app that has different pure mindfulness practices or some combined with yoga and even fitness. It reaches the entire body in different ways so you can take care of it entirely. And I went the app whenever I wanted or needed. I liked the fact that they combined mindfulness practice, focusing on your breath with some tension relief movements, so I was doing stretching exercises at the same time. I like guided sessions better so for me the practice of mindfulness through the app was very helpful.“
Your school philosophy puts a great emphasis on emotional intelligence. How can an educator contribute to the development of student’s EQ?
The immediate answer I would give you is that they should develop and strengthen their own emotional intelligence.
And I would mention here the three relevant levels that can generate this growth: personal, group and sistemic.
An educators’ job is one of the most stresful jobs in the world. One in three teachers quit their job within five years of teaching, these are the latest statistics about retention levels in this profession.
Training educators has always focused more on methodologies, curricula and student’s test results.
Nonetheless, it has become clear lately that addressing teacher’s wellbeing, their level of stress and looking into the resources they need in order to contribute to their student’s wellbeing is of crucial importance and it is an indicator that is directly linked to student’s academic results.
„SEL interventions that address CASEL’s five core competencies increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs. Students participating in SEL programs also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.“ CASEL
A student that experiences emotions such as fury, shame or disappointment cannot process academic content in a healthy way and for the long run.
Emotions control the attention capacity of a student, influence the level of motivation and the self regulation skills.The emotional centers of the brain are intricately interwoven with the neurocortical areas involved in cognitive learning.This is true for adults as well even if we have better self control management.
Educators and teachers need support and training for enhancing and developing their own emotional intelligence and we cannot ask them to do that without resources.
This is what we want the role of CERC (Compassion in Education Resource Center) to be. And I believe this is the main way we can influence the development of EQ in children. This is the personal level. It starts with self work.
At a group level we need to contribute to building more communities that have the role of the educators at the centre of their interest. Communities that are aware of the massive responsibility that lies on the educator’s shoulders in a society where most parents are more and more stressed and always on the run, trying to cope with the demands of everyday life, high responsibility jobs and providing for the family.
The level of burn out that educators experience is directly linked to the high level of emotional stress that children experience in their own families or in the case of underprivileged families, the high level of poverty.
This is where we need to open up the dialogue on the systemic level and to intervene from several directions, united by the same intention of changing the educational system taking into consideration all aspects not just what happens in the classroom. What happens in the classroom is also the result of what happens outside of it and those experiences shape the wellbeing, learning and attention skills of our children.
A child that comes to school hungry or that experiences physical and emotional abuse of any form at home will not thrive even with the best and most trained teachers!
Any educator that is open and passionate to learn more about emotional intelligence and its relationship with the learning process, will take this information and good practices in their classroom and in the relationship they have with their students.
Our wish and our mission is to offer as many resources as possible to these teachers and to provide real support so that finally they will be able to reach out to as many children as possible, touching their hearts in a meaningful way and helping them become independent, resilient and kind human beings.
As far as we know, you are the first school in Romania that has introduced mindfulness classes for students. What are the results you have noticed so far?
Indeed, in 2014 when Verita School was opened, we initially had mindfulness classes that later on became the social emotional learning classes we have to this day.
In the educational context, mindfulness works with children’s attention, helps them connect with their senses and their bodies and encourages them to use their natural curiosity in order to become more self aware.
Mindfulness became the main tool we used in the process of teaching our SEL curriculum.
SEL (Social Emotional Learning) is the process through which children and adults:
- understand and manage emotions,
- set and achieve positive goals,
- feel and show empathy for others,
- establish and maintain positive relationships,
- make responsible decisions.
Mindfulness is actually an invitation to become more aware of what is happening to us with more gentleness and curiosity.
We keep talking about being present and about how we can choose to be more connected with our lives, to enjoy it more, to savour it. And when we go through difficult times, to understand that we have a choice as to how we respond rather than react, which is what we do most of the times, with a high burn out rate that alters our physical, emotional and mental health.
The results we have noticed in children are again directly related to the extent to which the adults around them have modelled this practice.
Mindfulness, just as SEL, cannot be another subject on a student’s already pretty full plate, it doesn’t work that way.
Our intention with the Mindfulness and SEL classes was to simply create and offer a space where children and teachers can feel physically and emotionally safe. Such a space is conducive to building trust in this relationship, where I as the adult can pay more attention to the child’s needs as well as to my own needs and to observe what is it about a child’s behavior that triggers emotions of frustration, fear or doubt in me so that the educational process that takes place in that classroom is a clean, intinsically motivated and relevant one for the students not guided by the different emotional states we experience each day that take us away from the present moment.
You cannot trick children. Meaning you cannot fake your interest and your joy of beying there with them. You can try but if there is a real connection between you and those children, they will notice from your non verbal language that you are not really there for them. And what we tell teachers is that it’s ok for that to happen, we all have tough days.
Teachers do not leave emotions, thoughts or stress at the school’s gate either. And it’s ok to talk to our students about this, to be vulnerable, to model an open dialogue that hits two birds with one stone: it builds our relationship with our students and it also builds empathy.
It is ok to be an educator and to not know everything ( same goes for parents ) or to be sad or angry and to be able to talk about this in front of the class or down on the carpet at the morning cirle.
What I have personally noticed in children I have worked with? Each time I entered the classroom with this openeness and intention to be there with their needs, each time I chose not to play the classical wiser adult versus inexperienced child role, when the joy of being with them was greater than the need of following an agenda and I could just sense their group state and energy at that moment of the day, something magical would happen.
And although initially it looked a bit chaotic and we all know how hard it is for an adult to sense they are loosing control, it was actually the clear expression of the children’s need to be seen and heard. And that’s the place where we started building from.
Slowly, slowly, they managed to listen longer to the sound of the mindfulness bells . Then, they learned to express what they feel and what they need more in words and less through disruptive behaviors. They could recognize emotions in other people, they could take perspectives. And they could manage conflicts with less intervention from the caregiver.
I will repeat the fact that a considerable benefit of having mindfulness classes in school was the fact that teachers and parents started to learn and to experiment with this way of being. We are always tempted to look impatiently for visible results in our children’s behavior but we have to understand that without the support and modelling of these values on our side, results will take a much longer to appear.
How does the practice of conscious presence helps children in their learning process ?
Attention is one of the key instruments a student needs in school. In order to assimilate information, they have to be able to pay attention to their teacher. Mindfulness is an attention building tool, we call it in school our internal flashlight. When it’s dark, the flashlight helps us see better right? But all too often, our attention is distracted and in our children’s case, we can admit that they have far more stimuli around them than we had when we were their age. And this reality makes the process of focusing attention harder.
When we start our SEL class sitting on the floor with our eyes closed and we listen to the sound of the bells, what we do is we actually train this muscle of attention because the invitation is to focus their attention, to put their flashlight only on their hearing sense, something which rarely happens throughout the day. Most of the times, our senses are bombarded with stimuli all at the same time and we don’t have the opportunity to simply taste the delicious peach or to just feel the wind breeze on our face.
For children what could also happen is that when we practice this conscious presence, we realize we are hungry maybe or we need to use the restroom, basic needs that when they are not properly met, can prevent us from being able to pay attention. How can I listen to my teacher now when my tummy is rumbling?
Using this practice helps us become connected in a much more intimate way with our bodies, our minds and our emotions, we learn a lot of things about ourselves, about how we function, what helps us pay attention in school and what frustrates and hinders our learning process.
Practicing conscious presence gives children and students the opportunity to understand their emotions and needs better and to test those tools that help them stay more in the green zone, the place where we feel good, we can pay attention, we are happy and ready to learn.
And when we are not in the green zone, we can identify the sources of our distraction, we see what methods or tools work so that we can come back to the green zone, we build resilience, we test our limits but all of it in a space where I am more aware, I know what is happening to me versus those frequent situations when as adults we realize we have gulped down an entire chocolate or we smoked half a pack of cigarettes and we don’t even know when or how that happened, we were on autopilot.
Practicing conscious presence helps us take control of our lives, finding healthier resources for balancing the strong emotional states we find ourselves in many times. If not every time, at least most of the times. And that brings joy and more trust that life is a beautiful experience and that I am not at the mercy of my emotions every time.
What I would want my son to master, even more than mathematical calculus and intricate science formulas, is his inner life. If he leaves home and as a family, as a school and as a community we have managed to give our children the trust that they have within them everything they need in order to live a happy life, that success is for me above any test score.
To know that if he encounters suffering, as I know this will inevitably happen but that he can choose a wiser way to overcome it and not pick up the apparently easier ways of overcoming it like drugs, alcohol, etc, is what motivates me to keep doing this incredibly hard work at times of pointing out the obvious truth that we need to address emotion management in schools, both for children, teachers and parents!
This spring, students from all over the country woke up to the reality that teachers, as well as their colleagues came to their house virtually every day. How was it for them to move from offline to online learning?
As a mother of a child that went through this experience I can admit it was not easy.
I think this situation made it clear to everyone that education is a field that cannot go online 100% because we are dealing with human connection that looses its authenticity and value when we move behind screens.
My son was enthusiastic in the beginning, he got to stay at the computer which he rarely did before, he was proud about learning to use the online learning platform by himself and when they would go live, he was happy to see his colleagues and to show them the latest Lego monster truck he had built or how his room looks like.
But soon it was not so much fun anymore because he felt he is not getting the same thing out of those online interactions as he would when they were in class and he could go directly to his classmate Stefan to tell him something or to his teacher to ask for help.
We tried as parents to compensate the teacher’s physical absence as much as possible but it became clear that things were not as he would have wished them to be.
Before this crisis, mom and dad would leave him at the school’s gate, they would not become part of his school schedule, which for many kids became a stressful reality.
I have many friends who have been in the same situation and they were telling me how their kids would say: „I don’t want to do home schooling with you anymore, it frustrates me!“
Live sessions were very useful and children could see each other but for an educator it was so much harder to „read“ their students and to give them feedback, the main ingredient was missing: eye to eye contact, physical presence and immediate intervention when the teacher would notice something isn’t working for that child.
Children need to socialize in the real world, this is how they learn, this is how they regulate emotionally and online education cannot replace the extremely valuable offline education.
What was the most surprising discovery when it comes to online learning?
I would say I was in awe at how fast both students and teachers adapted to this situation.
Over night, teachers adopted a completely new way of teaching. They learned how to use new applications, to put academic content in different sorts of programs, to record and video record themselves teaching although there was no one in front of them.
Educational app developers responded to this challenge extremely fast and that helped a lot. It felt like they were taking live feedback and making adjustments based on that, adding facilities and changing what was not working.
Children had to adapt to a whole new routine. The learning process that was normally taking place in the classroom or in the courtyard was moved in their room at home and many times they would start the school day in their pyjamas and the morning chatter in the classroom was replaced by the silence of the Mute button from Zoom that educators needed to use at times in order to be able to teach.
And we are talking about a lucky situation here because our students experienced online learning but in many disadvantaged communities all over the country, children from public schools did not have access to such an education at all.
I believe this has been hard on many children and yet they continued this way day after day. I am so happy summer holiday is finally here!
We also noticed that Verita had wellbeing programs for parents during this time. What is „The Parents Wellbeing Toolkit“?
The Parents Wellbeing Toolkit was an online course dedicated to parents because we knew from their feedback that many were experiencing high levels of stress during those weeks and we wanted to be able to offer some real support for managing stress, with information from neuroscience, psychology, self regulation, self compassion, mindfulness and meditation.
Our sessions were made up of both relevant information as well as useful practices for relaxation at the end of a day that had online work, cooking, cleaning and doing online schooling with their child or children.
We noticed however that for many parents, however much they wanted to learn these things and to apply them in their daily life, it became harder and harder to spend another hour and a half with us when their need in the moment was to move, to go outside for a walk or to spend some quality time with their family.
That is why we promised to organize the course again in autumn hoping things will be different then. We encouraged them to do what feels best for them and we sent resources such as articles and videos by email hoping it could help them manage this difficult situation with more understanding and compassion for themselves and others.
For parents everywhere it was a difficult time and our message was that it’s ok to feel what they were feeling, to experience fear, dissapointment or sadness.
Many parents told us that the simple fact of getting together online and sharing what they were going through has helped them and made them feel less isolated knowing others were going through the same things.
It felt really nice to simply check in with ourselves and others and see what it feels like to be in the here ad now with no judgments or expectations.
This course followed another series of online meetings called Togetherness in our apartness that had ten meetings.
CERC is a term that refers not just to the geometrical shape of a circle for Verita School and Verita Foundation, it means more than that. What is CERC?
CERC is the latest Verita Foundation project and its mission is to share our valuable SEL knowledge, results and resources with educators in the public education system and with other organizations and people who understand the importance of changing the way we look at and treat our children’s education.
We are a team of six people and five of us have worked in the last 5 years at Verita International School as SEL class facilitators and teacher trainers.
Verita Foundation and Verita School are sisters, this is the term we use and the foundation was born out of our intention to be able to share our SEL resources and experience with public school teachers not just keep it for the children and families that could afford a private school because there is no other school in Romania for now that has introduced an SEL curriculum in their everyday teaching schedule.
Therefore, CERC’s mission is to provide resources in various forms based on scientific data but also based on the practice and information gathered from around the world in over 30 years of research and studies on how and why SEL works in learning environments and its decisive role in the academic success and development of healthy life skills for our children.
In March this year, after a process of training and discussions, we have become the Primary Collaborators of Emory University and the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics from USA who have developed the amazing SEE curriculum (Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning). We are now in the process of translating this curriculum so that we can afterwards share it with the public system.
As I was saying before, for the past five years our team went through its own process of transformation, learning and experimenting with SEL within Verita International School.
Our school recognizes the significant importance of social, emotional and ethical learning in the process of educating the hearts and minds of our children, increasing their self-knowledge skills, healthy management of stress factors, developing their critical thinking and resilience.
This process included teaching weekly SEL classes, organizing trainings and workshops for educators and parents. Also, our team of trainers completed internationally accredited courses with global experts in SEL.
Among the resources we will offer I will mention our Educaring online course for social emotional learning for teachers, wellbeing retreats for parents and educators, conferences and symposiums with international experts in education.
In the world today, it has become more and more evident that we need to work with the stress factors around us, with the anxiety generated by uncertainty, with the fear and worrisome thoughts that influence our general physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
It is time to introduce SEL in education and our work won’t stop until we will integrate the SEE curriculum in every school an each child will learn the necessary abilities to have a productive, healthy and happy life.
We are very passionate about our work and about the possibility of changing the educational system and we look forward to continuing our partnerships for training teachers in SEL.
We value partners such as Teach for Romania or other organizations that do amazing work for our public school educators and implicitly for our children.Therefore, if you are an educator, a parent or simply passionate about social emotional learning and you wish to contribute to your personal wellbeing or the wellbeing of your family, your community or your society, we look forward to welcoming you to our courses and our amazing community!