We could learn compassion from our children

This would never sell at Fox News or MSNBC, where the sizzle of slash-and-burn politics is served up nightly by “guests” from the right and the left hurling verbal Molotov cocktails at each other.

Those networks’ steel-cage death matches put a ratings premium on ad hominem attacks, because uncivil people who fundamentally disagree know they have cornered the market on truth. They have a post-Twitter incapacity to admit there’s a 1 percent chance they might be wrong.

Usually the unfriendly fire comes simultaneously from all sides – from left field and right field and potter’s field – which means in the unholy cacophony, the chance of actually hearing an opposing argument, much less analyzing it, is as futile as putting on glasses inside a Tennessee cavern at midnight.

“Open my eyes to see clearly the wonders of your law” (Psalm 119: 18).

Inside a Catholic elementary school on the Northshore – St. Peter in Covington – kindergartners through seventh graders are displaying an ability to play nicely in the sandbox with each other. While adults throw sand, kids create castles of virtue, where hope, charity, kindness, cheerfulness and humility are the cornerstones of understanding and reconciliation.

It’s called Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline – a fancy-sounding term for a process that principal Michael Kraus says has transformed his school in less than three years.

“I can’t speak enough to the value of when the students are facing each other, they want to encourage each other,” Kraus said. “They want to build each other up. They take care of each other. Our kids are good, even if there has been conflict. What I’ve seen is a drastic decrease in major behavior. It’s made a huge difference on the kids and their relationships.”

It sounds simple, and it is. Every Monday morning, students gather in their homerooms and sit in a circle. The “Virtue 360” circle, which begins with a prayer, is called the weekly “check-in.” A teacher may ask the students how their weekend went – asking them for a one-word answer to describe their feelings at the moment.

The beauty of the process, though, is that the only person allowed to speak is the one holding a “talking piece,” which can be a crucifix, a rosary, a stuffed animal or a ball.

“The talking piece is so that nobody dominates the conversation, and your quiet child gets to speak just as equally as anyone else,” Kraus said. “Whoever holds the talking piece is the only one who can speak, beyond the facilitator, who is the teacher in most cases. These circles can be a large group, up to 30 kids, or a small group.”

Many of the circles focus on the virtue of the month and might require longer answers about how a student feels he or she might grow in that virtue.

But, quite often, small circles are used to get to the bottom of “some sort of harm or some sort of hurt feelings that need to be addressed in a relationship,” Kraus said.

When Kraus and seven teachers went to St. Louis to learn how to implement the process from its founder – Lynne M. Lang of the Archdiocese of St. Louis – some were skeptical about its effectiveness.

“That’s because we introduce new things all the time,” Kraus said, smiling. “One of the things I really wanted to stress with our team of teachers is that this wasn’t a program but it was more of a philosophy.”

When the teachers who attended the St. Louis conference came back and offered professional development to the rest of the St. Peter School staff, they instantly saw its value.

“We actually broke into circles all around, and as a faculty we did it every day,” Kraus said. “We did it for every faculty meeting, and we were so used to the process that we could take it into the classroom.”

If in the midst of the Virtue 360 circle a student might say her weekend was “horrible” or “1” on a scale of 1 to 10, the teacher or counselor then has an instant opportunity to address the issue later “to see what’s going on.”

If a group of students was “a little chatty” and needed constant correction during the week, the teacher can call for a circle.

“We can ask the question, ‘How are we going to do a better job this week?’ and we let the kids run it,” Kraus said. “They look at each other and they will raise their hand and say, ‘Yeah, you know what guys, in this class we were talking too much and we need to do a better job.’ Or it may be that they’re playing too rough on the playground. Or we didn’t include everyone in this game. The important thing is the emphasis on virtue. So the teacher might ask, ‘What virtue do you think we need to pray for growth in?’”

Kraus said he was flabbergasted when kids were discussing virtues and turned to a classmate to tell him how much they were inspired by the classmate’s actions.

“All of a sudden, these kids couldn’t wait to get the talking piece and praise somebody in their class who they know is that quiet child who maybe doesn’t get a lot of attention – ‘You’re always lending me a pencil if I forget it.’”

Danielle Urrata, a fourth- and fifth-grade religion teacher, said she was amazed how the virtue circle helped a child, who was posting inappropriate videos to social media, understand how much she was loved by her school and her family.

Urrata went to the girl’s home and did the virtue circle there. “It became the most incredible and heartfelt meeting, and we all were able to come to an agreement because the child witnessed the love and the way we addressed this,” Urrata said. “She knew she was loved by God and by her family and her teachers and coaches.”

Katie Ryals, a second-grade teacher, is overjoyed by the compassion her little ones have for each other when they understand their classmate is having a bad day. “After they hear something, they do simple gestures like putting their hand on their friend’s shoulder,” she said.

Kraus said the experience has been so profound that students have taught their parents how to do the process around the dinner table.

“Some people have told me, ‘This is the first time in weeks that we’ve sat at the dinner table together,’” Kraus said.

Could you imagine Fox and MSNBC with a talking piece? A soft hand on the shoulder?

Pray for the gift of a child’s heart.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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