Compassion When You’re Working with Youth

iBme Teacher Training faculty member Enrique Collazo to share his wisdom on bringing compassion into teaching and working with youth. Enrique is a Buddhist meditation teacher and experienced public speaker. When he’s not teaching with iBme, he’s teaching emotional intelligence and social skills to thousands of young people through Challenge Day.

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Compassion When Working with YouthIf you really knew me, you’d know that I love working with young people.

Teaching, mentoring, supporting. It doesn’t feel like a job, it feels more like soul work. Work that I’ve been called to do. Work that calls for my particular gifts, work that calls for me to be empathetic, kind, compassionate and gentle with others as they fumble through learning a new skill. I’m a compassion Master. It’s one of my greatest gifts, the ability to care about what’s difficult.

And yet — there are still times I find myself hating some kid that isn’t “acting right” or not doing what I think they should be doing. I let my ego get involved, I take it personally and I can react out of a place of anger, frustration, and control.

Can you relate?

I invite you to reflect on what kind of personality types or student archetypes trigger you???

For me the students that come in with an attitude. The ones that their face reads “try to teach me something!” or the ‘too cool for school’ or the class clown or the bully.

My mind can go straight to “What’s wrong with you?” “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why won’t they just behave?”

Well, we know, or I know, when I’m not all up in my ego taking everything a student does personally; that there is nothing wrong with them.

Compassion Youth TT postThere’s no such thing as a bad kid. 

I’ll say it again, to remind myself and you: there’s no such thing as a bad kid.

I don’t care what they did, how many times they did it, if they did it on purpose. I’ve met thousands of you people and I’ve never met a bad one.

But I have met young people who are in a lot of pain, and they don’t know what to do with that pain. They’re confused and afraid and that pain spills out onto the people around them.

Let me share a story with you. It’s the story of a baby.

Imagine a new born baby. Vulnerable, dependent, incomplete nervous systems, require attunement and contact. Innocent, kind, loving, caring, tender, delicate, compassionate, fully expressed.

Imagine this baby being born into a family where both parents are super young, one parent ends up splitting, living below the poverty line, parents also experiencing alcoholism and drug addiction. Really struggling. Some of this child’s basic needs are not being met.

Or the baby is born into a family where the parents are in their 30s. They have careers with all the resources one could need. And for their own reasons aren’t able to show up and be fully present emotionally. So things are happening. Attachment styles are being formed. This child is starting to learn certain things.

This child then starts going to school. What do you think this child is exposed to in kindergarten? 

Then we’re off to middle school and puberty is in full effect, unleashing all kinds of hormonal change. They start talking about, thinking about and experimenting with sex. Their body is looking and smelling different. They’re carving out more of an identity for themselves. Social acceptance is all they care about. Academic expectation and pressure increase. And on top of all of that they are forced to deal with all the things that are happening at home.

They’re not getting any healthy strategies to deal with their emotions and stress, In fact they are being told: “Suck it up,” “What do you have to be stressed about?” “Stop acting like a baby.” This feels really intense for them and it seems like it’s too much to handle all of it.

So they watch and see how our culture deals with stress and they do that.

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What’s your story? How did you show up in school as a result of the conditions you were forced to meet?

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Let’s face it: most of us never received any healthy strategies growing up either.

We didn’t have a lot of healthy examples of how to work with hardship, trauma, and difficult emotions. But we had plenty of examples of how to run away from how we feel, or distract ourselves or numb out.

Most of us build up a wall around us; we put armor on to protect us from what feels like a volatile, scary and dangerous world. We do this just to get through the day. Drugs, alcohol, cutting, burning, self harm, eating disorders, sleeping all day, on a screen all the time, staying really busy, in all the extra curricular activities so they don’t have to slow down cause when they slow down they are met with all the things they have been running from.

All of these things, these are just the best attempts to take care of ourselves.

In the absence of healthy emotional and stress management tools, many of us find other ways to cope and defend ourselves from a world that feels hostile and unsafe.

We develop personalities and habits that in some way usually temporarily and partially help us feel better or keep the danger at bay.

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“It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behaviour.”  —Gabor Maté

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We develop personalities that are so offensive and annoying and frustrating, that they push people away. Or we hurt others before they can hurt us. Or we engage in behaviors that are dangerous to others and ourselves. Or we feel such a strong sense of lack that we become so needy that we look to people and things outside of ourselves. When we live behind our defenses to protect ourselves it tends to look like this: the bully, class clown, the one who’s spaced out or talking all through class or disrespectful.

What’s your story? How did you show up in school as a result of the conditions you were forced to meet?

A translation that I like for mindfulness is remembering. Paying attention in the present moment and remembering. So remember who you really are. Remember who your students really are, beneath the layers of armor as a result of stress and trauma. That baby; innocent, vulnerable, and with a deep desire to be happy.

Compassion Youth TT postHere are a few ways to cultivate compassion in yourself – as a parent, teacher or adult working with teens.

#1: Cultivate your own self-compassion practice. Learn to care about your parts that are not so easy to love. Learn to hold your difficult emotions with compassion so that you can meet others with the same compassion.

#2: Remember that everyone has a story, just like you. 

#3 Get Curious. It’s not interesting if you’re not interested. It’s just annoying.

#4 Imagine them as a baby. If you have a hard time connecting to the good in that person, imagine them as a little kid.

#5 Visualize a Circle of Compassion. Try this out before every class: imagine a circle as big as the room and no one is outside that circle of compassion. Remember there’s no such thing as a bad kid, only confused, afraid young people who are in a lot of pain and just haven’t been taught how to deal with it. More about this:

So we imagine a circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” ―Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

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