How Self-Compassion Supports Academic Motivation and Emotional Wellness

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Many of today’s parents and teachers came of age in the 1980s and 1990s — a time when the self-esteem movement was in its zenith. Self-esteem was supposed to be a panacea for a variety of social challenges, from substance abuse to violent crime.  The research, however, did not support such broad claims.

If teachers and parents want children to develop resilience and strength, a better approach is to teach them self-compassion, said Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. “Self-esteem is a judgment about how valuable I am: very valuable, not so good, not valuable at all.”  

In contrast, “self-compassion isn’t about self-evaluation at all,” said Neff. “It’s about being kind to oneself. Self-compassion is a healthy source of self-worth because it’s not contingent and it’s unconditional. It’s much more stable over time because it is not dependent on external markers of success such as grades.”

How Self-Compassion Supports Academic Motivation

Most of us have a habitual way of talking to ourselves when we make a mistake or struggle with something. For many people, said Neff, self-criticism is the “number one way we motivate ourselves.” It’s the voice in our head that reminds us of all the consequences that will befall us if we fail that quiz or eat that tub of ice cream. But self-criticism brings with it “lots of unintended consequences such as anxiety and fear of failure,” said Neff. Students may become more susceptible to perfectionism and procrastination “because the fear of not measuring up looms large.”

When a student develops self-compassion, the seat of motivation shifts.  Since internal value doesn’t depend on external achievement, it frees students up to experiment, take risks and try new paths.  “Self-compassion leads to learning goals instead of performance goals — such as trying again after messing up,” said Neff. “It’s a better academic motivator than self-criticism. It’s a motivation of care instead of a motivation of fear.”  

Neff said that there is an empirical link between self-compassion and growth mindset (the belief that intelligence is malleable and responsive to effort). Research shows that students who adopt a growth mindset thrive on challenges, show resilience in the face of obstacles and view failure as part of the learning process. Both self-compassion and growth mindset are robust responses to the inevitable ups and downs of life. “When we are self-compassionate, we remind ourselves ‘I am a human and the human condition is imperfect for all of us,’ ” said Neff.

How Adults Can Teach Children Self-Compassion

The good news is that parents and educators “can teach students to be self-compassionate,” said Neff. “It is a learnable skill. Our culture discourages it — you have to go against the grain a little bit —  but it’s a common-sense idea.” Self-compassion isn’t self-pity (poor me!) and it isn’t arrogance (I’m the best). Instead, it’s about treating yourself and your shortcomings with kindness, reminding yourself that you are human and — like all humans — you are a work in progress. Neff says, “Most of us have learned how to be supportive of others. We have to give ourselves permission to treat ourselves the same way.”

Trade Criticism for Supportive Feedback

Parents can model self-compassion in the language they use with their children. For example, said Neff, if your child comes home with a less-than-stellar grade, help them view it as data — as an indicator of things what they need to work on — instead of as a judgment of their intelligence. Instead of harsh criticism, give them feedback that is “designed to help, support, encourage.”

Model Compassionate Self-Talk

Adults can also model how they process challenges. “When you fail or make a mistake, talk it through out loud with your kids. Use language that communicates, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes. Now what can I learn from this?’ ”  Compassionate self-talk reminds us of our common humanity, the inevitability of mistakes, and our ability to bounce back and keep going. It shifts the self-talk from “I am a failure — I am so ashamed of myself” to “Everyone messes up sometimes —  let’s see what I can learn from this situation so I can try again.” In this way, self-compassion helps us move on to problem-solving faster, said Neff. Instead of getting stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings, we can take a deep breath and move on to what to do next.

Be a Good Friend to Yourself

To make self-compassion a concrete idea for children, ask them to compare how they treat themselves to how they treat a friend. When we treat ourselves with the same kindness and care that we offer a good friend, we are practicing self-compassion. “By age 7, children have learned about the concept of friendship. A lot of their developmental energy is spent on learning how to be a good friend,” said Neff.  So when students are feeling frustrated or upset, ask them, “What would you say to a friend in this situation?” This simple question can help students reflect on the situation and reframe their response.

Calm the Nervous System

When something goes wrong, students’ bodies may experience a spike of adrenaline. The heart starts to race, breathing gets more shallow — and this can make it harder to feel calm. Neff said that in these moments, we can teach kids to practice self-compassion by taking deep breaths while putting their hand on their heart. Gentle, caring touch releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel safe and connected. Neff said, “Touch is one of the most powerful symbols of care. So if you are feeling upset, put your hand on your heart. Hold your own hand. Hug yourself.  Even if your brain at the moment is full of the storyline of how bad you are, you can put your hand on your heart and calm your physiology down.”

Self-Compassion and Trauma

Teaching self-compassion to children who have a history of trauma is particularly important — and particularly challenging. Dr. Patricia Jennings, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of the new book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, said that these children “often feel very bad about themselves, and their ability to feel compassion for themselves may be impaired. They don’t even know how to accept compassion from other people yet.”  In these situations, caring teachers can literally rewire some of the neural pathways associated with attachment.

Jennings said one of the most transformational messages these children can learn from teachers is, “I know there are people in the world who care about me.”  This isn’t always easy: Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit challenging behaviors in the classroom. But with time and consistency, these children can begin to internalize the message, “I really care about you. I care about how you are doing. And I care about how hard you are trying,” said Jennings. Helping children feel and accept compassion from someone else is a “good first step to helping them develop self-compassion.”   

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For parents and teachers who are not used to offering themselves kindness, teaching and modeling self-compassion for children is a gift we can give ourselves. “Self-compassion is a way of reparenting yourself,” said Neff.  “If you grew up with really critical parents, it’s a chance to treat yourself like an unconditionally loving, supportive parent.”

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