It’s that time of year. Sad little faces in newspapers holding up flat, back shoes. Angry parents railing against new heads. Edu twitter bursting into cyclone levels of argumentative energy in which sides rail against each other using the spear of shame as a weapon. Stop shaming schools! Cries one side. Stop shaming children! Cries the other.
The thing is, a school is a building. A head is an adult. Children are neither. This is not a battle of equivalence. I’m not getting into why it might be that a newly appointed head decides that uniform is the battleground upon which they’re going to make their mark. Some believe that if you establish authority on small things, it makes the bigger things easier to manage. I don’t buy into it, but I’m not in their flat, black, leather shoes. I’m more concerned about the use of shame as a tool for managing pupil behaviour.
Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, one of the world’s leading experts on the adolescent brain, shows us that during adolescence, shame has a particularly powerful impact on the brain. Adolescents feel, even anticipate, embarrassment in more profound ways than adults. One sure fire way of making sure that you are neither heard nor respected by a child, is to embarrass them. That’s not a matter of choice. Shame will close down all other options for children other than the quest for survival. It puts them into full on fight or flight meltdown. And in that state of mind, you get nowhere. It may look like a child has complied. They blush beetroot and retreat. They sit quietly and go home. But the shame is sitting so presently in their minds, that they heard nothing, learned nothing and are harbouring now a deep seated sense of shame that may turn outwardly into anger, or inwardly into resentment. Or worse, it may morph into significant self loathing. None of these outcomes are good.
Adolescents are not like us. They will, one day – once all the pruning and shaping and hormonal pummelling is over – become like us. But right now, they are in the eye of a storm and a little empathy goes a very long way. Shaming goes a very long way in the opposite direction. Those of us who have spent many years in classrooms, usually learn that the quiet word, one to one, works way more effectively that shouting at them in public. The eye contact, little raised eyebrow, tap on the shoulder – the techniques that signal you’re watching and aware, but still allow them a route out of public denouncement, are often enough. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, the situation gets out of control. That’s when you model what it is to be an adult. Unflappable, firm, fair, kind and consistent. Paul Dix’s book on behaviour “When the Adults Change, Everything Changes” is excellent on this point. We are the adults. We have authority with equal responsibility. Shaming should not be part of a responsible adult’s repertoire. It’s a failure to default to it.
Shaming is sometimes seized upon by adults as an aversion technique – that is a technique designed to inflict a sense of consequence onto another person in response to their negative behaviour. It’s part of the crime and punishment toolkit – trials are usually public and criminals can be named, and shamed. This is considered a legitimate part of our legal process (whether you agree with it or not). But in adolescents, particularly powerful emotions are released linked to shame that can have extremely damaging effects on their mental health, leading in some cases to psychopathy. Part of this is down to the fact that children feel emotions more strongly than adults, largely because they lack the sense of proportion that comes with experience. Remember that first love? But it is also biological. Adolescents use their medial prefrontal cortex even when considering situations that might cause them embarrassment; adults do not do this. So even imagining embarrassment is deeply felt by adolescents which is why they’ll do anything to protect themselves from it – heading it off at the pass. The anticipation of shame is deeply experienced by adolescents in a way that it is not by adults.
Moreover, Dr Brene Brown at the University of Houston places shame on the opposite end of a continuum to empathy. What shame does, she claims, is interrupt our construction of positive relationships to others – a crucial aspect of which is empathy. That disruption is damaging not only to ourselves but to our relationships with others and our future interactions. Shame, she points out, is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens in response to an action or inaction. It is linked to an event, not a person. It can lead to shame, but handled well, it can be turned to positive, restorative outcomes. Shame is toxic. It is the difference between “sorry I did” and “sorry I am.” Moreover she points to research that shows that shame is directly correlated to depression, self harm, suicide and addictive behaviours. Guilt, on the other hand, is not. Guilt allows us to put our hands up and apologise. I don’t know what came over me, I’m so sorry. Guilt is about restoration, recognition and responsibility. Shame is an albatross around our necks. So hanging a sign around the neck of a child is as concrete an example of intentional shame as you will find. Shame is crippling because it is linked profoundly to our sense of who we are.
When schools decide that they will default to shaming as a strategy for good behaviour, they place themselves onto the most volatile battlefield they can – what Brown calls “The Swampland of the Soul.” They can be seemingly winning that battle – they may force compliance from children. Perhaps even test results (especially if they kick the most resistant out of school altogether). But as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out, adolescence opens up many windows to mental health problems. It is in this period of intense brain activity, where the hippocampus and limbic systems (linked to memory and emotion) are growing and grey matter is being pruned, that seeds are sown for future emotional health. Stings here can settle and grow. So can kindnesses. We need to tread with care and compassion.
It doesn’t take much. When you’re considering an action in your school or classroom, simply think about whether or not it is likely to cause shame. If it is, don’t do it. Rank ordering pupils, hanging signs around their necks, having lists of wrongdoers – these are all acts of shaming. There’s no justification for it. None at all.