By Jon Reid, Senior Lecturer in Child Development and SEN/ Inclusion, School of Education. PGCE, PGDES, PCTHE, MSC.OXON, MBPSS, FHEA 


Recent longitudinal research has indicated a rise in childhood emotional disorders associated with anxiety, fear and worry and childhood depression, associated with sadness, loss of interest and energy (Sadler et al, 2018), which is concerning. Additionally, with regards to teachers, OfSTED has found that 76% report that their job has a negative impact on their mental health (Scott and Vidakovic, 2018 n.p), with more recent findings suggesting that teachers are disappointed by the profession (OfSTED, 2019). Currently, teachers occupational wellbeing and general life satisfaction are low, with teachers “suffering from high workloads, lack of work-life balance, a perceived lack of resources and, in some cases, a perceived lack of support” (OfSTED, 2019 p., 5).  Teachers describe feelings of de-professionalisation associated with frequent policy change, an inability to contribute to such changes and stress experienced by OfSTED inspections due to increases in administrative workload and an excessive focus on data and exam results (OfSTED, 2019).  The Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 revealed that 67% of Education professionals and 80% of senior leaders describe themselves as stressed, with 74% of educational professionals considering their inability to switch off and relax as a major contributing factor to negative work/life balance (Savill-Smith, 2018).

Participating in Education and learning experiences can, we would hope, be engaging, interesting and enjoyable and can contribute to feelings of success, achievement, and pride. However, no matter what your previous experiences of schooling were like or what your current involvement in Education is, I am sure, at some point, in a variety of different contexts and for a wide range of reasons, you will, like me, have experienced difficulties, challenges, discomfort and possibly distress. 

So, while experiences of Education and learning can contribute to a positive sense of our wellbeing, irrespective of who you are, such Educational and learning experiences also have the potential to negatively impact on our wellbeing.

This is not our fault

Compassion focused approaches can support an understanding of why our experiences might impact on our wellbeing but can also provide insight into how our wellbeing can be facilitated and cultivated.

Compassion focused approaches incorporate psychotherapeutic principles, processes and practices originally conceptualised by Professor Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, which has been developing both here in the UK and Internationally over the last 40 years (Gilbert, 2009a). These approaches aim to help people to “develop compassion motivation for themselves and for others, and also to be open to receiving compassion” (Gilbert, 2018 p.37). To support an understanding of why experiences might impact on wellbeing, Compassion focused approaches draw on a variety of perspectives including Buddhist, evolutionary, developmental and social psychologies.

From a Buddhist perspective, Compassion is associated with an “aspiration and desire for all beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and making a commitment to do whatever we can do to bring this about” (Gilbert & Choden 2013 p.123).

So, from a Compassion focused perspective, we might be aware of difficulties, challenges, discomfort, and distress experienced by ourselves or others by being aware of and paying attention to how emotions are exhibited through communication or behaviour and be motivated to do something which would prevent, support or alleviate these difficult experiences and emotions.

Additional considerations and influences relate to the realities of life. As a human species, we are an evolved species. As part of the process of evolution many other species are now extinct, but, we have survived. As an emergent species, we are therefore “caught up in the flow of life” (Irons, 2014 p.1).

Compassion focused approaches aim, therefore, to provide a non-pathologising insight into experiences that can have a negative impact on our wellbeing by recognising that these might be (and often are!) “understandable adaptations to particular environmental contexts” (Gilbert, 2017 p. xi).

Another insight (caution – sensitive reality) is that no matter who we are, we are born, we grow and develop, we might eventually get ill and then we die.  Sad times. In fact, we may only be around on this earth for between 25,000-30,000 days (Gilbert, 2009a).

From developmental and social psychological perspectives, we can also gain insight from considering that we didn’t choose where we were born, who our parents were, how they met or when they eventually decided to begin the process of introducing us to this world. Who we are today may, therefore, be thought of from a biopsychosocial perspective, the consequence of complex biological interactions, at a specific time, within specific socio-cultural environments that are also influenced by experiences and relational circumstances. (Irons, 2014).

These relational experiences are important and are associated initially with evolved caring behaviours for protection, provision of resources needed for development, socialisation, and survival, for example, that influence attachment to our caregivers.

Unlike my tortoises Tina and Tina who seem to engage in a daily cycle of eat, sleep, s@#t, fight, repeat (although respect to their Vegan dietary choices!), our developmental trajectory is more closely associated with mammalian systems and mechanisms that have evolved to support experiences of connection, belonging and social relationships with others. While these experiences occur initially and are dependent on our interactions with our caregivers, our autonomic nervous system develops a repertoire of responses to specific experiences, contexts, and situations through the support of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

Porges Polyvagal Perspective “emphasises that humans are on a quest to calm neural defense systems by detecting features of safety” (Porges, 2015 p.115).

However, we have developed what Gilbert refers to as ‘tricky brains’ as a consequence of the evolution of ‘old brain’, ‘new brain’ capacities and competences (Gilbert, 2009a). Our ‘new brain’ supports our abilities to reason (and even to think about thinking about thinking), problem solve, imagine and be creative, which have, of course, contributed to the wonders of art, music, literature and the advancement of the sciences, for example and we hope, will ensure the longevity of our global existence!

But this ‘new brain’ has also contributed to horrendous historical and contemporary atrocities, war, the devastation of eco-systems and extinction, pollution and global warming, inequality, deprivation, etc. etc. I am sure you could add many more examples to this list!

The ‘old brain’ association with motivations which evolved to facilitate survival, defense and reproduction can be problematic with regards to our daily experiences and may also influence our behaviours with regards to fight, flight, freeze, appease responses. Our experiences of difficult feelings and emotions such as anxiety, anger, disgust and sadness are also associated with these ‘old brain’ developments (Irons and Beaumont, 2017).

Our ‘new brain’ capacity of self-awareness can also be problematic with regards to worry, rumination and our experiences of self-doubt and self-criticism, which can affect our self-identity, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Much of which is influenced by our environment and social context. While I am excited to be contributing to my first ever blog to Chatterpack, my ruminating thoughts have included ‘I doubt this will be as interesting as the other Chatterpack contributors’, ‘why am I unable to stick to the allocated word count’ and ‘I hope I have given a useful overview of the importance of Compassion in Education!

To provide insight into how environmental, social and individual experiences can be both positive with regards to wellbeing and problematic, Gilbert makes the useful distinction between three emotional systems associated with ‘drive’, ‘threat’ and ‘soothing’ which underpin his model of the ‘affect regulation system’ (See figure 1 Gilbert 2009a p.200). While relevant to our experiences of everyday life, this model is particularly useful to consider in relation to current concerns about wellbeing at all levels of our education system.

The drive system is useful in promoting positive feelings and emotions associated with motivations to seek out resources for self and others to survive, prosper and develop relationships with others. Such feelings can be associated with the joy of achieving a personal or professional goal or the elation of sending the final draft of a blog to Chatterpack, for example. This system is related to feeling energised and excited.

However, according to Gilbert and Choden and I am inclined to agree, certain environments and social contexts are more associated with competitive mentalities and psychologies rather than caring mentalities and psychologies (2013). Under such circumstances, individuals can feel ‘driven’ to own, control, strive, get, have, accomplish and achieve more and more, which can be problematic. Such overstimulation and competition is more associated with the sympathetic nervous system and can lead to challenges, difficulties and distress if, for example, goals seem unachievable despite our best efforts, if our achievements seem inadequate or inferior or if we are unable to overcome personal or professional issues which may be associated with setbacks, relationships, illness or injuries.

The threat system is associated with responses that are influenced by personal experiences and meanings which alert us to potential or perceived danger to ourselves or others. This system provides the motivation for protection or seeking safety, is influenced by physiological responses such as increased heart rate, sweating and nausea that are often outside our conscious understanding and is associated with a repertoire of quick behavioural responses such as fight, flight, freeze, appease. This system is influenced by both external cues such as danger but also by internal cues such as anxiety, worry and rumination. The threat system is the most dominant emotional processing system and is again associated with the sympathetic nervous system.

According to Gilbert and Choden social systems can influence experiences of drive and threat responses, which cause us problems. They suggest that “economics, politics, business models, media, entertainment, and education systems are constantly stimulating the competitive mind and excitement and drive-based emotions and this will have consequences for how we think about ourselves, get to ‘know ourselves’ and relate to each others’ (Gilbert and Choden, 2013 p.95).

So perhaps now is the time to join the #CompassionEDRevolution!

The third system is related to the parasympathetic nervous system which provides a sense of contentment, soothing and peaceful wellbeing. Kindness and caring motivations have evolved to support the creation of attachments, bonding and interpersonal connection so the soothing and affiliation system is associated with social connectedness, belonging, cooperation, group identity and safeness.

When a baby is distressed, caregiver responses can soothe and calm.

When children, young people or adults are distressed, warmth, interest and concern can soothe and calm.

While threat responses might be associated with safety-seeking, soothing and affiliation responses associated with contentment are related to “being happy with the way things are and feeling safe, not striving or wanting” (Gilbert, 2009b p. 26).

Compassion focused approaches are all about cultivating and developing this final system. So while difficulties, challenges, discomfort and possibly the distress, which might be experienced by anyone involved in education and learning are not their fault, Gilbert suggests that they can take responsibility (2009, p.89) for nurturing wellbeing.

Compassion focused approaches recognise “Compassion as flow”

From this perspective, Compassion motivation can be thought of as involving particular attributes and skills, which can be experienced and practiced and which can support us to move towards and engage with difficulties, challenges, discomfort and distress, rather than move away from and avoid these.

Irons and Beaumont recognise that “not only can we direct compassion towards others, we can also experience compassion flowing from others towards us, as well as direct Compassion to ourselves” (2017 p.89)

The attributes associated with Compassion focused approaches, which can be exhibited and further developed include; care for wellbeing (for self and others), sensitivity (to the difficulties, challenges, discomfort and distress experienced by self and others), sympathy (in the sense of being emotionally moved by emotions and feelings), distress tolerance (being able to ‘stay with’ the difficult emotions of others and ‘contain’ our own emotions), empathy (making the effort to understand the meanings, functions and reasons for the emotions experienced by self and others) and, importantly, non-judgment (“not condemning, criticising, shaming or rejecting” Gilbert, 2009b p. 203).

Skills associated with Compassion focused approaches involve those that relate to the soothing and affiliation system to create feelings of safeness, warmth, kindness and connectedness. A variety of practices and activities can be associated with these skills and aim to support and develop compassionate attention, reasoning, behavior, imagery, feeling and sensation (see Gilbert, 2009b for more detail).

Gilbert and Choden suggest that Perhaps the biggest enemy of compassion is conformity, a preparedness to go along with the way things are, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of complacency and sometimes because we do what our leaders tell us to do” (2013 p.24)

So, whatever your involvement in Education and learning is, now is the time to engage in compassionate activism where Compassion for self, for others and from others can support the cultivation of compassionate Educational cultures and communities.

Please share your examples of compassionate activism on Twitter using: #CompassionEDRevolution - a space to celebrate Compassion focused education.

Key considerations:

  • How do you recognise and respond to difficulties, challenges, discomfort and possible distress that you personally experience with regards to Education?
  • How do Educational settings create Compassionate communities and cultures where all individuals, irrespective of role or responsibilities experience contentment and peaceful wellbeing?
  • How do you engage in Compassionate activism to prevent or alleviate difficulties, challenges, discomfort and distress in others?

Useful follow up spaces:

To join the #CompassionEDRevolution and to learn more about Compassion focused approaches, resources, publications and practices I would encourage you to explore:

To explore Compassion focused approaches in Education, please explore the work of Dr Mary Welford and Dr. Frances Maratos et al here:

References (Many of these publications are open access):

Jon joined Oxford Brookes University following a teaching career in both Primary and Secondary Education. His teaching career involved teaching in mainstream and special education settings, as well as working as a behaviour support teacher for the Local Authority. Jon has taught in a therapeutic residential school that catered for pupils who had experienced severe emotional trauma due to the accumulation of adverse experiences in infancy and early childhood and prior to joining Oxford Brookes University was Deputy Head Teacher of an Independent SEMH Secondary Special School.

During his teaching career Jon developed an interest in working with pupils with additional learning needs and particularly children who have complex social, emotional, educational and mental health needs, communication difficulties and “challenging” behaviours. He is now a Senior Lecture in Child Development, Special Educational Needs/ Disabilities and Inclusion, is Subject Coordinator for Education Studies and Education Studies: Special Educational Needs/ Disabilities and Inclusion, and teaches on a variety of Undergraduate, Postgraduate and MA courses.

Jon has contributed to a variety of Department for Education and UNESCO/European Agency for Special Education publications, and is regularly invited to present at National conferences. Jon is currently undertaking Doctoral research with a focus on Teacher’s emotional work, support for their wellbeing and the role of Compassion.

A full profile can be found here.



Written by ChatterPack

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