From power struggle to benevolent authority and empathic limit setting:  Creating inclusive school practice with excluded students through action research

Empathic limit setting” is an effective innovative “relational” alternative to punishment with the toughest kids – developed with and by teachers through participative action research. It’s a great example of building actionable theory from practice, a valuable read for teachers, or anyone, working with risk/excluded young people.”

Children who are excluded, for whatever reason, experience deep emotional distress because of difficult life circumstances and histories of chronic failure. This distress often is expressed in disruptive behaviors and violation of limits that put these children at risk.  The encounter with young excluded people, who are at risk, exposes us -citizens, parents, counselors, teachers, therapists and managers- to a series of unbearable experiences, emotions and images. The intensity and depth of those emotions increase the desire to disconnect, abandon or react violently against them.

Limit-setting by educators turns, then, into a form of power struggle where disciplinary measures such as suspension and expulsion are used against those young people, who already suffer from greater alienation and lower achievement levels. We know that the use of suspension or expulsion does not improve student behavior, academic performance or social status, nor does it make schools safer, however, those methods are widely used.

My approach rests on the assumption that even children who display extreme non-normative behavior desire to be accepted and to succeed. The key point is to set limits without engendering humiliation, hurt, and especially, exclusion. Teachers who want to exercise Inclusive practice have to accept students despite their anger, and helping them draw a clear distinction between legitimate anger and unacceptable behavior.

This article describes a process of action research carried out with a group of teachers. Together we developed important knowledge on how to come to know students, their needs, and how to set limits in an empathic and tender way.

image of article author standing outside, wearing a teal shirt

We invite you to learn more about this experience by reading our article HERE. Free 30-day access is available for this article beginning  3 October.

After you’ve had a chance to read this piece, please share your thoughts, ideas, or experiences with our community in the comments below so we can continue this discussion!