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Is there a place for shame in our schools?

Behavioural scientists tell us that every emotion we experience is felt for a reason … even the ones that feel awful.

Fear, for instance, is a rotten emotion to experience.  Yet, we need it – for its role is to keep us safe.  Could you imagine driving to work today if nobody felt any fear?  Fear is negative, but critical to your survival.

So what then about shame?  The same behavioural scientists tell us that shame is something we feel incredibly acutely, even more so than all of fear, pain and grief.  Do we really need something that feels so many different types of awful?

You bet we do!

In just the same way that fear enacts the fight or flight mechanism that keeps us safe, shame enacts our conscience.  Do you want your students to have a conscience?  Thought so.

We just need to feel it within an environment that allows us to take action.  All negative affects/feelings are signals to act, for then we are afforded the opportunity to walk away from those feelings towards a more positive state.  

Through a restorative lens, we call this reintegrative shame.  It’s the sort of shame that says “You screwed up and we’re not ok with that behaviour.  Let’s fix that so you can feel good again and reclaim you place of value in our community.”

If we merely punish when kids make mistakes, we say “That’s not on.  We’re excluding you because you’re not one of us.”  The failure is the student, not the behaviour, in this instance.  It’s personal now.  We call this stigmatizing shamebecause the shame sticks, meaning you never quite move on from it.

If we want our kids to have a conscience, to learn to make amends and to turn negatives into positives, then they desperately need access to an environment that encourages reintegrative shame.

Does yours?


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