Compassion in Education Conference

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A speaker in front of a projected slide

Friday 8th November saw the first ever compassion in education conference cohosted by the University of Derby and the Compassionate Mind Foundation (CMF), and held at the University Kedleston Road campus. I was attending for personal interest, having connections with CMF as well as being a psychology student, but was also really interested to hear more as the Part Time Officer (PTO) Education Chair for the Union of Students at the University.

The opening address was by Dr Frankie Maratos, who set the aim for the conference and shared some of the highlights of the University project working with local schools in Derby and in Portugal around compassion to support teaching staff. This University blog, Compassion in the classroom, explains more around that project and what has been achieved so far in a very short time.

Prof Paul Gilbert, founder of CMF and the man behind Compassion Focused Therapy/Compassionate Mind Training followed with an overview of key concepts, such as the three emotional system model  (threat, drive and soothing) and compassion as a motivation towards acknowledging and if possible, alleviating distress,  He also made a request to education to help shape the future through compassion and help to tackle some of the major issues facing the world today.

Dr Mary Welford followed with her experience of assisting schools with compassion, being the first person to have done so from the CMF world.  In an impassioned talk she highlighted how compassion supports those difficult conversations which often happen in education, allowing them to happen in a helpful and non judgemental manner. A key thought from was that education can prepare people academically but does not prepare them to understand themselves, with the emotional tools to handle what that might bring. 

Dr Katherine Weare then got everyone to pause and take a few mindful moments before providing an overview of mindfulness projects within schools.  This also included reflecting on what mindfulness is and isn't (mindful knitting anyone?) and noting that there have been around 40 research projects on mindfulness in education, with results being cautiously positive, if well taught by experts.

The morning and afternoon was split into different workshops. In the morning I choose to attend a workshop hosted by Jon Reid specifically on the use of compassion to support Special Education Needs & Disability (SEND) education, where there can often be higher emotional experiences. Jon is calling for compassionate revolution in education (#CompassionEdRevolution) and often advises the Department for Education. He picked up on a key part of the compassion definition, placing emphasis on preventing distress as well as alleviating it, and highlighted how self-compassion can help teachers with self-criticism and feelings of shame if not able to help a pupil.

After lunch I attended the experiential workshop run by Dr Marcela Matos, who oversees the work with Portuguese schools involved in the compassion in schools project alongside the Derby ones, as well as being a hugely respected researcher around shame and compassion. Marcela lead us through exercises designed to think about the compassionate self and how that can help in everyday life, helping us to pause, to slow down and be at our most compassionate during stressful and challenging times. This often includes being courageous and wise, knowing when to pause and when to take action, depending upon the situation.

The day ended with a panel discussion, which unfortunately had to be shortened due to the adverse weather conditions and related travel chaos.   One key message that came from Mary was that individual actions can to lead change, for example #MeToo. Katherine also talked about a whole school approach, not just teachers or pupils, there is a need to include all staff and parents.

So what could this mean for higher education - my thoughts:

  • compassionate micro-skills to help with coping with assignments and activities which some students find challenging embedded into modules - in fact the psychology BSc programme at Derby has introduced this recently around group work
  • openness around vulnerability, that we all struggle and that there is nothing to be ashamed about, as well ensuring that no discrimination happens if someone is struggling and talks about that
  • understanding that compassion doesn’t have to be introduced through big changes or directives - simple, small changes and interactions can foster this.
  • fostering an environment where caring precedes competition
  • education policies and procedures pass a compassion assessment - “Is this helpful and not harmful ?” - sometimes things are introduced which have unseen or unconsidered negative impacts to staff and students

Lots to think about. A big thank you to the organisers of the event from the University and CMF, your work helps to make a difference to many.

If you are interested in some of the related research these journal articles are worth a read:

Maratos, F., Montague, J., Ashra, H., Welford, M., Wood, W., Barnes, C., Sheffield, D., & Gilbert, P. (2019). Evaluation of a Compassionate Mind Training Intervention with School Teachers and Support Staff. Mindfulness, 10, 2245-58.

Weare, K. (2019) Mindfulness and Contemplative Approaches in Education. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 21-326.


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