The care effect


There was an article in the most recent issue of Wired magazine that sparked my thinking. It didn’t detail the latest gadgets or technological innovations, or deal with the field of education, yet it immediately made me consider this question in regards to our roles as school leaders and educators:

Do we show them we care?

Dr. Feelgood, written by Nathanael Johnson, explores the beneficial effects of alternative medicine. Despite the fact that science is often unable to prove its ability to be effective in curing patients, the same scientific studies show that patients treated by alternative measures often end up feeling better.


Johnson reminds us of the placebo effect: when sick people are given a treatment, even if it’s just a placebo, their condition often improves. But not always. So further studies commenced, and researchers discovered that when patients are treated by doctors and care providers who approach treatment with kindness and care, they report marked reduction in symptoms. Researcher Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard Medical School concluded “the empathetic exchange between practitioner and patient” made the difference. This approach to healing has been coined the care effect:

“the idea that the opportunity for patients to feel heard and are for can improve their health.”

Johnson describes other studies in the field of nursing that support the healing power in the relationship between practitioner and patient. While “nurturing is no replacement for science,” the author stresses that mainstream medicine has a lot to learn from alternative medicine, where practitioners tend to show empathy and involve patients in conversations about care, rather than just dole out treatments.

Two weeks ago our school community lost a bright and shining soul, a young girl in first grade whom we all loved deeply. She valiantly battled cancer day in and day out, but you wouldn’t know it when you interacted with her. She always greeted us with a smile, a funny comment, and compliments, blended together with a perfectly charming amount of six-year-old sass. At the end of my pregnancy, she asked me if she could kiss my baby, and she wrapped her arms around my middle and placed a perfectly sweet kiss on my belly. She showed us she cared, and she made everyone around her feel special. Her care effect was unwavering.

As school leaders, when problems arise, do we just TREAT the issue? Or do we examine the patients and what they need? Do we consider the feelings of staff? Of students? Of community? Do we approach difficult conversations with care and concern? As classroom teachers, do we consider the individual needs of the children sitting in front of us? Do we recognize that one-size-fits-all is a ridiculous notion? Can we learn from the people, especially the sweet children around us, who always manage to approach life’s toughest situations with concern and dignity?

As Johnson concludes, “We need to stop thinking of care as just another word for treatment and instead accept it as a separate, legitimate part of medicine to be studied and delivered.”

It’s a difficult task, to lead and manage a learning organization. It’s stressful, it’s overwhelming, and at times we struggle through and think we’ll never again see the light. Remember this is why we do what we do. When challenges arise, focus on the care

Photo Credit: recompose via Compfight cc

11 Replies to “The care effect”

  1. Lyn,
    Thanks for sharing this. It brings two things to mind:
    1. There’s a saying out there (that I am sure you have heard) that goes something like this:

    Kids don’t care how much you know, that what to know that you care.

    2. In the virtual world, where there is no face to face contact with students (other than through the occasional video conference) we actually teach them to care. We call it their “virtual smile” and part of our training and mentoring of our newest teachers is centered on caring for their students and developing meaningful relationships with kids. Once they are an established instructor with us, their most important job continues to be building and maintaining relationships with kids, relationships that assume empathy first, and are designed to help develop personalized learning opportunities for kids.

    Unfortunately, it took me leaving the brick and mortar environment and entering the virtual space to realize that, but all that you share here, and the emphasis on care and empathy, are trademarks of great teachers regardless of venue.

    1. It’s strange that the entire time I was composing this post, the thought of online learning spaces never crossed my mind. Thanks so much for bringing that point to light in the comments here. Agreed that the very best teachers (and leaders) understand this. I’ll also add that the members of my learning network who seem to share just a bit of their personal selves with us help me to better relate to them and appreciate their value in my network even more.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and reminding me of why I chose this profession in the first place. I want to be enthusiastic about the learning taking place in our classroom, but even more, I want to be passionate about the learners themselves.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Philip. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of administration and fail to recognize the special role we play. I know there are definitely times I could have approached leadership tasks with more care. It’s important to reflect and revitalize our purpose!

  3. Thanks for this Lyn. I will retweet and share with my staff as a reminder of the important relationship between student and teacher, they need to think that you care. Sometimes harder to do with at risk, high flyers but even more important.
    Deposits in the emotional bank account with parents are huge too for student success!

  4. Lyn, I have to say that I think we’ve lost too much of the caring in education these days. Way too many people see our kids as nothing more than numbers, nothing other than little bubble-filling-in machines. And we teachers aren’t see as anything other than the trainers.

    Eventually people are going to realize that the reason “those other countries” are doing so well is because they are truly taking care of their kids and their most basic needs. I just hope we don’t come to that realization when it’s too late.

    1. I agree that the focus on standardized testing scores above all else is a rather sad state of affairs. Data is important, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle towards understanding what our children need to learn. You mention other countries- since being on maternity leave I’ve learned a lot about the leave benefits offered to parents in other nations. The US is among the worst in what it offers new parents in terms of paid leave and/or unpaid leave with job security. If our country put more effort into ensuring our children were cared for at their youngest ages by providing their parents with the benefits to be able to stay home and nurture, I imagine our educational system would reap the benefits.

  5. Nice post Lyn,
    I love this quote from Dr. Leo Buscaglia..
    “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
    Often taking a deep breath gives us an opportunity to choose kindness over business. Children provide examples to us all the time.


    1. Hi, Rhoni, and thanks for commenting and sharing the quote from Dr. Buscaglia. I honestly believe that we have no idea the extent to which our behaviors and attitudes influence children and those working with us each day. I have a sign hanging in my office: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.” It pertains to teachers, students, parents… and me! Deep breaths are wonderful things. Thanks for sharing!

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