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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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SEL: Lessons in Forgiveness and Gratitude

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

There are many instances in which ancient wisdom anticipated contemporary research, and one of them can be found on the upcoming Jewish observance day of Yom Kippur. It is also known as the Day of Atonement and it is considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Why? Without being overly technical or detailed, Yom Kippur represents the last day, the last time a person can review their deeds from the prior year and ask forgiveness for the regrettable things they have done. If one does not do so, there is the risk of harsh Divine judgment for the upcoming year. Of course, you are asking yourself, what if I did something that was not intended to hurt or insult others, that I did not realize required atonement? The Jewish liturgy of Yom Kippur has taken that into account. One is able to ask for forgiveness of both intentional and unintentional offenses, as well as those one is aware of committing and those one is unaware of that took place.

If one were to remove all religious connotations, there would still be much benefit to be derived from a guaranteed period of time to review the prior year's potential transgressions. But the Jewish tradition asks more of us, and this aligns with research. Yom Kippur is not the Day of Regret -- it's the Day of Atonement.

The History and Research

The word, atonement, derives from 16th century Latin and means unity or reconciliation; another common meaning was reparation or expiation from sin. Atonement involves something that we now associate with forgiveness: it is an active process. Indeed, true forgiveness is an active, intentional process that results in a genuine emotional change toward the person or event that was previously viewed as harmful, hurtful, hateful, or humiliating.

As you might infer, the Jewish sages' concept of atonement was really comprehensive forgiveness -- for transgressions committed to others, to one's god, or even to oneself. Holding on to strong negative feelings was viewed as harmful; actively finding release from those feelings was seen as beneficial. Thus, religious services were designed to provide that relief if it did not happen in any other way, though the likelihood of genuine emotional change could not be guaranteed.

Research suggests that forgiveness has been associated with lowered levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and anger, as well as greater compassion for others and appreciation of one's social support. Some believe that atonement and forgiveness can produce insights that can lead to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in life. Most research on the relationship of forgiveness and well being has been carried out with adults, but findings with adolescents have been similar.

What Does This Have to Do With Social and Emotional Character Development?

The message here is that forgiveness is an essential part of any classroom management and school climate strategy. Students who engage in harmful actions toward others should be required to seek forgiveness. Both apologies and compensatory actions can be invoked. This may seem contradictory; how can genuine emotional change result from a forced process? Consider this: first, for the victim, being able to grant forgiveness is reassuring and strengthening. Second, for the perpetrator, being granted forgiveness, even if one is not sincere in the apology, can liberating. It might not be, but it can be.

Finally, when two individuals have been involved in a negative situation, having a process of mutual forgiveness allows both to move on. There are no guarantees here, any more than attending a religious service might produce emotional change. But it creates the potential for change to occur. Of course, having social-emotional competencies is essential for dealing effectively with all interpersonal situations, including those that might engender the need for forgiveness and how the forgiveness process is handled.

Frederic Luskin, a leader in forgiveness interventions, teaches individuals how to reframe negative life experiences and value gratitude in one's life, to shift one's attention more toward the positive. This allows victims to focus less on their role of victim, expend less emotional and psychological energy on blaming the offender, and move beyond the unfortunate events that have occurred in their lives. This can be especially useful when there is no perpetrator with whom to reconcile, and/or when the relevant incidents are in the past and not capable of being changed.

Forgiveness has some controversy to it. Might victims of social injustices, such as disadvantaged urban youth, be less inclined toward social action if they were more inclined toward forgiveness? Would schools stop seeing bullying as an organizational and climate problem and instead rely on forgiveness as a mechanism for bully response? Could insincere apologies lead to unwarranted second chances? Perhaps, if forgiveness were to be the sole value used to guide all moral decision-making and action. But it's not.

The takeaway message from Yom Kippur is that forgiveness -- and its close cousin, gratitude -- is an important part of everyday life and has a place in the routines of classrooms and schools.

(Some of the information in this post was drawn from Cydney Van Dyke Terreri, for whom I thank for her many insights about forgiveness.)

Additional information on forgiveness and youth

Van Dyke, C. J., & Elias, M. J. (2007). How forgiveness, purpose, and religiosity are related to the mental health and well-being of youth: A review of the literature. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 10 (4), 395-415

Terreri, C. J., & Elias, M. J. (2010). Forgiveness. In R.J.R. Levesque (ed.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence, NY: Springer

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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