With the rise of bullying and suicides, I’ve considered how focusing on emotions contribute to happy students and safe schools. A few years back I read Dan and Chris Heath’s book Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard. They used an analogy from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Project to describe two powerful systems in humans that affect our choice making. Our choices are influenced by how we feel and how we think – the emotional side and rational side of our brain. Haidt used the analogy of the elephant and the rider, where the elephant represents the powerful emotional part of who we are and the tiny rider who attempts to control and guide the elephant is the rational, analytical part.
Having been an educator for forty-one years and the last eighteen as a principal of a middle school, I have known how powerful emotions are in a school, especially with middle schoolers. When something has upset them at home, they bring those emotions to school and it takes awhile for them to transition into their day at school. When their feelings are hurt because their friend has gone off to sit with someone else for lunch, they take those feelings into the next class and find it hard to concentrate. While I am an adult, I too like my students am affected when my feelings are hurt or when I’m embarrassed or when I am angry. I believe that all human beings are affected by their emotions. While we are better at hiding them as adults, it doesn’t mean that we are unaffected by them. This is why I chose to write this post about trusting relationships and emotions to create a safe environment.
So, it has always been surprising to me that in general most schools pay little attention to emotions in a proactive, supportive way. While at the same time, schools have to deal with the results of students acting out their emotions through disrespect, bullying, spreading rumors, and other kinds of distracting and unhealthy behaviors. At River School where I was principal, we intentionally created an emotionally safe environment so students would feel safe to share their feelings with their teachers and with their peers. Students see their teachers as mentor/friends and not just teachers. As a result, our students love school. Because they love school, they flourish emotionally and academically. On the California Healthy Kids Survey, our school would always score the highest in our county.
I learned the importance of tending to the whole person, their social and emotional selves, when I first started teaching in Hawaii at Our Lady of Sorrows School. It was fortunate that at that time Sr. Joan Madden’s new program, the Ho’āla Philosophy, was newly implemented. I have taken those lessons about creating emotionally safe environments to the classrooms where I taught and to the school for which I was the principal for eighteen years. Today I am relieved to see more and more recognition that the social and emotional aspects of students cannot be ignored as rising statistics about anxiety, depression, and suicide increase among our students nationwide. There is more conversation about SEL – social emotional learning – on the national stage. And I read just recently that ASCD’s Whole Child initiative is partnering with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and with Born This Way Foundation (founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta) http://bornthisway.foundation/emotionrevolution/ to empower youth to create school communities where emotions matter in order to improve school climate.
If you are a parent or an educator, what efforts does your child’s school implement to support the emotional well being of ALL its students? Are there students who sit in the courtyard alone? How are the “silent” students encouraged to speak up? Do teachers and students have caring relationships? School culture and climate impacts the life of students greatly. How healthy is your school’s culture and climate – both among its students and among its teachers to create happy students and a safe school?