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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

Perspectives / Meltdowns and Breakthroughs

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You may have seen the photo of the 2-year-old having a meltdown in the White House. It's a funny picture. There she is face down on the Red Room rug protesting the dress she didn't want to wear that day. Her mom stands above her seemingly unconcerned, the First Lady looks down smiling, and the President's half-smile seems to indicate that the uproar is no big deal. Later, writing a story for the Washingtonian (August, 2015) about child psychology, the mother thanks a doctor whom she calls the "child whisperer" for teaching her how to deescalate her child's temper tantrums. Remaining calm and keeping one's sense of humor apparently works—at least this time.
In another story reported on the radio show This American Life (November 17, 2014), a more disquieting emotional outbreak happens in a subway car in the middle of New York City. Two teachers are escorting a group of young teens on a field trip. When a man jostles (or shoves) one of the students, the teen replies sarcastically "Say excuse me." The adult, who only later identifies himself as a plain-clothes policeman, answers with an epithet. Everything escalates, one kid lands a blow on the officer, and two kids end up getting arrested and spending a night in jail. The teachers, who ironically had been teaching their students to practice restorative justice—a way of talking out problems by using social and reflective skills—might have felt all their lessons were for nothing that day.
This issue of Educational Leadership on "Emotionally Healthy Kids" reminds us that students come to school with all kinds of emotions—emotions that affect how and what they learn. In fact, 20 percent of all students have what are classified as behavioral or emotional problems at school every year (Desrochers). Some of these students may have serious or developing mental health issues; others may simply be having a bad—or overly exciting—day. Some behaviors may be a reaction to adults' own misbehaviors or misfired reactions (see Toshalis) or to school in general (Steinberg), and some may result from situations and conditions that are too little understood by those who teach and care for students (pp. 52, 64, 68). How educators respond to students' emotions and emotional behaviors can have lifelong effects—on students' academic growth, on the way they see themselves as people, and on the well-being of all the other students.
Our authors lay out guidelines for creating a climate where all kids feel safe, secure, and supported. They describe strategies, skills, principles, and programs that help students gain control of their own emotions in healthy ways. Over and over again, the experts show how emotion and learning connect. According to cognitive science, emotions affect our attention, decision-making, memory, concentration, relationships, and health. In addition, brain research establishes that both the preschool and teenage years are highly emotional times when much learning—for good or bad—occurs. As neurologist Frances Jensen and researcher Laurence Steinberg both tell us, the brain will never again be as plastic as in the teen years.
Although some educators and policymakers might still believe that the need to teach social and emotional skills should not be an educator's priority, many educators today embrace what ASCD calls "the whole child approach"—an approach that says schools must consider the whole child's mental, physical, and emotional needs. As Rick Wormeli writes, "Some of us deny this reality and claim we aren't trained to guide children's emotional health. We think our purpose is to teach content and skills only. … This attitude turns a blind eye to the developmental nature of the students we serve, and it runs afoul of how minds learn." In "The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Teachers," he describes how teachers can tend to their own emotional needs so that they can better cultivate the minds and hearts of their students.
Perhaps a few years from now, when the 2-year-old has grown past the tantrum stage and the teenagers have learned healthier ways to react to disrespect and their own anger over it, they will look back and thank those who guided them to their insights. Only when the development of emotionally healthy children is seen as something that can and should be the responsibility of schools will schools know they have made a breakthrough.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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