Tag Archives: social-emotional education

Can We Stop Telling Kids We Want to Teach Them to “Manage” Their Emotions?

Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”

Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’ 

Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.

To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.

It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us. 

Why Even Adults Need Social Emotional Education

So much of the rhetoric I see on social media and even in news commentary these days leads me to believe that we’ve done ourselves a great disservice by not including SEL in our formal school systems before now. One of the most important indicators of mental health and acuity is the ability to think beyond black and white and, if debates around gun violence and sexual harassment, homelessness and social programs are any indication, we are a nation of people who struggle with that skill on many levels.

Many of my friends and peers grew up in households where authority was King; where parents were in control of everything until the kids turned 18 and left. Others grew up in homes with one parent who struggled to manage things by themselves and often gave up, leaving kids to their own devices. Many in both of these scenarios grew up without a notion of unconditional love – there was a sense that if one didn’t toe the line (or got caught), the punishment went beyond being grounded to losing their parents’ love and affection.

If I don’t hold everything together, things will fall apart.

When I first became a parent (and for years afterward), this was my mantra. And on one level, it makes perfect sense. Except that it assumes that the world revolves around me and it puts an awful lot of pressure on me to make everything perfect all the time. The truth is that most things hold themselves together just fine much of the time, and even if they do fall to pieces, it’s not necessarily my fault. And yet, I know so many parents who feel this way – that they have to do everything “Right” in order for life to be ok. I watched my father embody this mantra every single day of his life, believing that if he just did things the way they were supposed to be done, life would go smoothly. The flip side of this is that when things went sideways, he was certain there was some answer out there that he just hadn’t discovered yet, so he had to keep trying. It kept him from learning from his mistakes and improving on his techniques over time because he was sure there was just something amazing right around the corner. It also kept him doubting himself and feeling like a failure because he hadn’t found it yet.

He also struggled with giving his children unconditional love. He taught us that he would love us and shower us with praise if we didn’t screw up. And when we did make mistakes (just like we are designed to), he withheld his affection to show us how disappointed he was in us. In that way, we learned that love was a commodity, not a certainty. We learned either/or instead of both/and.

What we learn from social-emotional education is how to step beyond questions of Right and Wrong, Success and Failure, Reward and Punishment. One of the hallmarks of adult brain development is integration, the ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas or feelings simultaneously. That means that I can be tremendously hurt by something one of my kids did or said and express love and care for them at the same time. I can explain to them why their behavior was inappropriate and out of bounds and acknowledge that the reason they acted that way was because they were in pain. I can express empathy for their struggle and impose boundaries on them simultaneously.

Most of our public conversations center around ideas of Right and Wrong. Our political system is divided in to two opposing parties whose representatives stand for seemingly incongruent ideals. Our popular culture is peppered with sayings like “you’re either with us or against us.” These messages are reinforced in headlines that tell us what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, in the way we talk about pro- and anti- (gun, vaccines, abortion, death penalty), and in our schools’ Zero Tolerance policies around bullying and hate speech. Instead of taking up the mantle of helping our young people learn how to integrate, we are showing them how to further entrench themselves in black and white thinking. I am encouraged that there are more schools whose culture is beginning to embrace social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices and I hope it continues at a record pace. And I think it’s well past time that the adults in this country spend more time and energy learning these things, too, if only so that we can lead by example for our kids.

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

It is really easy to get sucked in to the notion that our children’s best learning opportunities come within the four walls of a classroom or school building. We talk about strategies for educators and examine the curriculum on back-to-school night and ask questions about class size and grading, and all of those things are important, but it is important to remember that their brains don’t turn off when they leave school for the day.

Whether your child is involved in sports or music lessons, the drama club or working a few hours after school, they are learning valuable lessons and we can help them absorb those things by asking questions and expressing interest in what they are doing. Trying out for a position on the team or in the school play is a lesson in courage, not getting it is a lesson in adjusting our expectations and dealing with disappointment. Working on a particularly challenging song is a lesson in perseverance, and getting along with customers and co-workers can help develop patience and empathy. All of these things might seem obvious, but pointing them out to our kids is a way of reminding them that they can always be learning and growing, even if it isn’t in a formal setting.

One of the goals of social-emotional education is to teach kids that they can be the leader when it comes to what they learn. Finding things that interest them and pursuing mastery (and even sometimes simple survival of a situation) is just as important for their development as algebra and history. If we as parents and teachers place just as much value on the things kids are learning outside of school, we reinforce the idea of lifelong learning and let them know that grades aren’t the only goals to set your sights on.

How can you talk to your kids about the non-school things they learn every day?