Why Do We Ignore the Emotional Lives of Children?

At a summer workshop several years ago, the participants were asked to write in a few words what, as educators, they were passionate about. Without hesitation I grabbed a blue marker and wrote “the emotional life of children” on my sketch paper. I ultimately left the workshop with a visual map expressing my values and journey as a school leader. I have thought about that activity often and recently took the visual map off my office wall as I prepared for retirement after 19 years as the leader of a small Title I middle school.  

So often, when visitors toured our school, they commented on the focus and engagement of our students. I would share with them that behind so many of the children was a heartbreaking story, regardless of the appearance of calm. It was a testament to the resilience of the child and the relevance of the learning environment teachers created that a particular student could work in such a thoughtful way. It was difficult for visitors to imagine that the child they just engaged with was struggling with sometimes overwhelming challenges at home.  

Recently, an eleven year old named David made a presentation to fifteen visiting educators, sharing his math activities using teacher-created online systems to show his work, self-assess and manage his progress. The visitors were very impressed. Was this a screened school that stellar students like David sought out, they wondered?  

What they didn’t know was that David’s life was in disarray.  Nothing he did seemed to gain his mother’s attention. He had learned early that the only thing she would come to school for was an event so disruptive that she had no choice but to respond. Neither the accolades from teachers nor his habitual troublemaking could get a response from her. When we finally could arrange for a meeting, we learned even more.  

David’s home life was dysfunctional in many ways. His mother was overwhelmed by two older siblings, one who was a substance abuser and behaved irrationally. The home was filled with anger and the adults and his siblings were not able to manage their emotions. The housing authorities were threatening the family’s removal from the project if the family couldn’t manage their older daughter and the group of friends she brought around; they were hanging out in the halls and stairwells, starting trouble. David’s mother was overwhelmed, obese and despondent. She was also surprisingly reflective. At one point I asked David to leave the meeting because I needed to talk to his mother privately. I wanted her to see how from the moment the meeting started, she had only negative words to say about her son, even when I was praising David. It was as if she just couldn’t find the space in her weary heart to see what parts of her son’s life were working. This incredibly smart and desperately sad woman had nothing left to give at this point in her life, as her brilliant, charismatic and engaging son bounced from excellent student to provocateur of fights and outbursts. This is the challenge so rarely discussed as we hold forth about which standards, which curriculum, which organizational structure will “reform” education.

With the constant focus on testing, the latest standards, data that presume to quantify everything important about a good education, we rarely discuss the important unmeasurables, including the emotional life of children. Yet, who among us is not aware of how our own childhoods have impacted our adult lives? Do we not think about how we feel about situations in our lives and try to manage our stress levels? Aren’t we dealing daily with the complexities of relationships and choices? How can we expect a child like David to focus his energies fully on learning? How can we think a child knows how to express feelings appropriately and ask for what he needs when the closest relationships in his life are so damaged? The trauma of growing up in a home with enormous stress from finances, violence, drugs, and other dysfunctions, cannot be underestimated. How is it that we rarely create the space and time to truly understand how these complex emotions shape the children we educate and our designs for their learning environments?

Being aware of and responsive to a child’s inner life can be painful for the adults who venture there. But responding with anything less than a dedication to understanding and helping children navigate their young but fragile lives is to not be fully present to their reality.  Schools that are sensitive to the whole child and build meaningful opportunities to nurture and grow the emotions of children are schools we should look to for guidance and inspiration.

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