Why aren't our children being heard at school?

Can anybody hear me? 

Six-year old Liam was excited about the new school year. He knew his way around the playground and had lots of friends. But just weeks into first term, the West Australian second grader started coming home from school saying he was dumb and showing symptoms of distress. He was irritable in the mornings and did not want to get dressed for school. He felt sick, repeatedly complaining of tummy-aches.

One Friday afternoon it got too much. Arriving home from school, he started hitting his head with his fist and screaming, “dumb, dumb, dumb”. He was highly agitated and frothing at the mouth. Alarmed, his mother called a private psychologist, who heard Liam’s experience of what it was like in his new class, and he eventually calmed down.

When Liam’s concerned parents met with the principal of the Christian private school seeking he be placed with a different teacher, they were advised it wasn’t an option. The implication was that the problem lay with Liam.

Digging deeper, Liam’s parents found other students had been through similar experiences with the same teacher. Scared of re-traumatising their son by sending him back, Liam’s parents moved him to the local primary school. He is much happier.

Across Perth, at a local public school, first-grader Skye has presented her first “news” item to the class.

Twelve-months ago this was unimaginable.

At the start of her pre-primary year, Skye was a normal five year-old who was shy with strangers. But within a term, she had stopped speaking in class. She felt so scared that she couldn’t speak to answer the teacher’s questions.

When the teacher expressed concerns that Skye had severe learning problems, her parents sought the advice of a private psychologist. It was thought Skye had the anxiety-related condition selective mutism.

At the start of Year One, Skye did not speak in her new class. But with the support of the psychologist, selective mutism specialist and new teacher, who offered discipline and a caring attitude in a structured environment, that all changed within a matter of weeks.

Liam and Skye are just two students whose pain in the classroom went unheard. Without a voice, they developed distress symptoms and were labelled “problem children”.

Students and teachers are engaged at school when they feel capable, listened to, accepted, safe and included. [1] At least one in five Australian students feel like they “don't belong” or don’t like school.[2] A common theme is that children don’t feel heard in class.[3]

Why Aren’t Our Children Being Heard?

The reason children are not being heard in every classroom is that educators are not trained in how to connect with their emotions to enable deep hearing.

Teachers (and parents) often look for a diagnosis to explain disruptive behaviour assuming something is wrong with the child, instead of being interested in the child’s perspective.[4]

Until recently, emotions were thought to get in the way of learning. But research confirms that emotions underscore attention, perception, memory, decision-making and creativity—all essential in education.[5]

Crucially, emotions create and cement beliefs,[6] which drive teachers’ instructional behaviour.[7]

These beliefs are often implicit: teachers don’t know they have them, and may not consciously want to have them.

Basic underlying beliefs that prevent adults from hearing children include that a child is “naughty”, has a psychological disorder or learning disability, or comes from a broken home. Blaming the child is common.

The demands on teachers are greater than they've ever been. However, teachers rarely receive training to promote their personal development: they’re simply expected to arrive at the profession with the emotional skills to create a nurturing classroom.[8]

Current approaches to teacher development do not enrich teachers or students.[9] Teachers need training that supports their emotional development to identify and challenge the unconscious beliefs that drive counterproductive action.

Building Emotional Strength in Teachers

Building emotional strength[10] enables productive change. It allows teachers to confront things they don’t want to see, and to remain open and productive without employing defences such as avoidance, denial and blame.

Here we offer four key concepts of emotional strength to help educators develop this essential 21st century skill: re-defining responsibility; moving towards the pain; emotion and action; and responding with awareness.

Re-defining Responsibility

Emotional strength is based on the assumption that whatever a teacher is experiencing in the classroom is a direct reflection of his/her internal world.

Most of us focus on our external circumstances. When we experience problems we blame someone or something in the outside world. In the examples of Liam and Skye the “problem” is attributed to the child.

Emotional strength involves a major shift in perception. This shift of focus from external to internal involves a reconsideration of our perception of “responsibility”. With an external focus “taking responsibility” generally implies casting or accepting blame—“you are wrong” or “I am wrong.” From an emotional strength perspective, the emphasis is on the ability to respond with self-awareness not on who is at fault.[11]

Moving Towards the Pain

The general sentiment is that negative thoughts and feelings don’t belong in our schools. Principals and teachers are expected to fake positive emotions and hide negative emotions to conform with unspoken rules of what it means to a “good teacher”.[12] But this suppression of negative emotion is not healthy, and is linked with exhaustion and teacher burnout.[13]

Teachers can think they’re hiding their emotions from students but they’re not: students know.[14]

Neuroscience suggests students unconsciously “learn their teacher”, including their fixed ideas and prejudices, through the process of mimesis. If a teacher is disengaged they will tune into that dissociation. If a teacher is engaged moment-by-moment students will share that “aliveness”. [15]

Learning how to re-engage with our emotions generates a shift in our relationship to vulnerability and pain.

Emotional pain becomes something we can embrace as instructive and ultimately healing. This enables teachers to hear a wide range of feedback without triggering a defensive response, for improved performance.

Emotion and action

Teachers may wonder how to be emotionally “genuine” while still modelling appropriate behaviour to students.[16]

Often we think an emotion and the action that follows are the same thing: they are not. In the grip of an intense emotion we might feel a strong urge to take certain action—such as yelling in the case of anger.

Acting out might alleviate the immediate tension, but it can be at odds with our values.[17]

A teacher with emotional strength experiences each emotion fully, positive or negative, without having to act out or shut down. The focus is on feeling the emotion as an internal experience: to be curious about it rather than judge it.[18]

The psychological “space” between emotion and action offers a window for change. It allows us to see habitual defensive and self-limiting thoughts and behaviours for what they are, which is the key to future better decision-making.

Responding with Awareness

When we feel our difficult emotions we broaden our choices. When we avoid difficult emotion through habitual defensive responses we are obliged to repeat the same old patterns.

With emotional strength to feel the full range of our emotions, we can choose to respond in more productive ways. Here we can draw on our values for guidance, rather than simply reacting from fear.

Hearing Children’s Emotions as the Foundation for Learning

Liam and Skye are amongst the fortunate ones. Their distress was ultimately “heard” and they were given the support they needed. Others continue to experience emotional pain at school where teachers are doing the best they can but don’t know how their unconscious beliefs are playing out in detrimental ways.

Principals and teachers with emotional strength can make a profound difference in children’s lives simply by hearing them. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in a child’s life. Once a teacher is taught how, it doesn’t take long and the change in a child’s behaviour can be almost immediate.

When we block our hearts to our own emotions, we block our hearts to the children we teach. Deaf to ourselves, we are deaf to our students. Only when teachers open up and accept their own pain and vulnerability will it be possible to have tender-hearted classrooms.

Building emotional strength requires commitment and practice. But the rewards are powerful, for teacher and student.

To hear someone at a deep level is to offer them a gift. It is healing. Emotional strength is essential to improve the quality of education, and the lives of our children. We urge courageous educators to take up the challenge.

*The names of children have been changed.
The Sharon Faye Foundation is conducting research into the hypothesis that “building Emotional Strength in teachers will improve the academic, emotional and behavioural performance of students”. We are seeking expressions of interest from WA primary schools interested in participating in a 12-month pre-test-post-test study. Teachers will work with corporate psychologist and founding chair of the Sharon Faye Foundation. For more information on the project and/or to register your interest, please contact Tristan Stein on 08 9381 1596 or [email protected]

[1] Tew, M. (2010). Emotional connections: An exploration of the relational dynamics between staff and students in schools. Educational & Child Psychology, 27(1), 129-141.
[2] Thomson, S., De Bertoli, L., & Buckley, S. (2013). PISA 2012:  How Australia Measures Up. Australian Council for Educational Research. https://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-2012-Report.pdf
[3] Tew, 2010.
[4] Sharon Faye, personal communication.
[5] Immordino-Yang, M., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain and Education, 1(3), 3-10.
[6] Frijda, N., & Mesquita, B. (2000). Belief through emotions. In N. Frijda, A. Manstead & S. Bem, Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts (pp.45-77). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
[7] Frenzel, A., Goetz, T., Stephens, E., & Jacob, B. (2009). Antecedents and Effects of Teachers’ Emotional Experiences: An Integrated Experience and Empirical Test (pp. 129-151). In P. Schutz & M. Zembylas (Eds.), Advances in Teacher Emotion Research: The Impact on Teachers’ Lives. Boston, MA: Springer.
[8] Jennings, P., & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491-525.
[9] Jensen, B. (2010). What Teachers Want: Better Teacher Management. Grattan Institute, Melbourne.
[10] Faye, S., & Hooper, J. (2009). Emotional strength: A response type, response disposition and organizing experience for emotion experience. Unpublished manuscript.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Taxer, J., & Frenzel, A. (2015). Facets of teachers’ emotional lives: A quantitative investigation of teachers’ genuine, faked, and hidden emotions. Teaching and Teacher Education, 49, 78-88.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Carson, R., & Templin, T. (2007). Emotion regulation and teacher burnout: Who says that the management of emotional expression doesn’t matter? Paper presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Conference, Chicago.
[15] Neville, B. (2013) The Enchanted Loom. In Emotion and School: Understanding how the Hidden Curriculum Influences Relationships, Leadership, Teaching, and Learning. Advances in Research on Teaching, Vol.18, 3-23, p.17.
[16] Chang, M & Davis, H. (2009). Understanding the Role of Teacher Appraisals in Shaping the Dynamics of their Relationships with Students: Deconstructing Teachers’ Judgements of Disruptive Behavior/Students. In P. Schutz & M. Zembylas, Advances in Teacher Emotion Research: The Impact on Teachers’ Lives (pp.95-127).  Boston, MA: Springer.
[17] Faye & Hooper, 2009, Ibid.
[18] Ibid.