Tools for Educating the Heart

by Jill Eggleton

The day after my mother’s funeral, I went to school, a baffled and bewildered five-year-old.

Everything was the same, yet everything was different.

If social-emotional learning had been of critical importance in those days, the teacher would surely have recognized the need for showing empathy or acknowledged my feelings and emotions. Except it wasn’t, and she greeted me as if the common cold had been the reason for my absence.

If social-emotional learning had been understood then, my teacher would not have instructed the class to avoid speaking to me about my mother. I am confident she was a kind and caring teacher, endeavoring to handle this situation in the best way she knew, for in those days, it wasn’t considered beneficial to express emotions.

Suppress, subdue, silence — that was the approach then for handling emotional trauma.

At the break I joined my friends on the monkey bars. However, one by one they vanished as if they were afraid of ‘catching’ whatever they perceived I had. And so, they left me alone, struggling to understand why I deserved abandonment, not only from my mother but my friends as well. Feelings of emptiness, confusion, insecurity, and desertion began to take root in my being.

If social-emotional learning had been given the same status as academic learning in those days, this would have been a perfect authentic situation for my teacher to help me identify my feelings and use the appropriate tools to cope with my emotions. My classmates would have had the opportunity to practice empathy and to think about the loss from my perspective. If this had been their experience, what would it have been like for them, and what feelings might they have had?

The power of social-emotional learning

We now know that social-emotional skills need to be developed in the early years and practiced continually. These skills, such as managing emotions or how to get along with others, are not prewired in a child — they need to be taught.

Our emotions need to be as educated as our intellect. It is important to know how to feel, how to respond, and how to let life in so that it can touch you.

–Jim Rohn

Research shows that when social-emotional skills are embedded in a school pedagogy, not only does it result in more positive behavior but higher academic achievement. Helping students understand their feelings and the how and why of their behavior gives them confidence and therefore a greater chance to live a more accomplished and rewarding life.

When I first walked through that classroom door as motherless five-year-old, I didn’t hang all I brought inside me on the bag hook. It came with me, into the classroom like a dark shadow. It came with me every day, unresolved and repressed.

Some research says that 60% of children today have had an adverse childhood experience. To me this seems an extreme number, but if this is indeed the case then social-emotional learning certainly is of vital importance.

Teachers making a difference

As I research the effort teachers today are making to implement social-emotional learning in their classrooms, I am filled with admiration and awe and a huge sense of gratitude that this generation of students will be better equipped to handle situations that will inevitably arise as they journey through life.

Glimpsing into some classrooms, I see a multitude of strategies that teachers are using to develop social-emotional learning. I see these skills being embedded in much of the curriculum in contextual and authentic situations, and I am impressed by this natural integration. Positive and social connections make the greatest impact, I believe, when they are integrated with all school learning programs.

My five-year-old grandson George kept talking about ‘filling someone’s bucket.’ When asked by his mother what this meant, he replied, “When you fill someone’s bucket, you are kind. Not to fill someone’s bucket makes them feel sad.“ And then he added, “You don’t fill my bucket when you growl at me.”

This method used in many schools, called ‘Filling Someone’s Bucket,’ is a simple but practical way to nurture the culture of kindness and caring in young students.

Learning through stories

One way to promote social-emotional learning that I particularly love is to use stories.

Research suggests that the human brain responds to fictional stories in much the same way that it responds to real-life experiences. This makes stories a wonderful way to explore social-emotional learning as we empathize with fictional characters in challenging situations.

Stories give children the opportunity to learn from experiences they have never had — including those that arouse strong or difficult emotions — within the safety of a contained fictional world.

Life does not give us dress rehearsals to deal with difficult times, but through books and discussion, children get that opportunity.

–Sherron Roberts and Patricia Crawford

When writing stories for children, I felt it vital to create characters that students could identify with — characters that could help them clarify and name feelings. I endeavored to have storylines that provided opportunities for children to feel appropriate emotions, to empathize, to connect, to walk in the shoes of another.

Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life — become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually become more aware of themselves.

–Zipora Shechtman

I wrote Change Happens with the motive of providing a platform for children who, like me, may have experienced the loss of a mother or have faced some traumatic change in their lives. I wanted them to identify with the story and be encouraged to express feelings and emotions they may have repressed, in a safe classroom environment.

Extract from Change Happens:

There are some days in your life that become etched in your memory forever. The day my mother never returned home from a shopping trip was one of those days. It was a car accident, a fatal one.

That early spring morning, the sun had burst into the sky with happy promises, but then a black cloud blanket wrapped it up and dragged it away.

In one day my world had tumbled, and I had suddenly become different from all the kids in my class. I was the only one with no mother. Other kids wanted to know what it was like. My friends thought it might be cool. I could be like the kids in those adventure stories—wild and free.

But I didn’t feel like being wild and free. The blanket that had blotted out the sun had wrapped me in a black cocoon.

I wanted this to activate discussion—what were the challenges, emotions, reactions—the ‘black cloud’ days? Had they ever experienced such days, and how did they feel? If they hadn’t, what words of comfort could they offer to someone who had?

I continued the story on a lighter note, providing an insight into the nannies who came to look after us and how my brother and I deviously plotted to eliminate them from our household.

Nannies came and went. My brother and I discovered ways to help them go. Putting spiders on their bed was a brilliant idea. Most nannies seemed to be terrified of spiders, especially the ones with long, wavy legs.

I hoped my readers would relate to the attempt at problem-solving and explore different ways of resolving them. Could they view the conflict from the different characters perspectives?

This story based on fact concluded with the one nanny, Aggie, who was impossible to eliminate. She showed resilience, kindness, humor, understanding — despite the way she was insensitively treated. This was the nanny who became my stepmother.

The concluding paragraph reads . . .

In bed that night, I thought about my mother. I could see her face really clearly. Her blue eyes and the way she bit on her bottom lip when she had something important to say. I felt I could hear her say, “Change happens. That’s just the way it is. I will always be your mother, but Aggie will be a great friend.”

That’s when I squeezed right out of my black cocoon.

I wanted students to recognize that change happens — it is part of life, and even from traumatic change can come positive experiences — experiences that will help them grow into more resilient human beings with strategies to cope in life’s ‘black cloud’ days.

I am grateful to have been able to write stories interwoven with opportunities to promote and foster social-emotional skills. Many of today’s students are overwhelmed with conflicting values, and stories have the power to balance these influences.

Nurturing young hearts and minds

One day I was invited to a school as an author to read to children. I opened the book Change Happens and began to read.

A little hand shot up, and trembling lips blurted out, “My mother died.” Images of a distant past flashed into my mind, except now I was the adult, not the emotional child. I knew I had to reach into my tool bag of social-emotional learning built up from years of living and choose that tool of empathy and understanding. I had to acknowledge, not repress. I knew I had to listen to his story.

I gave him my book to keep, and as he went off clutching it tightly, I saw him chatting confidently with his teacher. I know she was acknowledging and accepting his feelings and allowing him to find the words to express them.

The story had served its purpose in providing a platform to help that five-year-old express his feelings, and an opportunity for his peers and teacher to communicate with empathy.

When awareness is brought to an emotion, power is brought to your life.

–Tara Meyer-Robson

In days past, as I experienced, students left behind their feelings and emotions when they entered the classroom door. Fortunately, those days are gone, and teachers are now embracing social-emotional learning and giving students the tools to help them.

I am grateful to the teachers who are showing little George how to ‘fill someone’s bucket.’ I am hopeful that this little five-year-old will have the social-emotional tools to cope with the challenges and be able to navigate through all he will inevitably experience in this journey of life.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.


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