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Education to Nurture the Heart and Mind

January 13, 2020 - 7 minute read

Two girls in a classroom writing.

“Why was I never taught THIS in school?” I’ve had clients young and old ask me this question. As clients gain a better understanding of their thoughts and emotions, they wonder why they haven’t been taught essential life skills to manage their emotional health.

In my journey as a former elementary school teacher and now a licensed clinical psychologist, I now have a different perspective on what our young people need to learn in the classroom. Yes, reading, writing, and math are all important, but what about education to nurture the heart and mind? Often, it is less about what we tell our young people they “should” do, and more importantly about what reflective questions are we asking to help build resiliency.

We don’t want to further burden our classroom teachers, but perhaps it’s time to discuss a larger systemic, philosophical shift on the purpose of education. As we see anxiety and depression growing at alarming rates in our students, early intervention is imperative. Not just a one-time program or short lesson taught by a school counselor, but an ongoing, integrated practice of these skills. If parents themselves were never taught coping skills to handle anxiety or stress, how can they be expected to teach their own child? Is learning how to write 1-100 and read 30 sight words most important at age five? I believe there are skills that optimize life-long learning and socio-emotional growth for our young people.

I propose the four following concepts would benefit students’ well-being development if implemented into the curriculum. Following each overview is a Teen Extension, which can be used with teens, who have greater peer pressure issues to address and need additional support navigating their daily lives. Also note the use of rhetorical questions and open-ended statements to prompt deeper thought and discussion.

  1. Emotional Regulation. Learning to regulate emotions first entails learning to identify and recognize feelings. Most children are not taught many feeling words beyond sad, mad, and happy. Learning the names and definitions of a wider range of emotions, and then learning how to recognize signs of various emotions in their own bodies, helps children to better understand themselves when they need to self-soothe. Psychoeducation about their brain can help children to self-regulate through learning about the difference between their “reacting brain” and their “thinking brain”. Teaching children to recognize warning signs in their own bodies (using an outline of a human body to draw on) is helpful to start recognizing sensations in different areas of the body. What does it mean when their muscles become tight, or face becomes hot, is this a warning they need to begin to regulate their breath? What does your body need to do then? Perhaps they can learn about diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. It’s important that children are allowed this break without it being seen as “punishment” when they need a moment to better understand what is going on in their mind and body.

    Teen extension: The scope of this article limits my ability to go in depth about each technique, but teens can learn and practice body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness and meditation techniques, or guided imagery techniques. They can also be given opportunities to write a letter to their teacher/counselor about their wishes or needs or fill in the blank sentences, “I need_____”, “I need help_______”. “Something that is hard for me to share is _____”. Understanding their emotions means learning and practicing processing their emotions and thoughts onto paper. Journaling has been proven to help students see and organize their thoughts more coherently.

  2. Anxiety Management - I believe everyone needs to learn about the mood cycle and how thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected. These are basic cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. Many people believe all their thoughts and feelings are 100% true when in fact, often our feelings are not facts. If someone feels unworthy or lacking, the feeling is not evidence or proof that those thoughts are true. Our thoughts affect our mood and our behavior. If I think “I’m going to fail the test”, then how will I feel emotionally? Will it make me more anxious, and what behavior might follow? Will it make my heart beat fast and make me want to avoid school? Children should learn about the many different types of unhealthy thought patterns (also called thought distortions/cognitive distortions) so they can learn to identify and break unhealthy mental habits before it becomes a lifelong issue. Young children can learn about the “anxiety bully” and ways to challenge negative automatic thoughts. Recognizing thought distortions will help kids learn to “think about their thinking” (metacognition) which is much more difficult than it sounds. Many of my adult clients aren’t able to do this without ongoing practice!

    Teen Extension: Again, teens can learn to recognize what thought distortions are (i.e. all or none thinking, predicting the future, maximing) and learn to recognize these distortions in their own daily thought lives. They can learn about the anxiety cycle and anxiety triggers. Tracking examples on a notes app on their phone or in a journal can be a powerful way for teens to catch the unhealthy self-talk or thought distortions and make it a healthy habit to monitor their anxiety. Parents can also track their own negative thought patterns and share with their children ways to challenge the negative thoughts. It’s amazing to me that in my practice, I see teens that are in AP Calculus, but struggle to identify or recognize their own negative thought patterns.

  3. Happiness and Well-Being - Children need to learn about positive psychology research. What is happiness and well-being? Does it mean getting really good grades, making a lot of money, being thin and fit, and owning the latest video games or designer shoes or are these myths that need to be dispelled. Learning about proven strategies to find authentic happiness will most definitely increase well-being and learning. Healthier kids learn better. Research shows that teaching children about the power of expressing gratitude through a journal/out loud, doing acts of kindness on a daily basis, having a sense of purpose, being mindful and present, savoring day to day experiences, and building and connecting in healthy social relationships can lead to increased happiness and well-being. Perhaps these strategies can be integrated into morning meetings to check in on sharing acts of kindness or having a gratitude circle on a regular basis.

    Teen extension: Perhaps there could be a daily practice to share daily gratitudes, kindness projects, or ongoing journal logging such activities. Perhaps students can start “Happiness Clubs” to promote activities that help boost well-being. Brainstorming with teens about their core values and strengths can be a starting point to recognizing what truly matters to them individually. They can then learn how to connect their values and actions.

  4. Critically Analyze Social Media. It is crucial for children to understand the impact social media has on their brains and hearts. Even as adults, modeling for our children and “talking aloud” about the thought process behind our decisions can be a helpful way to build critical thinking skills. Acknowledging to kids that it’s natural to compare ourselves to others, but at what point would it be excessive or unhealthy? An exercise for kids to practice would be to think about what social media/marketing is telling them they “need” while on the flip side, what do they really believe they “need” most in their own lives. This encourages children to reflect on their own values.

    Teen extension: So many of my teen clients have told me that Instagram makes them feel bad afterwards. It gives them FOMO (fear of missing out) and makes them feel like everyone is out doing something more fun than them. Questions to pose to teens. Is every Instagram model/influencer really that flawless and beautiful? Are the products and luxury goods being flaunted really necessary for happiness? Is everyone on their Snapchat really living their best life constantly? Is everyone really having more fun than them? Is it realistic and healthy to constantly desire and want the lifestyles that are portrayed? In an era where standards of beauty are already impossible to meet, our children need to be able to recognize and challenge the often insidious messages that bombard us about beauty, wealth, success, and happiness. As with the younger children, it would be important for teens to reflect on their own values and strengths and what social media is “trying to sell”. Do they really need more of XYZ to find happiness?

Often it is less about the answers we give, and more about the questions we ask our young people to reflect on and to learn from. Again, I often wonder what is the purpose of education and should the purpose of education shift as the mental health and well-being of students shift as well? If we want our young people to be well, then shouldn’t we teach them how to be well?

Caroline C. Lee, PhD is a former public-school elementary teacher. For the past decade, she has been a licensed clinical psychologist. She is currently in private practice in Newport Beach, California where she sees children, teens, parents, and families. She received her Masters Degree in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a PhD in Educational Psychology from Stanford University. Caroline is passionate about the intersection between education, psychology, and the well-being of our young people. She is currently working on creating a happiness and well-being curriculum she hopes to implement in elementary, middle, and high schools.

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