Growing Hearts in our Families and Schools
By Guest Author Lorea Martínez, PhD
My 6-year-old started crying inconsolably a few days ago. “¿Qué te pasa cariño?” (what’s happening, dear?), I asked her. Her response left me cold: “You and papa are always working or talking to each other, my sister is reading all the time, and I don’t have anybody who wants to play with me.”
It was difficult to admit… but she was right. It had been a busy week, and I hadn’t been able to spend as much time helping her with her kindergarten assignments, let alone playing with her. Although my husband and I are at home all the time due to the pandemic and distance learning, the truth is that we hadn’t given her our full, attentive presence. I felt guilty and disappointed with myself.
This situation is not uncommon for families. Young people are grieving losing and being isolated from loved ones, having limited relationships with peers, and increasingly losing a sense of control and normalcy in their everyday lives. They may feel anxious, overwhelmed, lonely or disconnected.
At the same time, parents continue to be challenged by the need to balance work responsibilities with distance learning, lack of child care, systemic racism and social inequities, and most recently, a winter weather crisis. Parents may feel guilty and disappointed—like I did—or they may experience increased stress, anxiety or plain exhaustion.
It is a lot that both children and parents need to navigate. And while these emotions are normal, if we ignore or try to suppress them, they will impact our children’s ability to focus their attention and learn, and our ability to show empathy, exercise patience and be fully present for our children.
A path to grow hearts in our families
In my new book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I discuss the importance of understanding emotions and how they affect learning. “Emotions drive our attention; they influence our ability to process information and understand what we encounter. They can energize our thinking or distract us from our goals.”
In recent years, new knowledge about human development—from neuroscience and the science of learning and development—has demonstrated that emotions and social relationships strongly influence learning (Darling-Hammond & Cook Harvey, 2018.) In fact, affective neuroscientist Dr. Immordino-Yang has found that it is neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts or make meaningful decisions without emotion.
In short, we need emotion for thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making.
Unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe that painful feelings—such as feeling anxious, lonely, depressed, defeated or stressed—are “bad” and pleasurable ones—such as feeling happy, excited, loved, valued or energized—are “good.” For many of us, it’s easier to avoid or neglect those painful feelings, even if they provide important information about our internal weather.
Think about it this way: if it’s raining outside, you take a raincoat or an umbrella to avoid getting wet. You check the weather and then take action accordingly, right? So then, why do we ignore our internal weather and try to “push through” even when there may be a snow storm inside? Or tell our children “get over it”?
Emotions are an important part of being human. We don’t want to ignore or suppress them because they provide valuable data about what is happening inside ourselves and the world around us. As parents, if we want to grow socially, emotionally and culturally competent children, we need to help them to accept and embrace all emotions, including the unpleasant ones.
And if we want that for our children, we need to start the work with ourselves.
It starts with us
Parents model social and emotional skills with their children whether consciously or not. For example, consider what happens when something has angered you and you say something harsh to your children—they learn from this behavior. They may think, “When I am upset, it is okay to express it by saying something hurtful.” Even when we experience strong emotions, we can model for our kids how to name and process our feelings, and then make a different choice.
This is why many schools and parenting experts, such as Jennifer Miller from CPCK, are emphasizing the importance of not only teaching social and emotional skills to children, but also findings ways to support adults in developing their HEART capacity, so they can model them for children.
In my new book, I present the HEART in Mind model, a practical application of essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills for students and adults to be socially, emotionally and culturally competent in their lives. These important skills are represented by the acronym HEART and are organized to show you a developmentally appropriate progression of skill development. In addition, these skills are described using a verb to indicate a specific action, something we can do to put that skill into practice.
In this next section, you will find the first 3 skills in the model-Honor your Emotions, Elect your Responses, and Apply Empathy—and ways in which you can model them at home.
- Honor your Emotions means naming, interpreting and appropriately communicating feelings. Make it a habit to name your emotions and ask your children about their feelings. It could be over breakfast, at the end of the day or when something challenging happens. Consider how the degree of intensity in your emotions may change during the day or when your kids are being cooperative. Encourage the kids to regularly communicate their emotions.
- Elect your Responses means creating space to make constructive and safe decisions. Discuss coping strategies to manage big feelings with your children (go to loreamartinez.com/resources for some examples.) You may share a recent situation when you had to use one of these strategies. Invite the kids to choose one or two that they want to try and remind them to use it when the opportunity arises. When you are having a difficult time, use one of these strategies and share how you did it with your children. Then, when your child is experiencing big feelings, support them to choose one of the strategies and practice it together. Over time, they will be able to use the strategy independently.
- Apply Empathy means recognizing and valuing the emotions and perspectives of others and taking action to support them. This may seem like a difficult time to show empathy, since many people are having a hard time. However, being able to understand how others feel will help us to nurture a sense of gratitude for the things we do have and the people that support us. At home, discuss how different people are experiencing this pandemic (doctors, delivery workers, elderly people) and encourage kids to name the things for which they are grateful. In family life, this can be a wonderful conversation during dinner, where everybody can take a moment to feel grateful for something or someone.
Emotions provide valuable data. By “making friends” with our emotions we are growing our families HEART capacity and planting the seeds for healthier social and emotional development for our children and a more enduring sense of happiness and life satisfaction.
Author: Dr. Lorea Martínez is the award-winning founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence. Her second book for educators, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, is currently available. Previously, she was a special education teacher and administrator. Learn more at loreamartinez.com