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Let the Child Cry: How Tears Support Social and Emotional Development

Diana Rivera

Where education, creativity and psychology intersect is where I play, profess and provide professional services!
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A closeup of a young boy with his head down, tears trickling down his cheeks.

The classroom is one of only a few primary places in which children can develop sense of self, communicate, and grow in relation to others. Any educator will attest to the fact that it is not a simple ride. Children experience conflicts and growing pains that can be challenging for a teacher who is balancing instruction with individual learning and group dynamics. In my work in education, I am fortunate to interact with a diversity of children and teachers in any given week, enhancing learning through the arts. This affords me the opportunity to observe a variety of class dynamics between teachers and students.

Why We Cry

Recently, I was working with an elementary-level class, and one of the children began to cry when conflict erupted between him and another child. I overheard the teacher demand, in front of the class, that the student stop crying. As all the other children turned to look, the teacher firmly stated, "You're not a baby any more." The little boy was struggling to hold in his tears because there was no safe space for the acceptance of those tears, nor inquiry as to what prompted them and their importance. I left that experience reflecting on countless other times that I've heard such phrases. It's as if, after a certain age, the child should know how to regulate tears and the underlying reasons for which one cries, or as if tears are only indications of what babies do. Those are damaging expectations in the face of how tears function for emotional and mental well-being throughout our lifetime.

Tears have many biological and psychological bases that have been discovered through research. Some of those reasons are noted here:

  1. Tears may reflect attachment styles. For example, individuals who are more comfortable expressing emotions tend to cry in ways that are considered typical and healthy, while those with insecure attachment may cry inappropriately (refer to research by psychotherapist Judith Kay Nelson, PhD).
  2. Tears serve as an important communication tool, allowing one to show his or her need for support (refer to research by psychologist and neuroscientist Robert R. Provine, PhD).
  3. Tears are an exocrine process, and it's been suggested that they can relieve stress by expelling potentially harmful stress-induced chemicals from the body (refer to research by biochemist William H. Frey II, PhD).

Furthermore, tears seem to be a primary way for individuals, over a range of developmental periods, to express and regulate primary emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, and joy. In most cases, when the emotion is felt, tears are the initial and authentic response.

If tears are necessary, why is crying in the classroom so difficult to deal with? There is a lack of advocacy for tears, which amounts to a much larger systemic issue. By that I would assert that tears are looked down upon as a sign of weakness, a symbol of vulnerability in a society that is unable to healthily respond to emotions. Tears also bring up other people's core emotions (sadness, frustration, etc.), and any teacher could fear -- whether conscious or not -- that it increases emotional chaos for others, particularly oneself. Teaching is a vulnerable system with many moving parts, and a crying child could represent a system in collapse.

4 Ways to Stop Fighting the Tears

Allowing someone to cry without quieting him or her down supports the expression of that person's emotional response. The emotion is able to move through its natural cycle. This has value for the individual, the classroom dynamic, and society at large because it honors emotions of all kinds. It also shows compassion that humans are multi-sentient and emotional beings who deserve a safe space in order to complete an emotional experience. I offer four tips to support the allowance of and discussion around tears:

1. Hold the space.

Children need space and time to experience the initial response of the emotion and feel it all the way through. Be open to the amount of time that process takes without rushing them.

2. Acceptance overrides demands.

Demanding that students refrain from crying goes against their natural process of assimilating information. Rather, use your own energy to accept these core emotions as a basis for students' learning.

3. Be compassionate and open.

The crying child may want to share the reasons for those tears and, in some cases, may not be completely able to, as the emotion from one experience can lend itself to crying about an associated experience moments later. Listening with open and compassionate ears takes into account the complexity of tears and human experience.

4. Create an emotionally safe classroom through discussion and brainstorming.

Depending on the grade level, teachers can help students identify a range of feelings that may come up in response to different challenges, and express acceptance for them. If norms are desired, perhaps those could reflect tolerance and empathy.

I want to acknowledge that these tips may be difficult to carry through in any relational dynamic. It may or may not match the culture of your classroom. What are your thoughts on the topic? What tips do you have to offer?

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Diana Rivera

Where education, creativity and psychology intersect is where I play, profess and provide professional services!

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"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

A very interesting post. I am dealing with this dynamic in Secondary Science Classes. Thanks for writing and posting this. Just a few days ago, a teacher asked me why I was letting childish behavior take place in my classroom. I took a student outside the class to let him process his emotions. It is the only proper thing to do even when classmates think it is childish. I had to stop the lesson and go into a muture discussion as to why crying is important to the healing process and emotional development. In the elementary grades, crying is even more important for emotional development. Just look to the ex-House Speaker of the US House Representatives, and you can see why crying is important. Again, thank you for sharing this post!

CKL_Lit17's picture

Thank you for sharing this information. I am teaching second grade this year and have a couple students that cry when they are having a hard time. I understand the crying, but have been trying to work with the students and let them know that they also need to use their words to express the feelings. This was a great reminder when working with students.

Kate Orson's picture

thank you so much for writing this. The director of my the school where my husband teaches shared this with his teaching staff, and i"m so happy the message about crying is getting out.
I am a parenting instructor with an organisation called Hand in Hand parenting, and one of the main messages we share with parents is that emotional release is okay, and that it will improve your child's ability to think, co-operate and learn. If any parents want to learn more they can visit www.handinhandparenting.org. I wrote my own article about crying here, which includes an example of a boy who I was babysitting who could learn better after having a tantrum. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/01/the-healing-power-of-tears-a-pare...

Venus's picture

This post is so relevant to my work as a counselor. I would love to share with a few teachers. How can I print this post to share?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Venus, if you click the "+" button at the top of the post (you'll find it to the right of the "P Pin" button), you'll bring up a wide range of sharing options, including a print button.

Mary Hyde's picture

I have found, in teaching elementary level art, that many times crying is a reaction to frustration. Frustration is often a response to being in the process of a brand new learning experience. I conference with my students privately to guide them through this difficult time. I use the crying episode as a learning experience to help them understand their frustration, and that it's really a good thing because it means their brain is in the process of growing and they are learning something new. I teach them how to process through the frustration, how to take a step back from the situation by going to get a quick drink of water, take some deep breaths, go look out the window for a minute, talk it out with a helpful shoulder partner, etc... We treat frustration very respectfully in our art studio because we understand that it means we are learning something new, and that's what it's all about.

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