George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How High Is the Wall?

Children’s concerns about comfort, safety, or self-esteem might seem trivial, but your compassionate listening can help resolve small issues or shed light on larger ones.

February 10, 2016

It's hard for children to pay attention to classroom activities when they are worried. Sometimes the things they worry about seem trivial to adults who have learned how to measure significance with so many more years of experience in perspective.

Perception and Reality

Children see things like children, not adults. I remember when I was five years old, there was a huge wall on my street that was too high to climb. I fell the first time that I tried to climb it, and it took a month before I tried again. Eventually I overcame the wall and conquered it.

I returned to that street many years later as an adult. The wall that I feared so much was so small that it barely reached my waist. I laughed, but also took note of the differences in perception between children and adults. Children cannot behave as adults because they are not adults.

That wall is a great metaphor for the differences in how we perceive problems. Adults often see a problem as waist-high while a child sees an insurmountable barrier. To children, especially younger ones, very small issues may seem like life-altering problems. Worry over these problems interferes with their classroom attention and, ultimately, their learning. Time resolves many of these problems, but occasionally the worry that a child is experiencing is a lot bigger for them than we realize. In these cases, a caring teacher might help.

The types of problems that children worry about vary greatly, but they tend to focus on issues related to how they feel physically, how others perceive them, something that might get them in trouble, or doing poorly academically. Perhaps their biggest worry is being embarrassed.

Recognizing the Real Issues

Most times, it's very obvious when a student requires attention. For example, consider the child who needs medical attention, who is being bullied or harassed, or who isn't learning. Non-school issues might include a divorce or a death in the family.

Children face other issues that most teachers simply don't have the time to address. With a curriculum to finish and the relentless pressure of testing, as well as more pressing behavior issues in the classroom, we can't stop to deal with every concern that is bothering every child.

The problem is that while these issues seem small to us, they may be symptoms or signs of a much bigger problem that your student might be unable to express or recognize in a more direct manner. Here are a few examples:

  1. A child who excessively complains about a small bruise or scrape might be telling you that she feels ignored. She might be saying, "Please care about me."
  2. A child who says, "My friend called me a bad name," might be expressing a larger fear of abandonment or that no one in class likes him.
  3. A child who loses a small, unimportant item could be expressing a larger fear that she may get in trouble at home because she frequently loses things.
  4. A child who missed one question on a test may fear disappointment or even shame from parents who expect perfection.
  5. A child who appears to be unusually withdrawn might have recently felt or might currently fear embarrassment.
  6. A child who gets his shirt dirty might fear an angry mother who said, "I just bought you that shirt. You'd better take good care of it.”

On the surface, these fears might be too minor for us to spend too much time resolving. However, if they reflect a possible greater danger in your student's mind, their significance is greatly magnified. The problem is recognizing which incidents are precisely as they seem and those that are worth more consideration.

Observing and Asking

The question here is, "How do teachers differentiate a minor incident that requires no further inquiry from one that is a symptom of a more serious problem?" Here are some suggestions that can help you figure it out.

  1. Talk to the student's parents to see if there's a family issue that might be the underlying cause, or if there's been a change in the student's medication.
  2. Notice if there has been a sudden change in the student's behavior.
  3. Watch for unusual isolation from other students.
  4. Notice if the student seems to demand more of your time than usual.
  5. Notice whether other students are teasing him or her more than usual.
  6. Watch for a change in classroom participation.
  7. Pay attention to sudden bursts of anger, sadness, or crying over nothing.

If you notice any of these symptoms over small issues, take few minutes to ask your student a few questions about these issues, including:

  1. What do you think will happen because of _______?
  2. Has this ever happened before? How did it turn out?
  3. What do you usually do to feel better when you feel this way?
  4. How long do you think that it will take you to start focusing on your schoolwork?

Sometimes further inquiry leads nowhere. Other times, you might find that the wall is bigger than it first appeared. Help if you can, but it may be that just by understanding and caring, you might be giving your student all that he or she needs.

Do you have any strategies for helping students when this happens to you?

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Family Engagement
  • Student Wellness

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