Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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

Crying is an important part of children’s social-emotional development. Instead of demanding that they stop, create an emotionally safe classroom with patience, acceptance, and compassion.

October 28, 2015

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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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • School Culture
  • Student Wellness

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