How Do You Respond To Tears?

Just over a week ago, Stuart Shanker tweeted this post about tears and letting children cry. Since initially reading the post and then discussing it in our Foundations In Self-Regulation Course, I’ve been back to re-read this post many times. I totally understand what the author is saying, and I can relate. When I’m feeling really stressed, I often cry. I can’t help myself. The tears just come. As an adult, I’ve struggled with tears. On the one hand, releasing my feelings in this way, helps. I often feel better after crying, and I can then put the problem into perspective and work towards solving it. On the other hand, I feel badly about crying. I’m a grown-up. I’m a teacher. I should be able to solve my problems without tears. Why do I think this way? Are tears a sign of weakness? 

As somebody that’s certainly shed many tears in my life, you’d think that I would be very accepting of crying in the classroom, but the truth is, I struggle with it. The classroom environment can seem so calm, and then, all of a sudden, there’s a piercing scream, and you can hear the crying start. The crying’s loud. It’s constant. And I can feel my own stress level increase. I want to say, “Stop.” I want to say, “Use your words.” I want to say, “Tears won’t solve the problem.” But then I read this article and what the crying may mean, and I can’t respond in this way. 

It was with this article in mind, that I did something differently the other day. I was working with a group of students over on the big carpet, when I heard the crying start. I looked over, and near the paint table was a student, standing there, with big alligator tears streaming down her face. I walked over to her, and she was trying to talk, but it was difficult to make out the words in the midst of the tears. That’s when I thought of a solution that a fellow teacher in Shanker’s course shared with me. I took this child’s hand, and together, we walked over to our quiet corner. I handed her a big stuffed penguin — her favourite animal — and she took it and cuddled it tight. Then she lay down on one of the big pillows and closed her eyes. I watched her. She held that penguin and fell asleep. She didn’t sleep for long — about 20 minutes at most — but when she woke up, she walked over to me, and said, “I fell asleep. I was crying. I feel better now.” With that, she went off to play, and those were the end of her tears for the day.

Maybe the crying soothed her. Maybe she needed a nap. Maybe she just needed an opportunity to reset and start again. All I know is that this was not the first time that this child has cried before, and usually, I’ve responded differently. I’ve encouraged her to “stop crying.” I’ve tried to get her to “use her words.” And no matter, what I’ve said or done, the tears have continued, and often for a while. The tears stopped the other day though, and within a couple of minutes. The student soothed herself. I can’t help but wonder if this student maybe needed some quiet time most of all. 

Crying may still sometimes put me on edge. Maybe it’s because I hate seeing a student so upset. Maybe it’s because this response triggers in me my own experiences with tears. Maybe it’s because, in a Kindergarten classroom, crying tends to breed more crying, and as one educator, I sometimes wonder how I can manage multiple sad students. I’m hoping though that I can think back to what happened the other day, and how a soft animal and some space, helped a child when she needed it most. How do you respond to tears? Why do you make the decisions that you do? Sometimes, I wonder if we could all do with a good cry.


12 thoughts on “How Do You Respond To Tears?

  1. Aviva,

    Sometimes we all just need a good cry – emotional release is important especially for little ones that can’t quiet express all that they are feeling.

    Giving your student support, time and a quiet space sounds like just the right thing to do in this situation. you may never know what started it all, hurt feelings, tiredness or things just being “too much” in that moment, but the support through it that you provided was just right.

    I often allow students to keep crying. Talking to them in a soft voice and helping them to name the feelings. I had one such instance with a grade 3 student just yesterday. The class was learning to use a new iPad app and they were working in partners to explore and create a presentation. There was some great work done and when it came time to sharing with the class one boy shared the work of his partner when he was asked not to. The young man ran out of the room and was found crying in the hallway hiding under his jacket. The class actually learned a lot from his presentation. Of all the ones shared it was probably the best to show all the cool things available on the app. When I talked with him and identified/labeled his feelings and told him it was OK for him to feel that way he quickly stopped crying. He was then able to talk about the situation more objectively and realized that he did teach the class some great lessons. He returned to class and finished off his day without further issues.

    Sometimes we just need some kind words and a safe space to help us manage with “big feelings”.


    • Thanks Sarah for the comment and for sharing your own experiences. I love the idea of naming the feelings as well. I wonder if sometimes we say, “use your words,” but the students don’t really have the words to use. I think about the tears that happen when students are playing, and one child takes another child’s toy. Having the adult there to talk through the problem with the children could be so beneficial. I must say that after modelling statements such as, “It makes me sad when …,” I notice the students using these statements more in their play interactions. I think it’s wonderful how the Grade 3 student in your example had your support. Your calm tone and use of labels really seemed to help him out.

      I’d be curious to know how other educators and parents respond to tears!

  2. I teach 6th grade boys in a private, Christian school, and we have lots of tears. I’m okay with their crying, but it does bring out the empathy in me. I usually respond by saying something along the lines of “take a minute, go to the bathroom, wash your face, and try to compose yourself; then, you can come back and get back to work or we’ll talk about it.” I’m not sure that’s the best way to handle it, but it’s what I usually do. I don’t think crying should be shamed, but I do think it is a personal response that most of the time should happen privately. That probably makes me “old school,” but that label won’t make me cry. 😉

    • Thanks for your comment, Philip! I can see what you’re saying. I wonder what the students think when you say this. Are there any students that might be crying in order to communicate? I don’t know this age group as well, especially in an all boys school. I know that with my Kindergarten students, many are crying as a means to communicate, and having the chance to cry, but also the modelling on how to talk through some problems, is important. I’d be curious to know how others respond to tears in older grades. We hear about crying less in these grades, but I’m sure that it does still happen.


      • You raise a good point that the tears may be a way they are trying to communicate. I’m not sure what I think about that. I’ll confess that sometimes the crying feels manipulative to me. And while I definitely empathize with the teary-eyed boy, I feel like sometimes I see tears when it’s just not warranted.

        • Thanks for the reply, Philip! I’m not going to lie: I’ve wondered similar things in the past. Slowly though, my thinking is changing the more that I read and learn about self-regulation. Have you read any of the work by Stuart Shanker or Dr. Ross Greene? It really makes me think differently about the child’s intentions, and I think then my response is different too.


  3. I am not familiar with their work, but I read the Edutopia article. Want to point me to a few articles you feel have been particularly helpful? 🙂 I should probably clarify that I only ask a crying child to excuse himself when I feel he’s becoming excessively disruptive or distracting for the class. A few tears are no problem, but a full-fledged fit is another story.

    • Thanks for the reply, and for clarifying! I do think that Shanker’s and Greene’s work are both worth reading (when you have time to delve into their books). They both gave me a different perspective, and I find that my internal monologue — when there is a problem now — is very different. I’m looking more to what may be causing the problem, how the situations can change, and how we can involve the student in the solution. I’d definitely have a look at Shanker’s website — There are some fantastic printables with a good overview of self-regulation. This is not just connected to the crying article, but more the topic in general. Hope you find the articles useful! This continues to be an area of learning for me.


  4. Dear Aviva,

    I simply love your writing style and post !

    How lucky this student was to have you in this instance with your calm and empathetic response. As a crier myself, I have often fallen asleep through my tears and woken up feeling better. Hadn’t really thought about “needing to cry,” but I guess sometimes this is how we cope with our stress.

    Look forward to your next entry !



    • Thanks for the lovely comment, Joanne! I feel the same way about your writing style, and always love reading your posts.

      I must admit that this is not always the way that I’ve handled tears, but seeing this student’s response reminded me of how important it is to respect this crying. In follow up to this post, yesterday morning, this child came in upset, and right away, she grabbed the penguin, lied down for a few minutes, and then chose a quiet activity to start the day. I loved how she found what she needed to calm down.

      I really appreciate the kind words and you sharing your own experiences with tears!

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