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.