This is an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio. And inside of this school there was a student named D. When D started school here he was six years old: cute as a button, with a smile that brightened the entire room. But after a few months in school, D became angry, and that smile faded. D began to do things like flip tables, throw desks and chairs, yell at teachers, stand in windowsills, run in and out of the classroom and even running out of the school. Sometimes these fits of anger would put the entire school into lockdown mode until D could get himself back together, which could sometimes take over an hour. No one in the school knew how to help D.
I know this because I was the principal at this school. And what I quickly and collectively learned with my staff was that this situation was more extreme than anything we had ever been trained for. Every time that D lashed out, I kept thinking to myself: what did I miss during my principal prep coursework? What am I supposed to do with a kid like D? And how am I going to stop him from impeding the learning of all the other students? And yet after we did everything that we thought we knew, such as talking to D and taking away privileges and parent phone calls home, the only real option we had left to do was to kick him out, and I knew that would not help him.
This scenario is not unique to D. Students all over the world are struggling with their education. And though we didn't come up with a fail-safe solution, we did come up with a simple idea: that in order for kids like D to not only survive in school but to thrive, we somehow had to figure out a way to not only teach them how to read and write but also how to help them deal with and manage their own emotions. And in doing that, we were able to move our school from one of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Ohio, with an F rating, all the way up to a C in just a matter of a few years.
So it might sound obvious, right? Of course teachers should be focused on the emotional well-being of their kids. But in reality, when you're in a classroom full of 30 students and one of them's throwing tables at you, it's far easier to exclude that child than to figure out what's going on inside of his head. But what we learned about D, and for kids like D, was that small changes can make huge differences, and it's possible to start right now. You don't need bigger budgets or grand strategic plans, you simply need smarter ways of thinking about what you have and where you have it. In education, we tend to always look outside the box for answers, and we rarely spend enough time, money and effort developing what we already have inside the box. And this is how meaningful change can happen fast.
So here's what I learned about D. I was wanting to dig a little bit deeper to figure out how he had become so angry. And what I learned was his father had left the home and his mother was working long shifts in order to support the family, which left no adult for D to connect with—and he was in charge of taking care of his younger brother when he got home from school. Might I remind you that D was six years old? Can't say that I blame him for having some trouble transitioning into the school environment. But yet we had to figure out a way to help him with these big emotions all while teaching him core skills of reading and math. And three things helped us most.
First, we had to figure out where he was struggling the most. And like most young kids, arrival at school can be a tough transition time as they're moving from a less structured home environment to a more structured school environment. So what we did for D was we created a calming area for him in our time-out room, which we had equipped with rocking chairs and soft cushions and books, and we allowed D to go to this place in the morning, away from the other kids, allowing him time to transition back into the school environment on his own terms. And as we began to learn more about D, we learned other strategies that helped him calm down. For example, D loved to help younger students, so we made him a kindergarten helper, and he went into the kindergarten classroom and taught students how to write their letters. And he was actually successful with a few of them that the teacher was unable to reach. And believe it or not, D actually helped calm some of those kindergarten students down, signalling to us that the influence of peers on behavior was far greater than anything we adults could ever do.
We used humor and song with him. Yes, I know it sounds really silly that the principal and the teachers would actually laugh with kids, but you can imagine the shock on D's face when the principal's cracking a joke or singing a song from the radio station, which almost always ended in a laugh, shortening the length of his outburst and helping us to connect with him in his world.
So I know some you are like, "It's really not practical to lay on this kind of special treatment for every student," but we actually made it happen. Because once we figured out the tools and tactics that worked for D, our teachers were able to roll that out and use them with other students. We began to proactively address student behavior instead of simply react to it. Our teachers actually took time during the lesson plan to teach kids how to identify their feelings and appropriate, healthy coping strategies for dealing with them, such as counting to 10, grabbing a fidget spinner or taking a quick walk. We incorporated brain breaks throughout the day, allowing kids to sing songs, do yoga poses and participate in structured physical activities. And for those kids that struggle with sitting for long periods of time, we invested in flexible seating, such as rocking chairs and exercise bikes, and even floor elliptical machines, allowing kids to pedal underneath their desks. These changes encouraged kids to stay in the classroom, helping them to focus and learn. And when less kids are disrupting, all kids do better.
And here's the magical thing: it didn't cost us a whole lot of extra money. We simply thought differently about what we had. For example, every public school has an instructional supply line. An instructional supply could be a book, it could be a whiteboard, it could be flexible seating, it could be a fidget spinner, it could even be painting the walls of a school a more calming color, allowing students to thrive. It's not that we didn't invest in the academic tools—obviously—but we took the social tools seriously, too. And the results speak for themselves. By taking the emotional development of our kids seriously and helping them manage their emotions, we saw huge growth in our reading and math scores, far exceeding the one year of expected growth and outscoring many schools with our same demographic.
The second thing we did to help our kids manage their emotions was we used leverage. As a not-so-funded public school, we didn't have the support staff to address the chaos that our kids might be facing at home, and we certainly weren't trained or funded to address it directly. So we started to reach out to local groups, community agencies, and even the Ohio State University. Our partnership with the Ohio State University afforded us college students not only studying education but also school psychology and school social work. These students were paired with our teachers to help our most struggling students. And everyone benefitted because our teachers got access to the latest college-level thinking, and those college students got real-world, life experiences in the classroom. Our partnership with our local Nationwide Children's Hospital afforded us—they're building us a health clinic within our school, providing health and mental health resources for our students. And our kids benefitted from this, too. Our absences continued to go down, and our kids had access to counseling that they could access during the school day.
And perhaps the biggest change was not in D or in the kids at all. It was in the adults in the room. Teachers are typically good at planning for and delivering academic instruction, but when you throw in disruptive behavior, it can feel completely outside the scope of the job. But by us taking the emotional development of our kids seriously, we moved from a philosophy of exclusion—you disrupt, get out—to one of trust and respect. It wasn't easy, but we felt at heart, it was a positive way to make change, and I'm in awe at the teachers that took that leap with me.
As part of our personal professional development plan, we studied the research of Dr. Bruce Perry and his research on the effects of different childhood experiences on the developing child's brain. And what we learned was that some of our students' experiences, such as an absent parent, chaotic home life, poverty and illness, create real trauma on developing brains. Yes, trauma. I know it's a very strong word, but it helped us to reframe and understand the behaviors that we were seeing. And those difficult home experiences created real barbed-wire barriers to learning, and we had to figure out a way over it. So our teachers continued to practice with lesson plans, doing shorter lesson plans with a single focus, allowing kids to engage, and continued to incorporate these movement breaks, allowing kids to jump up and down in class and dance for two minutes straight, because we learned that taking breaks helps the learner retain new information. And might I add that the "Cha-Cha Slide" provides a perfect short dance party.
I saw teachers say, "What happened to you?" instead of "What's wrong with you?" or "How can I help you?" instead of "Get out." And this investment in our kids made huge differences, and we continue to see rises in our academic scores.
I'm happy to say that when D got to fourth grade, he rarely got into trouble. He became a leader in the school, and this behavior became contagious with other students. We saw and felt our school climate continue to improve, making it a happy and safe place not only for children but for adults, despite any outside influence.
Fast-forward to today, I now work with an alternative education program with high school students who struggle to function in traditional high school setting. I recently reviewed some of their histories. Many of them are 17 to 18 years old, experimenting with drugs, in and out of the juvenile detention system and expelled from school. And what I discovered was that many of them exhibit the same behaviors that I saw in six-year-old D. So I can't help but wonder: if these kids would've learned healthy coping strategies early on when times get tough, would they now be able to survive in a regular high school? I can't say for sure, but I have to tell you I believe that it would've helped.
And it's time for all of us to take the social and emotional development of our kids seriously. The time is now for us to step up and say what we need to do for our kids. If we teach kids how to read and write, and they graduate but yet they don't know how to manage emotions, what will our communities look like?
I tell people: you can invest now or you will pay later. The time is now for us to invest in our kids. They're our future citizens, not just numbers that can or cannot pass a test.