What if I Don’t Want to Teach My Students to Calm Down?

This year, my district has adopted a new social-emotional curriculum. As I have expressed in the past, I have some serious concerns about this specific program and about using pre-written and scripted programs in general. Yesterday, I completed the mandatory online training for this program. There were several things about the program and about the training that were upsetting to me, but one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the repetition of the concept of self-regulation throughout the course of the training.

One of the things that this program prides itself on is that it teaches students to self-regulate. What I think that means is that it teaches children how to calm down when they are upset. Strategies are taught to the children such as taking deep breaths, counting to ten and using positive self-talk. These strategies are to be used by the students and reinforced by the teachers in order to reduce the number of conflicts that erupt into more serious situations.

Now, I think it is great that we teach our students ways to deal with anger. When that anger results from not getting what they want or not winning a game or being jealous of their friend’s new toy, then I think it is great to teach students ways that can help them to calm down so that they can think about the situation more clearly and then find a way to deal with the problem that will help to solve it and not make it worse. I happen to think that these strategies would be more meaningful if they came from the students themselves and if we showed them that no one strategy is going to work for every child, but I do understand the need to help students learn how to calm down in certain situations.

However.

I also think that it is important for us to teach our students that there is a difference between anger that is the result of not getting what you want and anger that is the result of witnessing an injustice in the world. I believe that in school we spend a whole lot more time teaching kids to calm down, when I think our world might be a better place if we spent some of that time also teaching our students how to get angry. But I notice that there are no lessons on that in this new program.

I worry that the message that we are sending to our students is that anger is purely a negative emotion that leads to only negative things. I worry that we are missing opportunities to show our students that anger over injustice can be used to spark social change and to make our world a better place. I worry that we are telling our children that any outward display of anger is bad. I worry that we are teaching our students to think that when they see people who are expressing anger in a way that doesn’t involve taking a deep breath, counting to ten and using positive self-talk then these people are doing something wrong. And I think that is a dangerous message to send to our students.

Because I want my students to know that there are things in this world that are worth getting angry about. I want my students to know that sometimes counting to ten isn’t going to work. I want my students to know that there are things that are worth fighting for in this world and that there are things that are not. I want my students to know how to tell the difference between the two. I want my students to know that there are sometimes when you will need to shout and scream and let your anger show in order to talk about the things that make you upset because there will be so many people in this world who won’t want to listen. I want my students to know that sometimes when they see people on t.v. or in their own lives yelling and screaming and letting their anger show, it is because they have been forced to be a part of a system that has oppressed them for too long and they are tired of not being heard and they are tired of being told to just calm down. I want my students to know that there is such power behind this kind of anger. And I want my students to know that they have no right to judge the anger of other people until they sit and listen and try to understand what people are really so angry about.

And I don’t think that we teach this to our students often enough. I certainly know there are no lessons in this new program of ours that deal with the concepts of using anger to spark social change. And I don’t want to be too cynical, but sometimes I think that we don’t teach this to our students because that wouldn’t make them the kind of students we want. The kind of students who sit quietly and swallow their anger if they feel they have been wronged by a teacher or someone else in power. I worry that we don’t teach our children to be angry because then we might actually have to deal with their anger and the things that they are angry about.

I worry that we spend so much time teaching our students how to calm down that we forget to teach them how to be angry about the injustice. So then, I worry that they will just stop seeing the injustice. Because how can you really look at injustice without getting angry? How can you really see the terrible struggles of this world and not allow your blood to boil? How can you really count to ten and take deep breaths after witnessing the lives that our society forces some people to live? Is that really what we want?

Again, I am not saying there isn’t importance in teaching our students to calm down. I think it is necessary. I think that when dealing with injustice, there is a time to be calm. A time to try taking deep breaths. A time to try counting to ten. But I also think that there is time for anger. And anger that is loud and noisy and sometimes scary. There is a time to be the opposite of calm. And I think we owe it to our students, and really to this world, to teach lessons about both.

And so, I as prepare to head into this school year and find a way to adapt this program to fit the needs of my students, I know that one place that I will be starting is by asking my students to think about times that they need to calm down AND times that they need to get angry. I want us to have conversations about the positive use of anger. I want us to have conversations that discuss the possibilities that exist other than calming down. I want us to talk about the benefits and the dangers of always calming down after experiencing anger. I want us to talk about all of this because I think it will help them to view the world differently. I think it will help them to know that there is not just one correct way of dealing with anger. I think it will help them to stop judging the people they see reacting to anger in ways that are different than their own.

I think, in the end, it will help them to not just be better students, but instead to be better human beings.

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5 thoughts on “What if I Don’t Want to Teach My Students to Calm Down?

  1. I don’t know how you are getting so in my head as of late but you are. I have been pondering how we use the disgust and anger that we see students have in reaction to social injustices…hmm a post will probably come up soon but until then I look forward to reflecting on yours.

  2. Fantastic post. Never looked at it that way but it seems so true! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and offering new perspectives

  3. Great post! These “programs” are part of the one-size-fits-all curriculum that have thrived in an educational model reminiscent of 19th century factory for way too long. (Thanks a lot textbook companies, school districts, and yes, some teachers too). I hope more and more teachers continue to question mandated curriculum and figure out how to individualize and authenticate it for their specific students.

    You write that “there is a difference between anger that is the result of not getting what you want and anger that is the result of witnessing an injustice in the world.” Yes! What a wonderful lesson for students to learn: the difference between selfish and selfless. It could have enormous social and emotional impact on students and society at large. Thanks for composing and sharing these thoughts.

  4. You make an excellent point. Anger, like any emotion, is neither positive nor negative, it just is. When we feel it, we have to know what we’re feeling, try to think critically about why, and then imagine a response that will be positive. We can’t do any of that if our emotions are out of control. The program the students will be learning should be the first step to dealing with anger, which is not letting it control you. It seems to me that your point is more about what the next steps are, and seem to be missing from the training the children will receive. A good question for students to consider here would be, “What is the difference between anger and indignation?” Thanks for the post.

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