That’s what this post is about: how to teach emotional literacy to boys so they don’t have to bottle up their feelings. This post was written by Lily Howard Scott, who until recently taught in Brooklyn and who now lives and teaches in Washington.
Scott says it is important for educators to develop curriculum that melds academic, social and emotional learning. She also says classrooms should feel less like fact-dispensing assembly lines and more like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: intellectually exciting spaces in which children can connect with one another, explore their inner lives and develop greater self-awareness and empathy.
Scott says she has discovered that helping students become emotionally literate does not distract from academic achievement, but is a catalyst for it, as students with deeper inter- and intrapersonal understanding develop into “more sophisticated readers, writers, and critical thinkers.”
All students benefit from learning how to navigate their emotions but boys have a special need because of societal norms. She argues that educators should lead the way in teaching and inspiring emotional literacy.
Here’s her piece.
By Lily Howard Scott
There’s a gift shop in Brooklyn that knows its audience well. In the window, sequined pencil cases and T-shirts shout “Girl Boss” and “Fearless Female Warrior.” When two of my third-grade students walk into the classroom wearing identical “Strong Is the New Pretty” tank tops, they high-five one another. I beam, feeling uplifted and a bit smug — yes, girls, you are powerful and proud! Did my teaching embolden you? (Answer: No. These two were born in Park Slope and have been railing against the patriarchy since preschool.)
I turn to their male classmates and wonder: Will any of them ever don a “Sensitive Is the New Strong” backpack? An “Emotional Warrior” T-shirt? A “Vulnerable Vibes” beanie?
In the age of #ShePersisted and #TimesUp, many of us are thrilled that girls are, well, behaving more like boys: challenging authority and speaking their minds. Thank goodness we’re broadening our understanding of what girls can do and be. But while we’re eager to celebrate girls who display traditionally “masculine” virtues like courage and assertiveness, we haven’t been as quick to celebrate boys who embrace traditionally “feminine” qualities like introspection or vulnerability.
This asymmetry is just another manifestation of sexism: As Sarah Rich recently observed, when we “send a message to children that ‘boyish’ girls are badass but ‘girlish’ boys are embarrassing, [we] are telling kids that society values and rewards masculinity, but not femininity.”
If emotional literacy — the ability to identify, understand, and express our feelings and to empathize with the feelings of others— is to be gendered as “feminine,” we’re in trouble.
Michael Ian Black warns that emotionally stunted boys become dysfunctional men who remain “trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”
But cultural and economic changes have diluted that power and left many men feeling insignificant and angry (if not downright obsolete). It’s no surprise that quite a few have taken comfort in far-right movements and misogynist Internet subcultures.
On a less dramatic note, I know plenty of men who seem well-adjusted but are emotionally illiterate. They try to suppress their insecurities and anxieties, but when those feelings inevitably bubble up, these men don’t understand them, can’t name them, and are therefore at their mercy. Unable to communicate productively, they shut down or lash out.
It’s critical that we find a way to give America’s boys the tools to wrangle with their inner lives. How can we normalize the language of emotional literacy before it’s too late?
According to the inimitable (and aptly named) Fred McFeely Rogers — T.V.’s Mister Rogers — we need to start early. Testifying before the Senate in 1969, Fred Rogers insisted that young children need to learn that their “feelings are mentionable and manageable,” and that talking to children about the “mad that they feel” can be the first step to their learning how to navigate tricky emotions.
Parents can have these conversations with their children. So can therapists. But these options only work when families are aware of and interested in tackling this issue.
Who’s left? Happily, someone who spends about 1,800 hours with young boys every year: their elementary-school teacher. Responsible for the holistic education of students during the most formative time of their lives, a lower-grade teacher has a particularly powerful platform for reaching children because she’s with them all day long. And a second- or third-grade boy, not yet paralyzed by self-consciousness, is an enthusiastic and impressionable being.
If his teacher models how to identify her feelings, how to share about them with others, and how to manage them, he’ll listen. If she asks him to do the same, he’ll give it a try.
Through role-playing, writing and talking about his emotions, he’ll learn how to name and categorize them. He may even discover how to recognize his personal predilections and patterns, how to interrupt negative self-talk, and how to quiet his anxieties. Perhaps most importantly, by listening to his classmates share about their inner lives, he’ll realize that his worries and insecurities aren’t unique to him.
He’ll feel less alone, and he’ll develop a heightened sense of connectedness with, and empathy for, the experiences of others.
Although this sounds like a tall order, it’s possible. Determined to try to Mister Rogersify my teaching, I recently integrated emotional literacy instruction throughout my language-arts curriculum. My 8- and 9-year-old students created maps of their “inner swirls and outer shells” — what they feel and how they believe others perceive them, respectively — and used those maps to inspire poetry writing.
As the children shared about their fears, hopes and wonderings, they marveled at the assumptions they had made about one another and at their unexpected connections.
One boy cautioned his classmates not to underestimate him: “just because I’m disabled/ doesn’t mean you can win every battle/ just because I have glasses/ doesn’t mean I’m blind.” Another explored the pressures he feels to act in different ways with different people: “they are my true friends/ who I dare show both sides of me to.” And a third boy taught us all a lesson in dealing with anxiety: “if you think focusing on your worries is gonna help/ it really isn’t/ so let them do their thing/ and eventually/ poof/ they’ll be gone.”
While this introspective work resonated with all my students, I was pleased — and frankly a bit surprised — to find that many boys were especially eager to jump into it. They seemed thrilled to discover that revealing their “inner swirls” didn’t alienate them from their peers but actually connected them to one another more deeply.
Some might question how my class spent its time. Plenty of people seem to think of a teacher’s job as dispensing facts and taking responsibility for test scores and other readily quantified indicia of “achievement.”
But I think it’s at least as important to invest in forming functional human beings as it is to impart readily available knowledge and soon-to-be-automated skills. And emotionally literate students are generally more sophisticated readers, writers and critical thinkers than their classmates who haven’t yet learned how to cope with anxiety or self-doubt — when faced with an intimidating assignment, these ill-equipped children tend to withdraw or give up.
Lower-grade teachers are some of the most thoughtful interventionists I know. They can boost a student’s reading level or transform a child’s attitude about math.
So why don’t we reconceive what they’re capable of and train them to expressly teach children to identify, express and manage their feelings? Public and private schools spend thousands of dollars each year on professional development. This fall, I’d encourage administrators to prioritize something a bit harder to quantify than test scores, but just as vital: the emotional lives of America’s kids — especially its boys.