Student emotional needs play a huge role in the classroom, and they have never been more artfully illustrated than in the viral “ I wish my teacher knew…” social media exercise by third-grade teacher Kyle Schwarz. This exercise offered students the space to reveal struggles with homelessness, battles with self-esteem and doubts about their future. Understanding students’ circumstances through this context of course helps educators personalize instruction, but perhaps the more significant by-product of the exercise is that it clearly communicates to students that their emotional needs matter.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory stipulating that humans pursue their needs in a hierarchical order, backs this up. According to Dr. Richard Cash, as students dedicate more energy to emotional regulation and response, they are less able to attend to academics (link). It makes sense students would have corresponding difficulty attending to their studies if students struggle with:

  • having their physiological needs met
  • finding a sense of safety
  • finding love and belonging
  • issues of self-esteem

Like those clearly visible and immediate student needs, we should have the same sense of urgency when it comes to self-esteem, rejection, and a student’s sense of safety.

Modeling My Own Apology

As a young teacher thrust in a room of surly fifth-grade students, I struggled to simultaneously teach my students, manage the classroom, and fully respect and respond appropriately to the journey each of my students was on. An incident occurred and a student wished to argue instead of following directions. I stood my ground, attempting to convey a message to the class, but I inadvertently silenced this student. The effect was to dampen his spirits and to eradicate any motivation he and many of the boys had for the subjects I taught. I even believe the incident impacted the way students related to one another, which then actively contributed to a negative classroom culture. My solution was to teach my students the four-step apology, and to start by modeling an apology to my class.

“First, I need to say I’m sorry for the way I spoke to a few of you the other day.” I addressed my students by name, and named the incident. “I didn’t give you much of a chance to be heard and that is not very kind or respectful. In the future, I want to be more patient. Will you forgive me?” The boys were embarrassed by the attention, but nodded anyway. Then another student raised her hand and asked if she could also apologize, so she made amends with a classmate she had argued with earlier in the week.

The exercise changed our classroom culture in small ways I hadn’t expected. I started hearing students apologizing using the four-step method independently. One girl demanded an appropriate apology when one of the boys pushed her out of line.

Real World Learning Matters

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Building Foundational Supports

Begin with resources for your entire class. Resources like EVERFI’s Honor Code and Character Playbook address emotional awareness but allow students to go at their own pace in a low-risk online environment. Depending on your students’ proficiency and interest, this can be a great jumping-off point for classroom conversations. By beginning the conversation, we can initiate a primary support reaching all students and allowing us to tailor secondary and tertiary support based on need.

Attending to the emotional needs of students means eliminating serious roadblocks to educational engagement, but it also means helping students develop the emotional skills necessary to be successful both inside and outside the classroom. Explicitly teaching how to navigate sticky social situations and to advocate for themselves in the classroom provides a good model for future salary negotiations and effective interpersonal communication. If your school encourages students to view and track their grades in real time,students are learning self-regulation and developing a sense of responsibility over their academic performance. And though teachers can’t achieve this alone, whatever we can do to impart critical thinking skills and a baseline expectation of respect and tolerance will ultimately improve our collective future communities.

Get Uncomfortable

In light of increasing rates of community and school violence, high-profile suicides, and self-segregation, we can no longer ignore the vital role that mental health and emotional needs play in human development and in how we relate to the world around us. It is easy for us as educators to complain that parents or society aren’t teaching appropriate manners, basic skills, or good habits, but students are constantly learning from implicit and explicit cues of those around them– and that includes from their teachers. If we are communicating to students that their emotional needs have no place in education, we reinforce the idea that emotional development is unimportant. While taking on something new can be scary, our students are worse off when we ignore their emotional needs altogether due to our own fears or discomfort.

We should educate in a way that recognizes and respects individualities and prepares successful, resilient members of the workforce.

While Social Emotional Learning may seem like yet another educational fad, the goal is the same as it has always been. Whether it’s termed “culturally responsive pedagogy,” embedded in the theory of multiple learning modalities, or teaching the whole child– we should educate in a way that recognizes and respects individualities and prepares successful, resilient members of the workforce. Teaching leadership skills, effective communication, empathy, and mental health awareness are great places to start.


Samantha du Preez is a Senior Schools Manager in Detroit, MI. She is passionate about education, good food, and the arts. She is a connoisseur of fine hobbies and can usually be found creating or playing with her dog, Mr. Darcy.

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