I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.


Tuesday - Perception vs. Reality

My almost 2 ½ year old son woke up very distraught this morning. We came back from a family trip to Chicago on Sunday night. We had a fun and relaxing Memorial Day Monday at the park with family and friends, and today it was “back to the grind,” and by that I simply mean getting back to the usual routine.

Adam woke up when my wife Kasia was taking a shower and immediately started crying. Imagine a toddler screaming for his mom, angrily kicking his heels, and thrusting his little body upwards when his dad attempts to comfort him. When mom comes into the room he keeps freaking out, yelling at her to take the towel she has wrapped around her head off. He is relentless.

Somehow we get him to calm down...

But then I try to kiss him goodbye and go downstairs to get ready for work. Meltdown! Unrelenting…

He calms down when my wife and I ask him, if he wants to go downstairs with me to eat yogurt. It’s our son and dad thing. Our morning routine. We sit at his tiny toddler table in the kitchen, a 2’6” 24 lb boy and a 6’1” 190 lb man, and we eat yogurt, one for Adam and one for daddy. This is when Adam usually calms down.

I have OUR teaspoons ready on the table. They are the special kind. We even high five with them before eating. I have in the past made the mistake of trying to use a different teaspoon. That was a bad plan on my part. It brought on the wrath of the tantrum gods. But today I had it down!

So I get two yogurt cups, mango for Adam, peach for me. I hand the red one to Adam as I take the cellophane cover off my orange cup and toss it. Bad idea. I should have let him take it off. Now, he’s trying to open the garbage drawer as he’s screaming that he wanted to do it. I never know in these moments if he’s about to throw himself back and hit the back of his head on the wooden floor.

Backup needed. Kasia comes downstairs. She takes the cover out, hands it to him, and Adam tosses it back into the trash. Peace. Can’t yell while his mouth’s full of dairy. He eats his and half of mine for good measure. He’d survive on yogurt, cottage cheese, and sausage alone if he could pick his own menu. All things green are a no-no. Stomach temporarily filled. All is calm now.

Holy shit - that was an action-packed 15 minutes. I exhale…

He’ll be 25 in no time…

Actually, I understand now why my wife often texts me after she drops Adam off at daycare to tell me she feels drained. And she’s about to see 6 or 7 grown-ups with issues of their own. She’s a psychotherapist.

Do I have a difficult child?

No I do not. Adam is the sweetest, kindest, fun-loving boy in the world. But he’s also a 2 ½ year old who, just as any human, has emotions and often gets overwhelmed by them. And, he lets it all go. He mainly does it at home. He gets “a little sad” as his daycare teachers call it, but typically holds it together while out in public.

He lets his emotions out at home, because he feels safe here. And while it’s hard, it’s okay. It’s okay, because Kasia and I understand. We understand, because we love him.

Separation anxiety is a vicious beast to tame. No mom in sight when Adam wakes up? Freak out. Even if she is, he often wakes up angry and starts crying as his unconscious mind is probably warning him he’ll be separated from her later.

I am the first one to leave home each morning and he protests by shaking his head and whimpering: “daddy no school” through tears.

Most of the time though, the fear of being separated from us manifests itself in other, unexpected situations and routines. And, if we don’t look beyond the drama we might never realize it.

And, guess what? The same applies to our classrooms, because all kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, and college students have emotions.

So we must remember that it is never a one act play when a student acts out at school. What’s behind the drama may be a multifaceted multi-act tragedy. Maybe it’s a grandma fighting terminal cancer heartache? Or perhaps the lack of sleep due to the alcoholic father’s middle of the night wake up drill? Or, maybe the frustration of constantly being hungry, or afraid, or both that finally reaches its limit?

And it is often unsafe to let the emotions go at home. Thus, it’s simply impossible for a student to come to school ready to learn the day it all boils over. So the student has to let it all out first.

Whatever the cause, we must remember to separate the behavior from the person, because there are always hidden reasons behind those unfortunate actions. And we must realize that many times these reasons are so heartbreaking that students simply cannot contain emotions once they reach their climax. Finally, and this one is difficult, we must recognize that words or actions of others, that might normally be harmless, can set students experiencing major difficulties outside of school off. While it’s not very empathic to call such students “ticking time bombs,” the analogy describes the situation they find themselves in accurately.

The older we get the better we become in hiding our emotions. We are even more masterful at covering up the reasons behind our emotions. But they are always there. And while we may never be privy to the real story, we must strive to recognize that there’s always something lurking, creeping, damaging beyond the obvious.

We must support the often shamed and powerless child standing center stage, trying to hide his internal struggle from plain view and normalize the outward appearance of self. It will be difficult at times, because we have emotions too and are driven by them. We tend to take things personally when they first happen. It’s in our nature. Our brains evolved to seek out threats and take actions to shield ourselves from them. It takes a lot of energy and deep breaths to look beyond the drama.

My epiphany came on a Tuesday.

And yours?

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