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Just Breathe

Heather Rogers, Middle School Head at Prospect Sierra, reflects on a lesson from her son.

By Start Empathy

December 3, 2012

Editor's Note: This post was originally published here on Changemaker School Prospect Sierra's website under "Community Stories."

“Mommy, I think you should use your Breathing Tool.”

So said, Alex, my kindergartener, as I frantically raced through the back streets of Berkeley, cursing under my breath, clenching the steering wheel, snapping at my boys, all the while attempting to get them to their soccer matches on time. My efforts were in vain as we arrived late. I was harried and impatient—not one of my finer parenting moments.

Yet Alex’s words grabbed me, and I immediately shifted my emotions. “Thank you, Alex, for your reminder,” I calmly replied, and I pulled over. We each put one hand on our tummies and the other on our hearts, and together we breathed deeply five times.

From the mouth of my babe I was brought back to center, to what’s most important—regulating my emotions so I’m present and connected to others, my environment, and myself. The hustle and bustle of working parenthood can sometimes unnerve me. I’m awed to be reminded by my five-year-old, who regularly makes use of his Toolbox, that I have a Toolbox available, too.

Regulating emotions is a critical life skill, and yet it’s not something that has been deliberately taught. Traditionally, school has been a place for reading, writing, and arithmetic, not “touchy-feely” social emotional curriculum. However, it’s become evident that success in adulthood has direct correlation to emotional literacy. In Daniel Goleman’s book Primal Leadership, he speaks to organizational research of adult financial success where social skills improved adult financial success 110%. Even more impressive, self-regulation skills improved adult financial success by 390%. Hence, mastering emotions pays off.

The greatest athletes deliberately regulate emotion because they know it’s the key to peak performance. During the 70’s, sports psychologist James Loehr’s work proved just this point. Loehr wondered what separated the top-ranked tennis players in the world from the rest of the pack. Loehr’s groundbreaking study proved there were many more athletically talented athletes on the pro circuit, beyond those who made the top fifty spots; however, those in the top fifty mastered regulating their emotions in the 25 seconds between points. Knowing how to regulate emotions fosters champions.

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At Prospect Sierra, we know emotional literacy is a 21st century skill, and we make a K-8 commitment to it. At Tapscott, the social emotional health curricula have helped students recognize their own feelings and how they can be in charge of their own emotions. The Toolbox curriculum is just one of the programs empowering kids with concrete tools, when developmentally, students are concrete thinkers. My son Alex is a perfect example. By the second week of kindergarten, he was naming his emotions and using a tool he had just learned that week, and he was teaching it to others … namely me. Having access to something tangible like the Breathing Tool and the Garbage Can, is developmentally perfect for the K through 4th grader.

More recently, both the Tapscott and Avis campuses have integrated the RULER Approach into our emotional literacy programs. It provides an excellent framework, vocabulary, and more tools to add another layer to the curriculum. The RULER Approach, too, asks students to Recognize,Understand, Label, Express, and finally, Regulate emotion, as the acronym implies, and this is necessary as children become more abstract in their thinking in middle school. While the “cool” 8th grader may be reluctant to announce her use of the Breathing Tool, she is definitely, when given the opportunity and trained in reflection, able to understand and articulate the sophisticated nuances of her emotions and those of others.

With my “parent hat” on, I’m delighted that both my boys are learning great tools to regulate their emotions. With my “division head hat” on, I’m inspired by the work and commitment from our entire staff to learn, practice, instruct, and coach both kids and each other in the critical emotional literacy tools that ensure success.

With that, I’m going to pull out my Breathing Tool and practice.