Skills

Rethinking “Tough Love”

Instead of preparing students to succeed in a world that values compliance, schools have the potential to equip students to build a happier, healthier, more whole world.

The phrase “tough love” is used by many to describe punitive or restrictive actions that are done to someone under the premise of “helping them in the long run” or “teaching them a lesson.” Unfortunately, science shows that these kinds of actions don’t produce the desired results and certainly don’t make the recipient of “tough love” feel cared for.

Trusting students and science

Our current-day educational system has a ways to go in terms of integrating the science of learning and development into practice. What little science and psychology that is integrated into school practice or educator preparation focuses predominantly on cognitive neuroscience and behavioral psychology. The field of social-emotional learning has made tremendous strides over the last several decades and education leaders are beginning to think seriously about developing students’ non-cognitive skills and measuring their social and emotional outcomes.

However, applying a cognitive and behavioral approach to social-emotional learning leads to a search for technical solutions that do not account for the fact that social and emotional skills are not learned like other cognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills like “grit” or “empathy” cannot and should not be taught and tested the same way one would the multiplication tables or the “ABC’s.” Unlike reading, writing, and arithmetic, these skills develop through secure environments built on a foundation of trust and freedom; or they don't—as in the case of so many children who experience trauma, insecure relationships, and other adverse childhood experiences.

Renowned trauma expert and psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk emphasizes the importance of play to engage and heal traumatized individuals stating “the last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play and joyful engagement.” Similarly, a recent ethnographic study of an after-school maker program for high school girls reiterated “the centrality of playfulness, teamwork, and ownership of projects in order to persist through challenges.”

These are not coincidences. Clear outcomes of having secure learning environments and relationships are the ability to problem-solve, self-regulate and make better decisions. Now more than ever, schools should be prioritizing students’ play and exploration.

“The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play and joyful engagement.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

True love isn’t tough, it’s free

Although school systems are predominantly designed for conformity, standardization, and rule-following, there are still ways we can all advocate for more exploration and play in the school environment:

  1. Advocate for arts, athletic and after-school programs. Whether you’re a parent, student or teacher, be vocal about your support of non-traditional learning opportunities.
  2. Prioritize creativity in grading and curriculum. If you’re a teacher, make a portion of your rubric for projects and other assignments based on the creativity and innovation of your student. This encourages students to think outside the box and reiterates your belief in their creativity.
  3. Utilize field trips as opportunities for exploration. Why can’t a math class take a field trip? Take any and every chance to get out of the classroom and have students encounter other places and ideas that might spark their curiosity.
  4. Change recess from a reward to a requirement. As the aforementioned studies confirm, play is one way to heal trauma and jump-start development for kids. Instead of withholding times of self-directed play as a way to punish “bad kids”, leverage recess and breaks as a healthy way for students to unleash energy.

Instead of preparing students to succeed in a world that values compliance, schools have the potential to equip students to build a happier, healthier, more whole world.

About the author

Jasmine Barnes

Partner - Chicago IL

Jasmine studied sociology and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and has experience in community organizing, event planning, multimedia and group facilitation. She is a passionate storyteller and strategic innovator. Written and verbal communication, collaborative problem solving and operational excellence fuel her desire to create a more just and equitable world where underserved and underrepresented populations have access to resources and holistic education.

Get the latest from our blog

Skills

Want to Heal Toxic Stress? Start With Relationships

By adopting co-regulation tactics and secure attachment behaviors, educators can both acknowledge the chronic stress many children are prone to and be a source of healing so students can learn and live with freedom and joy.

Read Article

Secret Sauce

A Conversation with FuelEd Founder, Megan Marcus

FuelEd founder, Megan Marcus, shares more of FuelEd’s history and where she sees the organization going in the future.

Read Article

Secret Sauce

Secret Sauce: A Recipe for Growing Educator Emotional-Intelligence

In our final foundational article of the 4-part series, we take a look “under the hood” to explore just how FuelEd goes about growing emotionally intelligent educators that build relationship-driven schools. Surprise, surprise — it happens through the experience of a secure relationship.

Read Article

Sign up for our newsletter

We're building a community of like-minded folks passionate about the power of relationships.

SUBSCRIBE