Thom Markham

Only Whole Children Can Make Schools Safe

In the long term, there is just one answer to the problem of school safety: more love. The short term solution, on the other hand, lies in the unhealthy mix of force, fear, guns, security, locks, and other devices meant to barricade our children from a small, but obviously lethal, subset of the population.

I'll leave the short-term answers to parents and politicians. Instead, let's support advances in education that take us closer to the ultimate goal of raising, nurturing, and educating children who feel psychologically safe. That, really, is the sole purpose of whole child education.

The formula is simple. Feeling safe is the central feature of feeling secure. Secure people do not feel afraid, except in the face of dire circumstances. In the absence of fear, positive emotions bloom. When positivity reigns, the brain responds by becoming more expansive, creative, and open to ideas. Emotions stabilize. The terrible effects of isolation, loneliness, depression, withdrawal, and other outcomes of emotional dysfunction disappear or are resolved. Many fewer people feel compelled to murder a child. Those who do receive compassionate help from a greatly enlarged safety net of understanding, emotionally mature adults.

The foundation for this transformation is love. However, I don't mean a kind of greeting card, Valentine's version of love, as in, "Oh, aren't little children just the sweetest little souls? I just love all of them!" Rather, I suggest that it's overdue to recognize the hard science informing us that care counts. It's time, really, to get out of our own way by integrating the most recent evidence-based findings about positive emotional development into schools and make healthy emotional development the centerpiece of learning.

Until society is willing to turn that corner, unsafety will plague us. With that in mind, here's my list of simple ideas for educators to embrace that reflect the science of the second decade of the 21st century. These findings point us toward designing schools as havens of safety and seedbeds for stable individuals who can be beacons of love throughout society and the global village:

Emotions and thinking are not separate. The 200-year misconception that emotions and cognition are separate has been disproven. The brain is an integrated organ that processes thoughts and emotions simultaneously. In fact, positive emotions help power the frontal cortex. Rather than an academic downside, a greater focus on the emotional health of young people will result in better performance, particularly in areas like 21st-century skills and critical thinking. See Barbara Frederickson's book on Positivity for the evidence.

The brain changes with the culture. There is no greater story at the moment that brain plasticity. Neurons change every millisecond, and the neural pathways work as fast as they can (and they're fast) to adapt to new surroundings and the incoming culture. Everything about schools should be reviewed in this light. What messages do the hallways and the classrooms send to the brain? What is the atmosphere and climate of the school? Is nurturing the norm or the exception?

Let go of the brain. Now for the flip side—not everything occurs from the neck up. Recent science shows intricate connections between the heart, gut, and the brain. Fear registers in the heart before the brain, and then communicates via the vagal nerves. The body acts as a sensory organ for safety—and the brain follows the lead. More fear equals less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the favorite part of the brain for any teacher (that's where attention and learning take place). In other words, holism is a reality, not a wish.

Emotions and physiology are one conversation. When you see a child in emotional distress, that means the child's body is not working optimally. For example, stress is an over-mobilization of the natural resources of the body (too many hormones, at abnormal levels, and a high octane sympathetic nervous response). The good news is that by calming the physiology of the body, we also alter emotional states.

Emotions are good, not bad. Research into positive emotions is shaping up as the next big advance in science. The old model of emotions, focused solely on survival mode, is a legacy from the caveman days. We've evolved; now science has confirmed that humans who generate and experience emotions such as contentment, joy, inspiration, and love respond by becoming more fulfilled, higher-achieving people.

Relationships change emotional states. The connections between us and others alter emotional states. The mind, in fact, is not just within us any longer; it's somewhere in that space between us, as Daniel Siegel in Mindsight shows us. The constant interplay takes place subconsciously, either through mirror neurons in the brain or energetic exchange. Regardless of the mechanism, it's now clear that humans communicate in real time, at all times, on an emotional level. Every message from teachers, conveyed through facial expression, body language, words, or hidden assumption, carries weight.

Stress and challenge differ. Love does not preclude challenge, meaning you can still test children to figure out what they've learned. But it does tell us that removing the unnecessary stress of learning is a good thing. Constant testing invokes stress; a few meaningful exams pitched as a way to understand the gaps in your knowledge stirs up challenge. Here's one clue to the difference: Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing the armpits to perspire and one set of muscles in the face to contort; challenge brings a blended response of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems—and a genuine smile.

Mindfulness works. Whether you choose mindfulness, meditation, or heart-focused breathing, they all work. Each dissolves stress and liberates a calm, safe feeling that leads to positive health and better learning. It's probable that if every school day began with a five-minute meditation, there would be one school shooting every hundred years and test scores would be off the charts.

Love, compassion, and gratitude make you smarter. Some of the most powerful research recently shows the impact of gratitude on brain function and physiology in the body. Love calms, and the simple, yet profound, act of appreciation seems to have forceful consequences. As we move forward in schools and society, it is the job of adults to create a world in which children have ample reason to feel appreciative. If that happens, we'll all feel safe.

Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K–12 Educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The Return of the Heart. Download tools for project-based learning on his website,, or contact him by e-mail at

Share |

Blog Archive

Blog Tags