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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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If What’s Happening on Airplanes is Any Indication, Schools Have a Lot More Work to Do with Social-Emotional Learning.

If you have seen the news lately, you are likely aware of what’s happening on commercial flights. The number of incidents involving unruly passengers is threw the roof, a rate higher than any other time since airlines have been recording this data.

Flight attendants are getting attacked and may be required to take self-defense classes. Passengers fighting each other over COVID-19 masks. Airlines, like Southwest, have curbed back serving alcohol.

To put it in perspective, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported last month reported that it was investigating more than 581 incidents of unruly passengers, up from 183 in 2020 and 143 the year before. The levels of aggression and misbehavior on planes are unprecedented.

So what’s going on? Experts attribute the rise in aggression and unruly behavior to stress caused by the pandemic, and passengers are lashing out after being contained in isolation. Whatever the reason I think the situation should be a serious cause to look closely at our society, including our education system, and the “results” we are producing. We might consider the flight cabin as a sort of microcosm of our society: different individuals from different walks of life expected to share space, to “get along” temporarily at least. Fortunately, the individuals acting uncivilized do not make up the majority of passengers, but I still believe the situation is a statement about our current society and a somewhat failed culture.

These passengers, who act out on planes and resort to violence and aggression, they were once students. They were once children (unless they moved here from other parts of the world) sitting in desks in classrooms the U.S. school system. If they attended public schools, they were exposed to the same curriculum, the same expectations, the same learning, as the rest of us. So what went wrong?

Well, of course, people make their own decisions as they become adults and must live with the consequences. But I think the situation on commercial flights right now, along with other behaviors and social interactions we have witnessed during the pandemic, screams out the importance of teaching social-emotional skills or emotional intelligence to students. The Social Emotional Learning (SEL) movement in schools is an incredibly positive direction, as is the mindfulness-based movement and practices that get young people to explore their emotions, develop social skills, reflect, and contemplative their inner lives. We have realized that teaching academics—working the cognitive side of learning is super important and necessary-but it is simply not enough.

When we witness what is happening in the United States—the polarization, the incivility, the lack of social etiquette, the inability to manage emotions and stress—we must be honest and reconsider and re-imagine what students are learning in the classroom and carrying with them as they become adults. If they lack the emotional intelligence to manage and navigate their own lives and to interact with others in healthy, connected, kind, and meaningful ways, then what have we really taught them. It doesn’t matter how high their reading and math scores are if they can’t function in society. The fact that we have to continually police others, for example, raise penalties and fines on airlines for misconduct, is simply a reaction to a much bigger problem. For individuals to be healthy, contributing members of society, including during times of distress, they need skills such as:

  • The ability to cope, manage, and reduce stress in effective, healthy ways.
  • Build and maintain positive, nurturing relationships.
  • Deal with negative emotions such as anger and hate.
  • Be able to entertain multiple perspectives and viewpoints.
  • Understand how the mind, body, and emotions work.
  • Possess the ability to self-motivate.
  • Recognize the significance of meditation, contemplative, quiet time, and self-reflection.

If schools are not providing students with such skills, where will they learn them? Perhaps at home from parents and other family members. Perhaps through their own reading and studying. Perhaps not.

One concern about teaching emotional intelligence in the classroom is lack of time—that teachers already lack time to teach the existing curriculum. However, the idea is to embed these emotional intelligence skills into the current curriculum and enhance it, not replace it. Building emotional intelligence, mindfulness, introspection, and other skills does not require huge amounts of time in my opinion but rather demands being creative with scheduling.

For example, teachers might begin the school day with a very brief mindfulness or meditation exercise, focusing on one activity for a week, then introducing students to another one the next week.

I’ll wind up this blog, and the importance of helping the next generation deal with stress and emotions, by sharing an activity for the classroom that educators might implement. The following activity, adapted from meditation teacher, Pema Chodron.  is designed to teach individuals to meditate on negative emotions. Through this practice, students could become more skilled at dealing with negative emotions, with habitual, negative reactivity.

  • Students sit quietly at their desks, with eyes closed or looking down.
  • Have them focus their awareness on the in-and-out breath, just gently noticing the flow. If they have thoughts, tell them to kindly bring their attention back to the breath without judgment.
  • Invite students to think of a time when they felt annoyed or slightly frustrated or upset—teachers must be careful to start with a less intense experience, where students felt slightly negative but not a full-blown experience of anger, for example, or anything that could cause trauma to resurface. The idea is to gradually build this skill.
  • Ask students to relive the experience of being slightly frustrated and feel how the emotion impacts their body, their thoughts, their breathing. For instance, do they experience tension in some part of the body?
  • Have students breathe the emotion or feeling into themselves, imagining it entering their heart area, which expands. Do this for a few breaths, allowing the heart area to expand more.
  • When students breathe out, tell them to imagine sending relief to themselves, like a beam of light or healing energy. Invite them to share their experiences with the activity or ask questions.