A problem has come to my attention that I don't have a clear answer to. It concerns a student that has high emotional needs. We have an open channel of communication that takes priority over the work we are doing in class. She is great at articulating exactly what she is feeling, which makes it easy to bring things to her attention and affirm her in the places she needs it the most. Recently though, I've noticed that she will have breakdowns or requests conversation when she is presented with a task she is adverse to or perceives as being too hard. It feels like she has made a connection between showing emotional distress and getting out of work. To say it in the best way possible, I worry she is using her emotions as a tool--at worst, she is learning to manipulate.
This poses a few, serious problems for me. Teaching my kids to identify and understand their emotions is one of my core values. I believe that if children can accurately discern and communicate how they feel, they are more likely to have healthy relationships as they get older and will make choices that are more truthfully aligned to who they are. I think this can be described as emotional competency.
Emotional health takes precedent over subject matter for me, because as I see it, a kid can't learn unless they are feeling emotionally reconciled, unless they are feeling safe and resolved. If they sit in my class in a state of emotional chaos, they may learn something, but it won't be the learning I'm after. I am going to have a hard time getting a kid to take educational risks if, for instance, they saw their mom almost overdose the night before or they think a friend in the class is upset with them. That stuff, as far as I've experienced, needs to be worked through/acknowledged/communicated before I'm able to get anywhere else with them.
One could argue that school work diverts their attention away from their negative social interactions or emotional needs. I get this, and somewhat agree. Emotional health does take place concurrently with the educational process. Students find can uncover their value and security in discovering their ability. But I worry that to ignoring present emotional needs can be received as an effort to sweep them under the rug, saying, "I know you are hurting right now, but just work on your research project and it will feel better after you stop thinking about it for a bit." I don't want to distract them away from their emotional conflicts. Distraction only serves as a short term solution with ramifications for life later on. I also don't want them to getting in the habit of forcing their emotions down, ignoring them in the hopes they go away or change. Distracting a human from their feelings serves short-term convenience but creates long-term problems.
So in regard to this student, I don't know what my response should be if I feel like she is trying to manipulate a situation with her emotions. I can't imagine any situation where my respect for her emotions would be preserved, while at the same time, establishing the understanding that emotions aren't tools to be used on others.
Now that I'm thinking, maybe when it reaches this point in the problem its too late. Maybe the solution lies in the question "why does she feel the need to use her emotions as a tool?" Does she feel a need to manipulate because the tasks she is being asked to complete are beyond her ability level? That would mean that the responsibility falls squarely on the teacher. It is the teacher's job to create lessons that fall within a child's ZPD and have enough scaffolding to make the goal attainable for the child. This behavior surfaces most often during math, which is her toughest subject. Although I still want to know how to respond in the moment to emotional manipulation, I also need to think about what I can do to make the class environment one she doesn't feel the need to escape from.
Im realizing that so many behaviors we talk about and treat as issues with the student actually come down to issues with the teacher. Its easy to blame a problem on a kid because they aren't able to articulate what they are feeling or thinking yet. They aren't able to describe what frustrates them, let alone that they are frustrated. Teachers take advantage of this, and fault the kid instead of examining their own practice. Nietzsche's eagles and lambs in action.