On the Importance of Love in the Classroom

by Leah Northrop

Knowing where to start when having difficult conversations can paralyze us into not having them at all.  Early on Monday October 29th, when I stood in front of classroom of middle schoolers, many of whom had been directly impacted by the Tree of Life tragedy, I wondered, how I could possibly offer them anything useful, how could I even begin to show them the love and support they need to feel safe and cared for?  I thought “maybe I should maintain our routines, maybe I should just carry on as usual, to offer consistency and stability.” 

And in some ways, this is what I did.  I opened by telling them how much I cared for them and about them, how much I loved them, and will always love them.  In a room of 20 8th graders, I’m sure there were some inward eye rolls, but not one of them eye-rolled in my view.  In fact, many dropped their eyes because they were filled with tears. My words didn’t cause a stir, just, perhaps, pulled some heart strings.  These simple words, though often rare in the middle school vernacular, are words that they hear often in my class - I teach Mindfulness and yoga to students - as we often talk about love: self-love, love for those in need, and love for all beings and things. 

I liken my reasons for teaching children to get comfortable talking about love, to the difficulties of asking a raging second grader to take deep breaths in the middle of an epic tantrum.  Of course, in those moments of heightened emotions, they can’t (as we adults can’t) stop the train of anger or sadness and try to learn a new skill.  But when they have practiced a deep breath when calm and steady, those same raging kids can access their practiced breathing.  We get better at what we practice, and love is no different. 

I’m advocating for mushy-talk more often and in more contexts.  For allowing the children in your life open and free access to love and teaching them how to share and show love in appropriate and relevant ways.  Simple reminders of what love can look like is a good start.  The love a mother bird shows it’s egg, the love a friend shows when they help you from the ground after you’ve fallen, the love the baker puts into the bread he kneads. 

A loving-kindness meditation is a useful way to practice letting love in and sending love out.  An easy and useful script can be found here and it begins:

May I be happy, healthy and peaceful.
May I let go of sadness and bad feelings.
May I be free from anger.
May I be free from pain.
May I be free from difficulties.
May I be free from suffering.
May I be healthy, happy, and peaceful.
May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be at peace.

If you’re not comfortable leading a mindful practice or would like to set the context before you try, I’ve pulled a few of my very favorite books from the shelf.  They are appropriate for all ages: (I’ve had robust discussions with students from kindergarten to eighth grade after reading any one of these…) but I’ve added age recommendations based on my own experiences.

The Three Questions (Based on the short story by Leo Tolstoy), by Jon J Muth  - A simple, yet profound book about compassion and living in the moment.  I’d recommend also reading Tolstoy’s version for older students.  Ages 6+

If You Plant a Seed, by Kadir Nelson - Beautiful and emotive illustrations help tell a story about the power of even the smallest acts and the rewards of compassion and generosity.  Ages 0-6

We’re All Wonders, by R.J. Palacio - Based on the author’s first novel, Wonder, this picture book introduces the youngest readers to the topics of inclusion, acceptance, compassion and kindness.  Ages 4-8

The Gift of Nothing, by Patrick McDonnell - Before mindfulness was all the rage, this sweet, playful story about the importance of human (or in this case, animal) connection and gratitude was written.  A must at any holiday, but relevant all year long.  Ages 0-100.

The Sun in My Belly, by Sister Susan - This book is out of print and I considered not including it, but it is a lovely-to-look-at and easy-to-read reminder of interconnectedness that makes the subject accessible to even the youngest of students.  Ages 5-10

Before I go, I just wanted to say, I love you

Leah Northrop teaches Yoga and Mindfulness to kindergarten - 8th grade students at Falk Laboratory School, the campus laboratory school affiliated with the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her classes at Falk are centered on guiding children through the simple but powerful practice of connecting movement and breathing to create a more relaxed, focused, and aware student, ready to learn and play.