Australian schools are increasingly recognising the importance of children’s emotional lives and adopting programs designed to enhance their emotional awareness. I want, however, to step back from current Australian practice and reconsider the role of schools in developing emotional wellbeing. The award-winning documentary Children Full of Life (2003, directed by Noboru Kaetsu, NHK) captures a remarkable process occurring in one Japanese primary school classroom, where teaching children how to live a happy life is a stated curriculum goal. Contrary to expectations, however, children are not ‘taught’ about emotions; rather, they are supplied with an environment where it is safe to feel.
Every day, three children in this class of 10-year olds read out letters that they have written to their classmates. One boy recounts the death of a grandparent, drawing heartfelt responses from children with similar experiences. A girl then stands to speak of the sudden death of her father when she was three years old. She is overcome with emotion; the camera lingers on her, sobbing, unable to continue. While some attempt to comfort her, the room is heavy with grief. One boy who could not cope and had fled to the toilets is brought back by the teacher.
Some days later, the girl proudly brings in her father’s last drawing, and speaks about it with confidence; there is palpable animation amongst her classmates as they listen to her confidently talk about what the picture meant to her father. Far from seeming a burden, this exposure to another’s grief strengthens their bond as a group.
Meanwhile, another serious matter unfolds. There has been bullying in the class. Over a number of days, the teacher maintains pressure on the children to own up to their part. Eventually, one girl stands up; she did not protect the child because she remembered her own experience of being bullied at kinder, and was too frightened of it happening again. She is also overtaken by her emotions, and is unable to keep speaking. But her distress is productive: one by one, others begin to acknowledge their roles.
What is going on in this classroom? It is in many ways uncomfortable to watch – these children are pouring out intimate, distressing feelings about some of the most intense experiences of their lives. They are doing so, not to their parents, but surrounded by an audience of peers and their teacher; their fear and vulnerability are exposed for all to see.
Their trusting bond with their teacher is crucial: his guidance has turned the classroom into a safe place to feel, and to share those feelings. As a result of some children exploring their own fear and loss, others experience spontaneous empathetic responses, and deep, affirming connections begin to form.
Could this happen, let alone be condoned, in an Australian school?
Then, the stakes are raised. During the making of the documentary, one boy’s father dies suddenly in the night. The children are now dealing with bereavement in real time. The teacher scaffolds their responses, as he has previously, this time organising a small group to go to the boy’s house. They take snacks. I could imagine in an Australian setting how inappropriate and intrusive this might seem, but it was clear that the children experienced real agency along with their empathy, and that their efforts made some impression on the grieving child. Each child in the class wrote the boy a letter; these were handed over in the presence of the boy’s tearful mother, who came to the classroom only days after the loss of her husband. We witness much exposure of young children to intense distress, in a school, in the classroom, with the teacher’s full support.
It was customary in this classroom to mark the end of the year with a large collective event of some kind. Some children came up with an extraordinary proposal; that they write to the father of the bereaved boy. This idea developed into a letter for both of the dead fathers. They wrote it in giant kanji in the dirt of the school grounds, so that it could be seen from heaven. Their chosen medium of communication added a significant dimension to this remarkable culmination of their shared experience: they had been shown months earlier on a rainy day playing gloriously in the same dirt, then mud, filthy from head to toe, and radiant with joy. In our technology-sodden world, these children wrote a message of love in the same dirt that had covered them, literally from head to foot, coating them with joy and bonding them as a group. How consciously aware were they of that connection? Perhaps not very. But then again, perhaps this was no coincidence.
Children Full of Life shows relatively young children, already carrying extraordinary burdens of isolation through bullying and bereavement, being reconnected to their peers. It also shows children learning the impact of their own behaviours on others; ‘learning’, that is, in the broadest understanding that we can possibly give to that term. They learn with their emotions, their thoughts and their bodies, and the faltering ability, but growing desire, to speak about their pain attests poignantly to the meanings that they are processing and generating during this process. They needed to experience these feelings and to discover for themselves that they could not only survive, but thrive. The most powerful contribution their teacher makes is not to explain, but to offer them security.
These events raise so many questions about empathy and agency; about cultural and historical context; about the role of voice and language, not only the individual voices of the children, but the collective ‘voice’ of the letter that they write. And they urge us to look at when, and how, we start to prepare children to deal with a world that they cannot control. These issues are amongst the central concerns of the forthcoming CHE symposium, ‘Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia’, to be held in Melbourne in September 2016. If these questions resonate with you, then please come along and continue the discussion.
Thanks also to Stuart Shanker, Susan Hopkins and the students of the Foundations course at the Mehrit Centre for their stimulating discussions of children’s emotional needs.
Melissa Raine was a CHE Associate Investigator in 2015. She received her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2003. Her thesis explored writing on food in fifteenth-century Middle English texts , focusing on how food shaped medieval understandings of embodiment and selfhood within the diverse and overlapping domains of social standing, health, religious observation and physical pleasure. Her interest in the relationship between corporeality, textuality and theories of self, as well as her interdisciplinary approach, continue into her current project, ‘Affect and The Child’s Voice in Middle English Narrative’. Melissa is convening ‘Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia’ in response to interest from researchers and practitioners concerned with the voices of living children. This symposium offers a singular opportunity for a multi-perspectival dialogue on what it means for children to give voice to their own experiences in the context of Australia’s current historical moment. She tweets @meraine65.