How do you teach a child who is unhappy?

Well you can’t. One day, a 7-year old walked into the class and he looked visibly upset. He was having a bad morning. It was a typical day as some homes have it. Mum was rushing because they were running late and the boy was dragging his feet. So she told him off. Straight forward right? As she told him off, she got increasingly upset and started talking about his general learning attitude. By the time, they arrived at school, the boy was in floods of tears. This was his state when he came in.

I took one look at his face and Mum’s face and knew there was fire on the mountain. Mum glared at him, gave a long hiss, and handed me his bag. ‘I don’t know why he just can’t focus!’ She snapped as she stormed off.

Watching the boy with his head down and shuffling towards me, I knew there would be no teaching for the next ten minutes at least. But this could be a learning moment.

I guided him to seat next to me.

Me: you look really upset and I can see that you are feeling sad. What is the matter?


Me: would you like to talk about what just happened?

Still silence.

Now, I thought about how to start teaching. Nothing would sink in. Do I try to ‘force’ this child to start saying his times tables or get to the bottom of this? You don’t ‘force’ a child to do things, let alone, learn. I put myself in his shoes. If I were upset, would I be able to learn? Maybe not.

Me: Let me know when you are ready, then we can play some times tables games.

More silence. After about 3 minutes of silence with lots of sniffing in between. He shifted in his chair and started talking.

Child: (Tearfully) I am really sad because mummy is always not happy with me. No matter what I do, she tells me off.

Me: Are you sure mum tells you off every time? I am sure there are times when she is happy with you.

Child: (Still sobbing) Well sometimes, she is happy with me. It’s just that I work so hard and mum is…is still saying I am not trying enough. I don’t know what to do.

Me:  I know mummy really wants you to do well. Mummy knows that you can do better and she wants you to keep challenging yourself in every lesson, not just some lessons. And you know mummy wants you to be happy. When you do well, you are always so proud of yourself, right?

Child: Yes I am. I remember when mummy told me she was proud of me.

Me: How did that make you feel?

Child: I was happy and proud of myself too. It’s… it’s just… that I get distracted sometimes and my voice is very loud. So when I talk in class, you tell me to turn it down because my voice is too loud.

Me: Ok, I do know your voice is loud. I don’t mind you talking in class at the right time. What I don’t want you to do is distract others or talk out of turn.

Child: Ok, I will try. I want mummy to be happy.

Me: Of course you do. And I am sure she wants you to be happy and incredibly proud of you!

Child: Ok. I guess so.

Me: Are you feeling a bit better now?

Child: Kind of.

Me: That is a good start. Tell you what, let’s play a times-tables game to cheer you up, would you like that?

Child: (a weak smile broke on his face) yes please.

I am going to state the principles I learnt from this experience.

  1. Label the emotion. It is okay for a child to feel sad. As adults, we are not always happy! There are things that trigger a sad feeling and if we are perceptive enough, we can name those things. A young child may not be able to label it, so help out.
  2. Empathise with the child. Don’t be dismissive. Remember that young children are little people and just like adults, their feelings are valid. So don’t dismiss how they are feeling.
  3. Guide them out of the sad feeling by offering options. Offer ways to ease the sadness. You don’t have to play a game like I did at the end. You can do something else.

Remember, if you the adult cannot learn when you are upset, think about that child…


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