This week on “Spotlight on Learning,” I will highlight an article by Sheryl Sandberg on the loss of her husband. It was published last week in the New York Times, titled “How to Build Resilient Kids, Even After a Loss.”

Sandberg says that she learned everything she could to help her son and daughter recover their footing after the loss of their dad, and her lessons are poignant. One of them is that children need to feel a sense of belonging. Sandberg reflects:  “… extreme harm and deprivation can impede a child’s intellectual, social, emotional and academic progress. As a society, we owe all our children safety, support, opportunity and help finding a way forward.  We can start by showing children that they matter.”

Sociologists define “mattering” as the belief that other people notice you, care about you and rely on you.  It’s the answer to a vital question that all children ask about their place in the world starting as toddlers, and continuing into and beyond adolescence: Do I make a difference to others?

When the answer is no, kids feel rejected and alone.  They become more prone to self-destructive (“Hurting myself isn’t a big deal, since I don’t count anyway”) and antisocial behaviors (“I might be doing something bad, but at least I’ve got your attention”). Others withdraw completely.

You may be surprised to learn how I taught my students that they mattered when I taught high school English.  It was rare when a student crossed the line, but if that happened, he or she would get a detention after school — although never with another classmate.  He or she would come alone, and the first thing I would do is have them fulfill a chore — maybe it was washing the board, straightening desks, picking up trash, stapling papers… I had a lot that needed to be accomplished before I could leave. On detention days, they helped out.  Next, I would have them write a letter home about what happened that day — and trust me, I taught the writing process then, too. It had to be three paragraphs, with proper grammar. The first one explained what went wrong, the second addressed how they would prevent it from happening in the future, and the third outlined new goals for the rest of the quarter. We would both sign it, and I required a parent’s signature on my desk first thing the next morning.

You would think that these kids would resent missing football practice or spending time with friends or getting their usual ride home on the bus home, right?  Well, not exactly. Those same students would eventually stick their head in my door after school again some day, and you know what they would inevitably say?  “Hey, Miss C — ya need anything?”  It still makes me smile.  I loved those moments.  My kids knew they mattered to me… and that their contribution to our learning community mattered.  A lot. I hope they never forgot.


Listen to this week’s Spotlight on Learning on WCHL