Healthy Choices, Healthy Children

By Mark Heller

Children in all schools learn the basic building blocks of reading and mathematics, writing and science. Though the methods of delivery may differ widely, the academic content is fairly constant across the range of schools. These basic skills are very important, but they are not the only skills that matter. How do we teach children the critical skills that will lead to social and emotional health? How do schools build confidence and resilience? How do we build character? How well do we instill the skills that will help them find meaning in their lives both in school and well after they graduate?

Students today often lead lives that involve much more pressure and stress than we faced while growing up. These pressures come from current economics, worries about this generation’s economic prospects, family structure, the grueling schedules we keep, and from the media-stoked consumer culture. This culture includes sex at every turn and values fame over character (hence the “reality” show phenomenon).

Technology also brings with it both great opportunity and great challenges. By giving our children (our not-yet-completely-formed and mistake-prone offspring) access to texting, sound and video recording, and their instantaneous world-wide publication and broadcasting capabilities, we are playing with fire. It’s really hard to take something back after you’ve hit “send.” The technological methods of communication, while giving us great opportunities, also tend to promote a culture that de-values face-to-face interaction and conversation, deliberation, and practice at building meaningful relationships. (It’s much harder to say something nasty when you’re face-to-face.)

This is not the healthiest culture for children to grow up in. Too much stress can have a negative impact on curiosity, ambition, and motivation. It is also the case that stressed-out children are more likely to be at-risk for self-destructive behaviors. They’re more likely to lose their way.

School should be a place that cultivates social and emotional connection, the ability to interact and communicate with others. Psychologist Martin Seligman has identified a number of traits that, if developed, make a life of meaning and purpose much more likely. They include: self-control, optimism, grit (perseverance), zest, curiosity, social and emotional intelligence, resilience, gratitude, and joy. (See Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.)

Schools can become more effective at instilling these characteristics in students only by placing priority on them. They must BE the curriculum in every interaction, in every subject, in every activity. The surest way to accomplish this is to have an environment of intention populated with great teachers, teachers who care both about what they teach and whom they teach, teachers who are adept at building strong relationships with their students. Beyond this, schools also need to provide healthy doses of media literacy, experiences with diversity, lessons on understanding social cues, and experiences that encourage the development of self-control (which requires self-awareness). I also advocate for school cultures that value opportunity and balance.

If we develop school cultures that deliberately focus on social and emotional health, we will do a great deal to help our children learn to embrace the better angels of their nature. And we will in turn be helping the world become a better place.

Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3-12th grade independent school in the north Tampa Area. For more information about the school, visit