To get young kids to thrive in school, we need to do more than teach them how to read and write — we need to teach them how to manage their emotions, says educator Olympia Della Flora. In this practical talk, she shares creative tactics she used to help struggling, sometimes disruptive students — things like stopping for brain breaks, singing songs and even doing yoga poses — all with her existing budget and resources. “Small changes make huge differences, and it’s possible to start right now … You simply need smarter ways to think about using what you have, where you have it,” she says.

How one school’s inspirational work with one 6 year old pupil, D, transformed a whole school.

Below, a few of Olympia’s most compelling and useful tips for shifting the focus from “Get out!” to “How can I help you”; “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

  1. To start with, we had to figure out where D was struggling the most. In his case, the transition from home to school, chaos to structure, needed support, so we created a calming area in our time out room to help the transition.
  2. Next, we found other ways to help calm him down. D loved working with younger students, so we made him a kindergarten helper. What we found was that the influence of peers on behaviour was far greater than any of the adults on some of the hard to reach kindergarten kids.
  3. We used humour and songs to help calm him and connect with him in his world.
  4. Once we figured out the tools and tactics that worked with D we were able to roll out what we’d learned to help all our students.
  5. We realised we had to teach kids how to identify their own feelings along with appropriate coping strategies to help deal with them – eg counting to ten, finger spinners, going for walks.
  6. We introduced flexible seating, rocking chairs, exercise bikes etc, which encouraged kids to stay in the classroom, helping them to learn and we introduced breaks helps learning.
  7. The magical thing? It didn’t cost a lot of money. We simply thought differently about what we had.
  8. We took the social tools seriously, alongside the academic, and the results speak for themselves. We saw huge growth in reading and math scores.
  9. We also used local leverage to help address issues students facing at home. We reached to local charities, groups and even the local university. Student teachers mentored young people. A partnership with the local hospital helped build a health clinic in the school.
  10. We moved from a philosophy of exclusion to one of trust. This positive way to make change helped the adults too.
  11. We read the research of Dr Bruce Perry, about how many issues children face (eg chaotic home life, absent parent, poverty, illness) can cause genuine trauma and real barriers to learning.