Millions of kids will get suspended this year. Students' emotions -- not discipline -- are key to better classrooms

Over three million students were suspended for acting out in class this past school year. Tens of millions more completely shut down learning with their antics.

Disciplining these unruly students won't change their behavior because it won't address the root cause -- emotional turmoil. People's frontal lobes, the part of the brain that processes emotions and governs behavior, don't fully develop until age 25.   Kids simply can't tune out feelings of hurt, stress, fear, and anxiety the way adults can. 

It's unrealistic to expect students to sit still, focus and learn if they're still seething about snide hallway remarks and lunch hour gossip. Teachers can reclaim control of their classrooms and boost students' academic success by uttering three simple words before class: "Are you okay?"

Emotional distress alters the brain's chemistry, making learning all but impossible. "Emotions are significantly related to students' motivation, learning strategies, cognitive resources, self-regulation, and academic achievement," a study published in Educational Psychologist found. 

According to a literature review published in the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, anxiety can also take a toll on test performance, grades and the likelihood of attaining of a high school diploma.  Angry and anxious kids often find it difficult to remember classroom material.  

On the flip side, pleasant emotions like hope and pride "positively correlate with students' academic self-efficacy, academic interest and effort, and overall achievement," according to German professor Reinhard Pekrun.  Simply put, a good emotional state facilitates learning, while unstable emotions produce difficult or impossible learning scenarios. 

A child who has been made to feel worthless in the hallway can't be expected to tackle an academic challenge five minutes later.

Teachers and school administrators can, and must, gauge students' emotions and step in before troubled students have to act out to get noticed. Merely checking in with students and offering a kind word or opportunity to reset can help kids concentrate on the upcoming lesson. 

But, with all they have on their plates, it's hard for teachers to spot hurt and anger in a sea of student faces. Luckily, some schools are using education technology to make sure a hallway insult doesn't ruin a whole day of learning. 

At California's Canalino Elementary School, teachers act as "emotional detectives" thanks to an initiative launched by teacher Brandon Sportel. Students regularly report their feelings -- both positive and negative -- through helloyello.net, a web app. Teachers monitor these reports and intervene if they notice anything troubling.

For instance, one student checked in with regrets about bullying another student. Teachers were able to help this student deal with his emotions, preventing future name-calling.  

Schools nationwide could implement similar technologies to improve the classroom dynamic.

Imagine if a student could let his teacher know that other kids excluded him at lunch. The teacher could step in and help the student cool off before instruction begins, potentially preventing him from acting out in class. That student would learn better -- and so would all his classmates.  

A child who has been made to feel worthless in the hallway can't be expected to tackle an academic challenge five minutes later. Until educators start accounting for the impact of emotion on learning, unaddressed emotional turmoil will continue to impede millions of kids' academic progress.

In short, if we don't start asking students across America if they're okay, their learning and behavior never will be. 

Siri Fiske is the founder and head of Mysa School.