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Norma True Spurlock

Norma was teaching children to talk about feelings long before the term emotional intelligence was ever used in a classroom environment. Norma teaches children to express their feelings, to resolve problems, to prevent violence, and to assume personal responsibility. She does all of this in the most loving way possible.

Not only does she teach children directly, but she teaches teachers. Norma travels around the United States offering hands-on workshops and giving keynote speeches. I have lost touch with her but the last thing I know she was ready to leave her job as counselor at the University of Florida's P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Florida, and go back to Oklahoma where she was raised so she could take care of her mother.

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An Interview with Norma

Excerpts from Norma's book called "Responsibility Training"

To Meet the Need for Love and Belonging




Conflict Resolution

Workshop Notes

Contacting Norma

An Interview with Norma Spurlock

S = Steve Hein; N= Norma

S: Earlier today we talked about depression. In my writing I call depression a secondary emotion. What are your thoughts on that?

N: I agree that it is secondary. I would also call it a symptom, a symptom that there are other underlying negative emotions. For example, it might be fear, or a sense of defeat or inadequacy. So from an emotional intelligence point of view, the treatment, if we want to call it that, would be to teach people how to identify their primary feelings and express them in healthy ways.

S: What is the next step, after they have identified and expressed their emotions?

N: For me, once I start to express the feelings I begin to see the answers. So I think that is the key. Once people start to talk about it in specifics, the possibilities start to emerge.

S: What would you recommend that we do to help children avoid depression later in life?

N: The first thing we do is we teach the "I messages." But the other part of that is we need to have adults in the school who know how to listen and how to receive it, because they don't know how to do that, so the conversation often stops right there. Or the conversation gets kicked into "Well, you did that to me," or "Why didn't you do such and such?", or "Why don't you do so and so?", or "Come on, stop feeling sorry for yourself." Then it turns into an attack on the child. But the "I message" is a gift that the child is offering the adult, a gift of closeness, of vulnerability. For the adult to attack a child at that moment does great damage to the child and to the relationship. The child leaves feeling even worse- - more inadequate and less understood.

So then to me, teaching how to give and receive "I messages" are a key to emotional intelligence. And we could say that emotional intelligence is problem solving: the solving of emotional problems. The "I messages" demonstrate an awareness of the negative feelings- -you have to do that, you have to know that before you can give an "I message." Then if the other receives it correctly and says "Okay, so you are frustrated with me because I used your comb and didn't ask you," and the first person says "Yes, that's right," then that leads to problem solving. The neat thing is, I've noticed over and over, is that the kids can almost always figure out a solution on their own once they make it that far.

Getting back to depression, if we say that part of depression is seeing no options and not feeling capable of solving a problem, then that process right there would help prevent depression. In other words the expression of feelings and the helpful reception of them leads to brainstorming possible solutions which in turn leads to solving the problem. A key is to start the process early before the problems begin to feel overwhelming and impossible. Someone who is very sensitive can sense the primary negative feelings, so we don't need to teach that; what we need to teach is how to label and express the feeling. Then we need to teach and, more importantly, model emotionally intelligent problem solving.

S: Would it be fair to say that the negative feelings are the problem?

N: I would say the negative feeling is the signal that there is a problem to be solved. It is partly semantics, but what is important is that you have a negative feeling for a reason. You are either thinking negative thoughts, or, more often for kids, someone is doing something that you need to address. The skills we need to be teaching are healthy, non-violent, non-aggressive ways about doing something. That is why I see emotional intelligence training so important in schools, particularly so we can counteract the violent models kids see all around them, including in their own homes a lot of times.

S: Do you remember reading that the amygdala feels something a split second before the neo-cortex has a chance to think about it?

N: I think that is true when we feel threatened at the level of the reptilian brain. For our survival, we are wired to react immediately. But in other cases where it is not an emergency situation I suspect the thought often precedes the feeling. Say you are sitting in your rocking chair on your porch. Then you start to think about something from your past, then you start to feel sad or happy as you remember what happened. In that case, the thought preceded the feeling. On the other hand, it is possible that you suddenly smell something and you are in tears and you don't know why. Then you realize that the smell reminds you of the pipe your father, who died 10 years ago, used to smoke. And as we know now, smell is one of the senses which are most closely tied to the feeling center. When you smell something, it seems you bypass thinking altogether. You just smell, then you feel. Only after do you recall the thoughts that go with it. So I don't think you can say that thought or the feeling always comes first. I think it just depends on the situation.

S: Once we do start to think about our feeling, you teach that we then have a choice as what comes next, particularly in what thoughts we chose. Then these thoughts influence our feelings. But how much of a role does our childhood play in how easy it is for us to exercise this choice?

N: Oh, a lot. It is all modeled. A child who has not seen his parents calm themselves down, won't know how to calm himself down. A child who has not seen his parents show compassion won't know how to show compassion-- to think about another person's situation, for example. There is that old story about the mother who was listening to her child talk to the doll. The mother was appalled to hear how cruelly the child was talking. So the mother burst out, "What is the matter with you? Listen to yourself. What a tone of voice! That is no way to treat a cute little baby doll. She hasn't done anything to deserve that kind of talk. She is just an innocent baby doll. She can't even talk back, like you always do. Where on earth did you ever learn to talk like that?!"

That is why a classroom is such a window into the home, especially at the younger ages when they are still real open about things and haven't learned to hide and lie about what is really happening.

They talk the way they are talked to and they do to others what is done to them. If they are taught to negotiate, they negotiate. If they are taught to hit, guess what, they hit. It should never be a great surprise when the parents hear from the school that their kids are hitting or swearing. Kids are very impressionable.

S: Let's talk a little about child abuse.

N: One thing that is interesting is how hard it is to pry kids away from parents who are abusive. I have seen kids cling to parents who have severely beaten them. Once after a little boy told me how his father had beaten him I said I was going to have to call and report it. The boy immediately wailed, "Don't you report my papa. You stay out of our family business. He only did it because he loves me and I deserved it." That puts the school in a very difficult position. We are trying to help protect the child, and on some level he knows it because he knows a parent shouldn't beat him, but the child needs to cling to the belief that his parents are the ones who are there to protect him. If we intervene, sometimes the child actually resents us for it. But legally and morally we have to act. I know I personally would feel awful if I knew something was happening at home and I did nothing to stop it.

S: What kinds of reactions and defense mechanisms do the kids develop to deal with abuse?

N: They range from extremely high stress, to depression, to acting out... What I have always read is that depression is anger turned inward. We are not allowed to express it, so we just get mad inside. It must be terribly frustrating to be in a situation like that. But children aren't allowed to express their frustration, so they bottle it up. Unable to express it to outwardly, they begin forming self-destructive habits, such as eating disorders, smoking, drug and alcohol use, and body mutilation. The ultimate form of self-destruction is, of course, suicide, which is quickly becoming one of the leading causes of teenage death.

S: So feeling powerless is part of depression?

N: Absolutely. I think that is what it is. That gets back to the idea of seeing no options, which is another way to say I feel powerless. So the need that is not being met is the need to choose- - to choose what happens to us and the need to have some power over what is happening in our lives.

S: What are you seeing at school in terms of this issue, of how much power kids have over their own lives at home? Do you see them having too little power, too much or just about right?

N: I see it both ways. I see some children coming in who have never been told no. If a kid wants to do something they let him do it even if it causes problems for someone else, and that is not teaching a child to be responsible or to think about other people's feelings.

S: Why do you think the parents don't set any boundaries?

N: I think they are afraid of saying "no" to their children because they don't want their children to dislike them. They are using their children to fill their unmet need to be liked.

The plus side of that is, as Thomas Gordon said over 20 years ago, and what I have seen, is that you will raise highly creative children because all the options are open to them. The problem is that they are very, very insensitive to the needs of other people. They are never taught empathy or that their actions have consequences for others.

I have also seen the opposite thing, a lot of it, where children are told what to do and how to do it all the time. Those children either develop a sense of rebellion, because they don't have choices and any power. Or they may become passive aggressive and appear to accept it, but they try to get even in quiet ways. And I am sure a lot of them become depressed because they don't see options.

Either way, any of those results are not healthy. It takes training, learning and skills to find the middle route where you recognize that your job as a parent is not make your child to be anything, but to help the child be whoever they are, while at the same time helping them learn to be responsible. By that I mean I want to help you learn to solve problems in ways that don't create problems for others. It is not okay for you to solve your problem at my expense.

So that brings us full circle to what emotional intelligence is. In order for children to give "I messages" they have to know how they feel. And if they know how they feel, they have to have words to express those feelings. Most of our children, though, don't have a feeling vocabulary. After they learned sad, mad, sad, glad and afraid they are finished. They don't know any other feeling words. They don't think about rejected or betrayed or teased or underestimated. They don't know those words. They don't know them because their parents don't use them.

S: What about the teachers, are they using a very wide emotional vocabulary?

N: They are products of our culture. What makes you think their parents were using those words? Very, very few people speak the language of emotional intelligence.

S: What reactions do you get from the teachers when you try to encourage them to express their honest feelings in the classroom?

N: I don't know that I have done that. In fact, that may be one of my major shortcomings because I think that the teachers I work with think it is not okay to express negative feelings. They never hear me raise my voice. They know I am known for positive interaction and I think if they get extremely angry they hide that from me. They don't want me to know that they would like to smack this little kid because he is doing things that they don't know how to handle. So I am trying more and more to tell how I feel.

Let me give you an example. Recently, a teacher asked me to work with one little boy who has been labeled emotionally handicapped....

S: Emotionally handicapped?

N: Yes, that is the label the state endorses, that the nation endorses. I am not even sure what they mean by that, but he definitely is different than other children. He loses it and starts to cry or pout or scream when he doesn't get his way. He will not listen to you while you try to explain that there is another side to things; that this other child has a want and a desire here, too, and that it is possible to work it out.

When I took him in my office and was trying to work with him and two others, he kept screaming at a very high pitch. There was a moment when I wanted to say, "If you do that one more time, I am going to strangle you," because that is the way I was taught. But I know that what he needs is validation, not threats, stress and more fear. So I said "Jason, you're afraid that you aren't going to be able to go outside and that really upsets you, doesn't it?"

Validation is the most helpful response, I know that intellectually and I really believe it, but it is very hard to do that when first, he has turned on his heels and walked away from you and, second, when he is screaming at the top of his lungs. It is very hard to even validate him, verbally at least.

I kept trying though, and didn't give up! I know that he rejects my help because he is so afraid. Fear drives so many of the children. He is just so afraid he is going to lose in any encounter. It is very painful for him to lose. His parents are both university professors, in fact, one is a trained psychologist, so I imagine they present a lot of logical arguments to him which give him the sense that he always loses. But it is all the cognitive and behavioral stuff, not the emotional intelligence. Also, the parents went through a very bitter divorce fight, so they were preoccupied with their own issues. The encouraging thing is that his mother has asked me for my advice and I explained to her about validation.

S: Was she defensive?

N: No, she actually wasn't, which is unusual, but then again, she came to me. So many of the times we have to go to the parents and then they are totally defensive, or in complete denial. But this one wanted to know what she could do better. She just never has been taught anything about feelings, or validation or anything remotely similar to emotional intelligence. When I explained to her about validation, she got it instantly. She is a smart woman and a fast learner. She just needed to be shown a better way. They are both good people, but they are not trained people.

So after I kept validating his feelings over and over again, I noticed that he would listen to me longer and longer. I would explain to him that it hurts my ears when he screams, and I pointed out to him that the other children were covering their ears. I didn't want to take too much time from the playing we were doing, so I waited till then end of the hour and kept him back. It was real cute because the other kids said, "How come he gets to stay and we don't?" They had been out of class for an hour and I thought they would be anxious to go back. But they wanted to stay and didn't think it was fair that he got to stay and they didn't.

So, anyway, when we were alone I went back over what had happened, saying, "Remember when...."

S: Did he feel defensive when you asked those questions?

N: Not at all. And one of the reasons he didn't is because I gave him a cup of water...I handed him a pretzel...and we both ate a pretzel. It was bread breaking time. It was just get honest time.

S: So he felt safe with you...?

N: Oh, absolutely. He knew I wasn't trying to hurt him, I was trying to help him.

S: But if you had jumped on him each time he screamed during the hour...

N: I never would have made any progress with him. No doubt in my mind. Remember, though, the way we started this discussion was with me telling you there were times when I wanted to jump on him and strangle him. But because I didn't attack him, because I validated his feelings, by the end of the hour, he was ready to listen to me. And, he was ready to change his behavior. He agreed, for example, that when I covered my ears with my hands, he would try to lower his voice.

S: He voluntarily agreed?

N: Absolutely. I wasn't trying to railroad him. If he'd have said no, I'd have said, "Have you got any other ideas?" But let me tell you, by the end of the hour, I felt a lot of empathy for the teacher who has him in the class for 6 hours.

So when I took him back to the class I said to the teacher, "It must be really hard for you to have him in the class all day. I was really feeling annoyed and even a little violent at a couple of points with him."

She said, "It is hard, Norma. It is extremely difficult." So she knew I understood how she felt. Only then can I teach, when they know that I feel the same way they do.

S: When you wanted to reach out and grab him and tell him to stop it, why didn't you? What stopped you?

N: Because I don't believe that approach works.

S: So it was your belief that controlled your emotional impulse to do it?

N: I'd say it was my belief that controlled my training. I was trained most of my life to jump on kids, and make them stop doing things. It is very recent, and I mean recent in the last twenty years, so I have a lot of these old habits in me. When he starts that I just want to say what my mother would have said, which is "Cut that out right now!" But my new belief was able to overcome my prior training.

S: Your belief in the power of validation...?

N: Yes. I have seen it work over and over and over. There is no doubt in my mind, that as educators and as parents, this is what we need to be doing if we truly want to reach children.

But let me tell you something else about this little guy. We started to play a game and he figured out a way to cheat. He is smart, very smart.

S: So he is both smart and sensitive?

N: Absolutely. I believe it is the smart and sensitive children that get themselves labeled into these classifications, being emotionally handicapped. They are like that because they are very emotional, very sensitive. And their minds work quickly. So if it is filled up with all the negative self-talk that surrounds us, they can get very upset in a nanosecond. And because they are smart they understand sarcastic remarks; they understand when they are being mocked and made fun of; they understand when they are being invalidated. So they get hurt a lot. They experience a lot of pain at their young age.

So we have to train the teachers to help them in constructive ways. And a one day in-service training class won't do it. I started this twenty years ago and I still hear those words that my mother used.

I have to tell you, though, that at one point, I really couldn't take it anymore. We drew straws to decide which game we were going to play next and he lost. So he started to wail. I just walked away from him and took the other kids to the next room. He followed us and was came in screaming. I looked him straight in the eye and said, "I know you are disappointed because you lost, but I simply can't take anymore of your screaming. If you need to cry, that is okay, but you go in my office to do it."

He went back outside and turned around and came right back. I said, "Thank you. I know that was hard for you." And we all went on with our game, because he knew he was wrong.

S: So is there some point at which you draw the line and say, "I don't want to hear how you feel at this point. I know you are upset. I am upset, too,"?

N: Yes, I think there is that point, and it is different for each one of us. Kids do need limits and the reality is you don't have time to validate every emotion. But if you validate most of the feelings, most of the time, you are going to reach a lot more of the kids.

S: Earlier you said that one of the parents' most important jobs is to help the child become who he is. This reminded me of John Gottman's observation that we help a child find his unique identity by helping him express his feelings and by validating all of them.

N: I agree and that is important to remember because maybe it will help me when teachers ask me, "Norma, how is all of this helping the child? I know it is helping me get through the day with them, but how is it helping them?" In other words, the way it is helping them is just what Gottman says: It is helping them identify their likes and dislikes, their preferences and all of their wonderful uniqueness.

S: So by validating their feelings we are truly honoring their individuality.

N: Absolutely!

S: How did you first learn about the importance of feelings and validation?

N: I learned everything I know about "I messages" and feelings from Thomas Gordon: Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training. As far as I know, he was the first one to use "I messages," but no one ever gives him credit for it.

S: Did you read Gordon's work or Haim Ginott's work first?

N: I read Gordon's first. I don't know which one actually came first, but I know that when I went to Thomas Gordon's one week seminar on parenting, it absolutely changed my life.

S: Were you teaching then?

N: No. Believe it or not, after the my first year of teaching in that inner city school in California I got out of teaching for 19 years! It was so difficult, Steve, that there were at least three times that I left my class in tears. If it weren't for the drama teacher coming in to help me, I don't know what I would have done. It was so bad that there were 3 or 4 of us that started as brand new teachers that year and none of us went back!

S: So you stayed out of teaching for 19 years? And how long have you been back in it?

N: Sixteen.

S: What was it then that led you to Thomas Gordon?

N: When my older boy was two, I found myself wanting to say "Don't you talk to me like that. I am your mother!!" --Like they don't know who you are & you have to tell them!

But I realized that that is not the way I wanted to raise my children. That is the way I was raised, with power and fear. But I knew that it didn't feel good to me, either when I was on the receiving end or the delivering end, so I went looking for other ways, and that is when I found Gordon's book. It is one of the only books I have ever stayed up all night to read. After that I was determined to raise my kids with respect and relationship, not with force and fear.

S: Thank you very much, Norma. A lot of people around the world will benefit from our conversation today. I admire you for what you are doing. Keep up the truly excellent work.

N: Thank you, and thank you so much for helping me spread my message.

Gainesville, Florida. May 1999

To Meet the Need for Love and Belonging
  • Greet students at the door
  • Listen to what students tell you
  • Provide opportunities for students to talk and get to know each other
  • Establish your classroom as a safe place where everyone is treated with respect
  • Emphasize cooperation rather than competition
  • Teach and use conflict resolution skills
  • Tell students things about yourself
  • Remember to ask about personal things which students have shared with you
  • Ask students for advice and suggestions; include them in decisions
  • Turn students "mistakes" into learning opportunities.
  • Give kids legitimate ways to meet their needs.
  • Use visual, non-verbal cues and communication to keep down the noise level.
  • Help the students feel proud of themselves and their acheivements

(Adapted from the book, Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock,  1996 edition. pp. 5-6)

Restitution: Restitution is an act of repairing any damage caused by an individual's actions. Restitution is made to the "victim", to society, and to one's self. Restitution results in learning and increased self-esteem. On the other hand, punishment results in fear and diminished self-esteem.

The "perpetrator" will feel happy because he has done everything possible to restore the damage and hurt feelings, and the "victim" will feel happy because he knows someone cares about his feelings and has tried to compensate him adequately. (Adapted from the book, Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock,  1996 edition. p. 63)


Natural consequences are not imposed by anyone. They occur naturally. If you stand in the rain with no raincoat, you get wet. If you mistreat your friends, you won't have many. If you lie, people won't trust you.

Students gain valuable life wisdom when we allow them to experience and help them understand the natural consequences of their actions.

The teacher's role is advisor, explainer, consultant, comforter, consultant rather than judge, jury and punisher.

Many teachers develop punitive practices which they incorrectly label "consequences." For example, having students write 500 times, "I will never leave my seat again without permission," is a punitive practice, being neither reasonable nor related to the undesired behavior of being out of one's seat without permission. Repetitive writing does not teach students how to meet their needs appropriately. Repetitive writing helps students feel resentful, sets up an adversarial relationship and jeopardizes their enjoyment of writing. For writing to be a learning experience, the writing should be meaningful. Meaningful writing might include a plan for restitution and problem solving. I might also suggest writing about feelings and what would help everyone feel better, such as writing a letter of apology and personally delivering it.

(Adapted from Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock, 1996 edition. pp. 32-33)


Punishment is:

  • Not appropriate to the action
  • An over-reaction
  • Too severe
  • Unexpected
  • Painful and based on retribution or revenge
  • Imposed by someone else in a position of power
  • Comes from a rigid authority figure who believes they are morally superior
  • Is often delivered with a loud, angry voice
  • Allows no reasonable options for the punished
  • Reinforces a self-image of failure
  • Essentially negative and short term
  • Usually based on open or concealed anger
  • Easy and expedient


  • Alienates punished; often leaving them feeling wronged, resentful, rebellious and unfairly treated
  • Teaches what not to do without offering positive alternatives
  • Teaches blind obedience to authority; to follow rules without question
  • Belittles, shames and humiliates the punished, causing serious damage to the self-esteem

(Adapted from Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock, 1996 edition. pp. 32-33)

To Meet the Need for Love and Belonging
  • Greet students at the door
  • Listen to what students tell you
  • Provide opportunities for students to talk and get to know each other
  • Establish your classroom as a safe place where everyone is treated with respect
  • Emphasize cooperation rather than competition
  • Teach and use conflict resolution skills
  • Tell students things about yourself
  • Remember to ask about personal things which students have shared with you
  • Ask students for advice and suggestions; include them in decisions
  • Turn students "mistakes" into learning opportunities.
  • Give kids legitimate ways to meet their needs.
  • Use visual, non-verbal cues and communication to keep down the noise level.
  • Help the students feel proud of themselves and their acheivements

(Adapted from the book, Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock,  1996 edition. pp. 5-6)

Conflict Resolution

Violence has become so entrenched in our lives and institutions that it is often an unconscious reaction to conflict. The most insidious forms of violence are the most subtle -- the daily "violating" of people's dignity, feelings, self-esteem and human physical and emotional needs. Conflict resolution provides participants with the skills necessary to resolve conflicts effectively-- without violence.

The components are

  • Perceptive Perception
  • Active listening
  • I messages
  • Problem solving and negotiating win-win solutions

(Adapted from the book Responsibility Training, by Norma Spurlock, 1996 edition. pp. 54-55. See book for details.)


Active Listening Starters

Listening for feelings and paraphrasing

Grunts are great! So are "humm", "oh", "really?," "yeah?," and "wow." (Spurlock, p. 75)


Workshop Notes

Below are some notes I took from a workshop Norma gave to a group of teachers.

Responsibility Training

Responsibility Training is a book written from Norma's many years of direct classroom experience at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School. The book is filled with practical skills-based modules for implementing an emotionally intelligent, punishment-free, self-esteem building classroom. It is available directly from Norma.

Purpose - The purpose of Responsibility Training is to teach children to be responsible for their actions by helping them learn to take effective control of their own behavior. Because the way children are treated in school plays a critical role in the development of their attitude toward themselves and learning, we accept responsibility for being certain that discipline is treated as a non-punitive learning experience.

Goals - The short-term goal of Responsibility Training is to keep order in the classroom without the use of punishment. We use no pain to teach.

Long Term Goals - To strengthen students by teaching them to make good choices.


Methods for Reaching Goals and Objectives

Here is a partial table of contents:

Module 2

Establishing a Need-Meeting Classroom..................4
Love and Belonging.....................................................5
Fun .................................................................................8
Freedom .........................................................................8

Module 4

Class Meetings: The Key to Responsible Classes...13

Module 6

Natural and Logical Consequences.......................32
A Range of Alternatives..........................................33
Implementing Effective Consequences.................34
Punishment or Consequences................................43

Module 8

Conflict Resolution.................................................54
Active Listening .....................................................57
The Magic of Mediation........................................62

Module 9



Contacting Norma

(I don't know if this will work or not now - S. Hein)

Norma's book can be ordered directly from her at:


or by mail: 

Norma Spurlock
True International
409 N.W. 39th Road - D
Gainesville FL 32607