Leveraging Emotions

students in classroom

As students all over the world return to school this season, each one carries within themselves their own set of emotions about school and their abilities based on past experiences. The astute teacher knows that rather than this being a problem to fix, it is rather a tool to leverage: emotion, says Dr. Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, “is critical to learning and memory.” So how might teachers and other adults in a child’s life better understand, become aware of, and leverage emotions to improve success at school?

As both a teacher and parent, I know how easy it is to feel like I’m the expert or I know best, and to instruct young people accordingly. Even I have to remind myself to take a more coach-like stance when working with others, especially when I’m not in a formal coaching conversation. To take a coaching stance means to listen first to what is being communicated both verbally and nonverbally. Then, an empathic paraphrase helps to establish a humane connection between you and the other person, letting the person know you understand them and validating them by mirroring back to them their feeling and thinking state. You might then further that connection by asking an empowering question that acknowledges the person’s autonomy and agency to make decisions and choose appropriate behaviors. Let’s see how this might play out in a school setting.

Ms. Castenados learns a lot about how her students are feeling on any given day by standing in the hallway outside her classroom during transitions, watching and listening to students interact with each other and other adults. In this case, listening includes seeing—taking in all the ways that students are being as they enter the classroom—and responding accordingly. Today, she sees a group of children coming in hot and wild just off the playground. Instead of scolding them to settle down and take out their notebooks, Ms. Castenados wishes to motivate them to study math. Because she remembers that emotion is critical to learning, she considers a kinder transition into her classroom, one that is even universally designed to assist not only those who are hot and wild but also those who are experiencing a more dulling emotion, such as sadness or loneliness. After smiling and greeting each student as they enter the room, Ms. Castenados begins class.

“Good morning! Let’s all stand beside our desks for our transition breathing,” she begins. The first day Ms. Castenados introduced transition breathing, as she calls it, her students were a bit nervous and fidgety and self-conscious. Now, by the second month of school, they all know the routine and participate. “Let’s take a long breath IN for one…two…three…four…five and HOLD for one…two…three…four…five and OUT for one…two…three…four…five. Good! And again…” She does this breathwork three full times with her students, noting the calming effect it has on her own heart which felt a bit anxious after a look at her students’ most recent test scores.

“Sam, tell us about your day today,” she asks of a student. Sam replies, “We’re getting a puppy this weekend!” Sam exclaims, and wriggles his whole body and sort of jumps up and down a bit in place. “You’re feeling really excited about that new addition to your family,” Ms. Castenada paraphrases Sam’s feelings. “We just got a new dog, too, but he’s not a puppy. He’s a rescue dog we got from the pound and he’s almost three years old already but really nervous and he shakes a lot,” Sarai says, jumping into the conversation. “Ah! So you have a new family member too, who maybe needs some extra care and attention,” Ms. Castenados says. Sarai nods her head.

Emotion is critical to learning

“We probably all have things going on at home that are on our minds right now, huh?” Ms. Castenados says to the class. “And it’s challenging because we really want to be home right now, but here we are—in school!” She looks around at the many students who are nodding and otherwise agreeing with her, some talking with each other. “How might we manage these feelings, then? We’re here at school and we have responsibilities here, AND we really wish we were somewhere else. What might we do to make the best of this situation?” Some students raise their hands and offer different ways to get through the day.

This whole exchange has taken less than five minutes of class, yet the effects are long-lasting. First, Ms. Castenados recognized that some of her students were not quite ready to sit down and focus on math at the start of class. The transition breathing helped all students regulate their hearts and minds, and in doing so together created a bond of positive energy that can fuel them throughout the entire lesson. Then, she connected personally with a couple of students by paraphrasing how they were feeling or what they were experiencing, and she was able to connect their individual expressions to a more universal, collective experience. Finally, in asking students how they might get through their day at school, she empowered them to take ownership and agency over their own behavior, and in doing so removed the burden of being the chief behavior officer from herself. Her five minute lesson on emotional regulation not only set up a much more effective mathematics session but likely will carry over into other classes and situations for these students the rest of the day.

What might be some ways you can connect with your students, co-workers, or family members when you notice they are experiencing strong emotions? How might you work with these emotions instead of against them?