This article is a follow-up to “What is Social-Emotional Learning and Why Does It Matter,” (which defines SEL and explains the research-based benefits) and “Social-Emotional Learning: Be Emotionally Literate” (which explains how to teach students the prerequisite foundational knowledge.) This article focuses on why and how to teach young people to identify their emotions.
Self-regulation, or self-control, is receiving a great deal of attention as of late. On page 1 of the recent best-seller, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and Teirney state: “However you define success — a happy family, good friends, a satisfying career, robust health financial security, the freedom to pursue your passions — it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities: . . . intelligence and self-control.” The authors state that while researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence, they have discovered how to improve self-control. One of the greatest obstacles to self-control is an inability to effectively manage emotions. As we all know, it is hard to be the person we want to be when we are highly frustrated, extremely angry, or overwhelmed by sadness. To effectively manage our emotions, we first need to identify them accurately.
Accurately identifying our emotions helps us choose effective thoughts and actions in a variety of situations. Misidentification of our emotions, on the other hand, leads to problems. For example, T.J., a normally well-behaved fourth-grade student in Flint, MI, recently had been getting into frequent arguments and fights on the playground during recess. He’d been assigned both lunch detention and after-school detention, and was recently suspended from school for three days for starting a fight.
After three sessions with the school counselor, Mrs. Jackson, who was trying to discover the root of T.J.’s sudden violent streak, he blurted out that his dad had been recently incarcerated and that he was “just mad” at everyone. His arguing and fighting were his way of expressing what he had identified as anger. In a subsequent counseling session, Mrs. Jackson helped T.J. realize, that yes, he was angry – at the system that put his dad in prison and at his dad for dealing drugs. But underlying the anger were deeper emotions: betrayal, loss, and loneliness. (T.J. had been living with his dad and his girlfriend, but now he was living with his maternal grandmother, a person he hardly knew.) Those are pretty complicated emotions for a 9 or 10-year-old boy to process. He couldn’t accurately identify what he felt; he just knew it was bad. It was less complicated to assign the pain a label he could understand and act on – anger – than to analyze his feelings and try to find other ways to soothe himself. T.J. was referred to weekly counseling sessions and by gaining a better understanding of his feelings and learning cognitive and behavioral strategies to manage them, his violent outbursts gradually disappeared.
Fortunately, most students don’t have to deal with the kind of emotional trauma that T.J. did, but all students experience emotions that can negatively impact their behavior, both in and outside of school, if they don’t have the knowledge and skills to regulate them. What follows are some ways to help young people understand and identify the complex emotions that are part of their daily lives.
- Class Meeting or Family Discussion: Here are questions that teachers, counselors, and parents can ask to generate a discussion to help young people gain insight into the world of emotions. I follow the define, personalize, challenge format that I learned in my training with The William Glasser Institute. This format helps young people understand terminology, make connections to their own lives, and think about concepts more critically.
1. How would you define the word emotion?
2. Can you list some emotions? (Brainstorm a list and write it down. For younger children, keep the list fairly basic, focusing on the primary emotions: love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear. With older kids (intermediate school-age students and higher), list and define, if necessary, a few more complex emotions. (See the Emotions ‘R’ Us chart below)
3. How do you know you are feeling ____?
4. What are some situations when someone might feel _____?
1. Ask participants to fill in the blank. One of my favorite emotions is _______.
2. An emotion I really don’t like to feel is ______.
3. How do you feel physically when you feel _____?
4. Do you know someone who is extremely emotional? (Note: Be certain to say, “No one in this group and no names.”) How do you know he or she is emotional?
5. What do you do when you are feeling ______? Does that help you or hurt you?
1. What do you think is the purpose of emotions or feelings?
2. What are the benefits of emotions? What might be the negative impact?
3. Is it possible to make a mistake in identifying an emotion? Give an example.
4. How can we use our emotions in ways that help us? (Ideally someone will say that we should use them as signals that things are going well or not. Emotions should help us choose to do something responsible that will result in improving a situation or in our feeling better. For example, if I were feeling angry, taking a walk or talking to a good friend would help me feel better. Of if I am frustrated, I could ask someone for help.)
5. What is something responsible you can do (or think to yourself) the next time you are feeling ____?
Emotions ‘R’ Us
Adoration Affection, Fondness Liking,
- Emotional Graffiti: This activity is designed for middle and high school-aged kids. People who work with younger children should go directly to the Emotions and Me Graffiti activity that follows.
1. Attach chart paper to the walls around the room, as equally distributed as possible, with enough room between posters to accommodate small groups of students gathered around each. Write a primary emotion at the top of each piece of chart paper: Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear, and Love (or Attachment).
2. Put students in cooperative groups of 3 – 5. Give each group a marker or two and assign each group to stand by a poster.
3. Explain to them that when you say, “Begin” that they are to brainstorm as many related emotions as they can. (Give a couple of examples: Joy – happiness, contentment, excitement; Sadness – grief, depression, etc.).
4. After 2 – 3 minutes at one poster, have the groups rotate clockwise to the next poster.
5. Repeat until every group has been to every poster.
6. Have students bring the posters to the front of the room and process what they have listed. In some cases, you may need to help them correct their examples.
7. End by displaying a poster of the Emotions ‘R’ Us Chart, discussing any important emotions that students omitted from their list. You may want to leave this poster on the wall to refer to throughout the year.
- Emotions and Me Graffiti:
1) Attach chart paper to the walls around the room, as equally distributed as possible, with enough room between posters to accommodate small groups of kids gathered around each. Write an emotion at the top of each piece of chart paper. For younger students, only use the primary emotions: Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear, and Love (or Attachment). For older students include a few secondary emotions.
2) Put kids in cooperative groups of 3 – 5. Give each group a marker or two and assign each group to stand by a poster.
3) Explain to them that when you say, “Begin” that they are to brainstorm school appropriate situations when they have experienced these (or related) emotions.
4) After 2 – 3 minutes at one poster, have the groups rotate clockwise to the next poster.
5) Repeat until every group has been to every poster.
6) Have students bring the posters to the front of the room and process what they have listed. In some cases, you may need to help them correct their examples.
Variation: To provide more privacy, have students write their examples on sticky notes first and then place them on the appropriate posters.
- Emotional Continuum: Another way to help students integrate their understanding of emotions is to have them rank emotions based on certain criteria: for example, from strongest to weakest. After getting students in groups of 3 or 4, give them a continuum sheet like the one below.
1. The assignment is to fill in the continuum with emotions (using the primary emotions) from weakest on the left end to strongest on the right. You might give students with higher abilities one emotion to start with, tell them they can place it anywhere on the continuum they want, and to and refer to their Graffiti poster or the poster based on Emotions ‘R’ Us Chart to fill in the others. Or you might give lower ability students all four emotions and ask them to arrange the emotions on the continuum. In either case, it is important that they discuss among themselves why they chose to put the emotions in the order they did.
2. Have them present their final product to the class along with their rationale.
Variations: You might want to give students a continuum with additional spaces included to place more subtle emotions. You also might choose other criteria for the continuum: least pleasant to most, least destructive to most; easiest to self-regulate when experiencing to most difficult; most frequently experienced in school to least, etc.
The activities I have described will not, in and of themselves, transform all children or adolescents into emotional Einsteins, but they will provide children with a common language that can be used in an ongoing attempt to help them understand and identify their feelings, a first step toward regulating them. Regularly including the subject of emotions in formal and informal discussions will help them remain aware of the importance of feelings and help them as they continuously navigate the world of emotions, one that gets more and more complex as they enter adulthood. In addition, it is important as adults to talk about our own feelings, how we identify them, how they affect us, and how we successfully regulate them in responsible ways. This will do double duty: showing kids that teachers, parents, counselors, etc. are human, too; and providing them with ideas they might use when they are in the throes of strong feelings.