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Emotions 101!

Emotions 101!

Teacher readiness series #11

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.   One of the ways in which we need to be ready as teachers, especially in the primary grades, is to understand how emotional capabilities are developed.

Every year as a kindergarten teacher my wife experiences multiple situations like the following.  My wife will do something that a student doesn’t like.  Instead of recognizing her position as the teacher and showing some respect in their frustrated response, the student will react inappropriately in disgust or anger, possibly even looking at her with contempt.   My wife understands why this response happens, and she just takes it in stride.   She turns to the offending student and says, “You’re feeling frustrated inside aren’t you?  Here is what you looked and sounded like (she demonstrates), you know a better way to tell me you are frustrated is to look like this (she displays a frustrated facial expression with body language) and to say, “I’m frustrated Mrs. Doughty!  If you do that it will help me understand what you need, and how I can help you.”  This is the beginning of a conversation that she has with her students throughout the year.

The experts tell us that children are born with only six or seven emotional capabilities that don’t have to be taught and learned.  That list of innate emotions includes joy, surprise, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness.  No matter what culture you are born into, you will arrive into the world with this emotional toolset complete with ways to express them.  All of the other emotional capabilities that are so important to relationships, such as respect, frustration, guilt, relief, shame, amusement, pride in achievement, sympathy, adoration, regret, trust etc., are taught.  How are they taught?  The experts suggest that in a healthy child-caregiver relationship, there are about 300 emotional interactions a day or about 10,000 a year.  From the very moment you pop out of the birth canal, your brain is learning emotional capabilities implicitly.  As you experience your care-givers’ moods and reactions, you will begin to learn what facial expressions, sounds, verbal expressions and body languages goes with what inner feeling.

What happens if children spend less time with care-givers and more time isolated or more time in contexts where their main influence is other children who haven’t learned how to express emotions?  The result is they don’t learn these emotional expressions and arrive at kindergarten with a short list of emotional capabilities.  Children in this situation have no choice but to be emotionally inappropriate at times.  They are feeling something inside like frustration, they haven’t learned how to express that emotion, so it gets channeled through an emotional capability that they do know how to express, such as anger or disgust.

When I was a child I was expected to have a broad range of emotional capabilities and I got in trouble if I didn’t use them correctly.  I also had a lot of caregiver contact with my parents and other adults and learned these emotional capabilities early.  Just like me, today’s children can get in trouble for displaying inappropriate emotions.   Because of where so many kids come from, situations in which they don’t have contact with older adults and don’t learn how to display emotions, this is similar to getting kids in trouble for not knowing two plus two equals four when they’re learning math.  Once you understand that these are learned capabilities, and that we are not teaching these capabilities as well as we used to as a society, you will approach the inappropriate emotions that your student has differently.

As teachers we need to see emotional capabilities or emotional intelligence as a subject of learning needing to be taught just like any other subject.  When you see an inappropriate emotional display, your response should be to imagine what they were feeling and what expressions they should have used to express those feelings.  Then show them the facial expressions, body language, and verbal expressions that go along with healthy emotional displays.  A conversation you can have with students who struggle with emotional displays is to ask them if they find that adults or other kids get angry with them and they don’t understand why.  Then ask them if they would like to learn how to help adults and their friends not get angry with them.  This can open a door of providing emotional capability mentoring for a student that will benefit them their entire lifetime.

I cannot emphasize enough how important emotional capabilities are in our everyday experience and our success in life.  I think we know this as teachers.  What we might not have known until today, is that the vast majority of appropriate emotional response expressions are learned and must be taught.

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Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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