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emotion radar

April 20, 2022

7 Practices to Help Staff and Students Identify and Talk About Emotions


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By Jim Grout, High 5 Adventure Learning Center

Schools are facing an urgent need to integrate emotional stabilization into all aspects of their communities—for students, faculty and staff, school leaders and families. Reclaiming our emotional health by developing skills of self-regulation, exercising ownership over how we learn, teach, lead, and interact with one other is important at any time, but is especially crucial now when addressing pandemic-induced anxiety and emotional dysregulation. Emotional literacy is vital to building and maintaining a safe and inclusive school community.

But within our school communities, it can be difficult to have conversations about emotions. Where do we begin? We start with our unique personal experiences, examining how we manage vulnerability, and we lead by encouraging others to do the same.

The important role of vulnerability

As educators and school leaders, we’ve been taught to model expertise. It’s a new skill for many to model vulnerability and uncertainty, especially during a time of heightened emotions like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vulnerability often signals that we’re afraid we are going to experience some type of emotional harm, which could range from being embarrassed, to exposing ourselves to judgment, or having to share or disclose some private aspect of ourselves. As leaders or educators, vulnerability can arise in situations where we feel we should have mastery, but our emotional reaction to the circumstances circumvents our control.

Because of the ways in which we’ve been taught how to (or not to) express our emotions, many of us try to hide vulnerable emotional responses. We may choose to remove ourselves from a situation, or we may stop interacting without explaining the emotional state that is driving our response. For example, we may walk away from an interaction without explaining why.

But this strategy is actually the opposite of our goal. Often when we share that we’re struggling emotionally, we normalize it and give permission for others to do the same. We tend to apologize when we express vulnerable emotions, but we need to remember that emotions are part of our experience. Creating a space where it’s acceptable to express difficult emotions without fear of judgment is empowering for children and adults alike.

Modeling emotions and creating judgment-free zones

It takes practice to build the trust among your staff or students that will help normalize emotional expression. Try these practices:

  1. Start with declaring that everyone’s a participant in the same experience: leaders, teachers, students and families—we’re all working toward the same goal. Putting everyone on an equal footing acknowledges our common experience.
  2. In uncertain times, it’s important to state that while we may not have the solutions, what we do have is the ability to support each other. “I don’t know right now” can be an honest, effective answer. Rather than jumping to problem-solving, it can be more effective to brainstorm ways for the community or class to support one another until a solution is available.
  3. Normalize emotions by showing how common our experience is. When someone expresses an emotion, tell others in the group: “Raise your hand if you also feel or have felt this way.”
  4. Differentiate between emotions and behaviors. All emotions are OK—it’s the resulting behavior that sometimes isn’t appropriate. This is an especially important lesson for students.
  5. Know when not to help. You may want to nurture or support a student who is struggling emotionally. Balance when to step in, versus when your impulse to nurture might rob them of practice in emotional self-management skills. Sometimes it’s embarrassing for a student to be “rescued,” and allowing them to work through a difficult situation can build emotional resilience.
  6. Build your emotional vocabulary. We have a wide range of words to describe how we’re feeling. For example, we might feel energized, awake, revitalized or excited; each of those terms carries a different shade of emotional meaning. Or, we might compare an emotion to an experience, such as, “I feel like I do when it’s my birthday.” Normalize talking about emotions by building the descriptive vocabulary. Tools like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s Mood Meter can be very useful.
  7. Encourage students and staff to expand their awareness from their own feelings to recognize emotions in others. When we learn to improve our awareness of what someone else is feeling, we sharpen our empathy. This practice normalizes emotions and helps to establish that we can learn through the experiences of others.

Practices to Help Staff and Students Identify & Talk About Emotions

Learn from the High 5 Adventure Learning Center in their free, on-demand session where they discuss essential strategies for teaching and leading through uncertain, emotional times.

Jim Grout

About the Author

Jim Grout is the executive director and co-founder of High 5 Adventure Learning Center, founded in 2000 as a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to building stronger communities in schools, companies and organizations. Grout is a veteran of more than 30 years in the adventure education field and has trained thousands of people in the art of adventure facilitation. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, including the Association for Experiential Education and served on the Certification Standards Committee of the Association for Challenge Course Technology. He has co-authored two books on adventure education and written numerous articles for various publications in the field. He holds a master’s degree in education from Salem State University in Salem, Mass.

High 5 Adventure Learning Center

High 5 Adventure Learning Center is dedicated to building stronger communities. A nonprofit educational organization, High 5 has been recognized worldwide for its brand of adventure, experiential education, and leadership programs.

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