Helping Kids deal with Negative Emotions in the Classroom

Professionals working in classrooms have a huge range of tasks they are juggling every day - from meeting curriculum goals, managing behaviour, dealing with parental expectations, negotiating special learning needs to lesson planning - and hundreds more.

It's no wonder that sometimes dealing with negative emotions or mental health issues in students seems like an impossible task on top of another set of demands.

Unfortunately however, we know that worried, stressed, sad, angry and upset kids simply don't learn well at school.  When humans (of all ages) experience strong negative emotions  - our ability to concentrate, use language and problem solve is severely impaired.

This means that helping students manage their emotions at school is an extremely important part of teaching.  

But it doesnt have to mean hours of extra teaching time.  Here are some brief actions teachers can take which make big differences to students' well being:

1. Talk about emotions

Children with good emotional literacy do better at school and cope better with strong emotions.  Good emotional literacy means the following:

  • Understanding that there are different emotions (anger, sadness, worry, embarrassment, excitement, happiness, guilt etc)
  • Understanding that emotions vary in intensity from mild to strong
  • Understanding that emotions are triggered by thoughts and situations
  • Being able to identify emotions in self and others
  • Being able to express emotions and take steps to cope with negative emotions

We can help children increase their emotional literacy simply by making emotions part of a daily vocabularly. For example, in discussing books, movies, classroom situations or topic from other curriculum areas, teachers can ask questions like:

  • What was that character feeling there?
  • I wonder whether this person is feeling more angry or more worried?
  • What do you think went through their mind in that situation?
  • What made this person so upset do you think?  Was it X..or Y...Or Z?
  • If that happened to me, I think I would feel X and X.  How about you?
  • What happened that might have made X feel that way?
  • I think X might be feeling X right now.   How strong was that feeling on a scale from 1-10?
  • What could she/he say?

    It is also useful for classrooms to have feeling charts displayed visually, have the opportunity for students to put a marker of some kind if they choose or have scales of intensity of emotion they can draw.

2. When you notice emotion, acknowledge and empathise before doing anything else

When children get angry, worried or sad in the classroom or yard, it is important to acknowledge the emotion and express empathy rather than ignoring the emotion, or moving straight into problem solving, distracting, giving advice or making suggestions.

Acknowledgement and empathy means a short sentence naming the possible emotion, checking out whether this is true and saying that we care about their struggle.  For example:

I can see you are feeling really frustrated right now.  I'm sorry you are feeling so bad.
I could be wrong but you seem a little worried.  That must feel tough.
I'm sorry you are feeling upset about that.
I think I would also feel very sad if that was me.
I know you are very angry.  It's not fun to feel overwhelmed like that.
I'm sorry you are feeling so sad.

Keep in mind that for older children, this statement is often better said quietly - directly to the child, rather than in front of the class.  Also keep in mind, that once acknowledgement and empathy has occurred, teachers can move into problem solving and distraction options fairly quickly if needed.

Here are the powerful benefits of acknowledging and empathising with emotions in children.

The child hears two essential messages:

You are cared about and noticed in this room

Emotions are not dangerous things - you can have them, I can speak about them - and you are still okay

The child also has hears someone else express their emotions which increases the chance they will be able to identify and express them themselves next time. 

As adults we are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge emotions and empathise with children because a) we feel there is no time, b) it will increase the child's distress and make the situation unmanageable or c) it will excuse the child's difficult behaviour.  

None of these things are necessarily true.  Empathising with emotions doesn't mean we are excusing or allowing challenging behaviour.  Empathising with emotion doesnt take a lot of time.  Empathising with emotion often reduces distress because the child hears that someone understands them.  Even if distress is momentarily raised, it can be managed and the benefits of the child knowing they are heard, understood and that emotions are okay - far outweight the occasional temporary increase in distress.   

3. Have a plan for "When I'm not feeling good" - discussed and visually presented in the classroom

Given that children experience strong emotions frequently (often on a daily basis) they need a "go to" guide to teach them what to do when it happens.  This guide needs to be created by the class and teacher at the beginning of the year, and then referred to frequently.  Some classes will have this guide printed on poster, for other children it sits on their desk.  The guide is called something like: "Ideas for what to do when I'm feeling very angry, worried or sad"

I have helped many teachers develop these plans and they vary according to the age group.  However, the kinds of options on classroom managing feeling plans include:

  • Take a slow breath in, and an even slower breath out
  • Say my "calm thoughts" (Children can have prepared these earlier to keep in their pencil case or tray - they might be sentences they find reassuring like, "I'm okay", "I can cope", "it's not the end of the world" etc)
  • Do 2 minutes of hard concentrating on my task to help "restart" my thinking brain
  • Play an "imagine if" game (imagine if I won $1000 dollars, Imagine if I could fly, Imagine if I was playing football for the crows"
  • Hold a soothing object (fiddle toy, plasticine, soft teddy)
  • Write a note/draw a picture to tell the teacher I am feeling bad
  • Stretch my body

    Some schools have designated spots children can go to when they are feeling very angry, upset or worried. This can work well, but must be managed carefully to make sure children are not learning a pattern of avoidance.  Where possible, helping kids manage strong emotions in the spot they are in is most useful.


4. Help children identify their support people and encourage children to communicate with them
 

Children need to have adults they can talk to about their worries, frustration and struggles in life.  Teachers cannot always provide this ongoing support themselves, but they play an important role in helping children identify and seek these people out. Teachers can do this by asking children to write down who they would talk to about different situations or struggles.  For example a useful work sheet lists a column of potential struggles and tricky situations (When I am worried about something at home, when I am frustrated with school work, when I feel scared about something, when I feel upset about friends...etc) - and a column for children to fill in by drawing or writing the people in their life they could talk to about these struggles.

Teachers might have to generate a list of possibilities initially for students to choose from (eg parents, grandparents, relatives, doctor, school chaplain, teacher, neighbour, older sibling, Kids Helpline, psychologist, counsellor etc)

It is also a good idea for children to write down exactly what they would say to initiate the conversation, or draw themselves talking to their support person.  This mini "rehearsal" of the conversation means they will be more likely to seek help when needed.

5. Praise, acknolwedge and reward brave and calm behaviour

Positive reinforcement is an amazingly powerful tool which can dramatically increase the chance of behaviour occurring again.  Just as teachers provide positive reinforcement to students who are working hard at learning tasks, they also need to provide positive reinforcement to students when they act in calm or brave ways.

  • I noticed you took a big breath then instead of running away.  So wonderful.
  • You really tried not to yell then, I'm really proud of you.
  • Thankyou for doing that presentation for us, I know that took lots of courage.
  • You read that reader to me even though you were feeling nervous, thankyou so much for being so brave.
  • I noticed you made an effort to get on with your work even when you were frustrated at John.  You are really becoming a calm student and I'm impressed.

    There are many other ways to help children cope with strong emotions and emotional well being challenges in the classroom.  Feel free to email me with your ideas or to ask questions.

Kirrilie Smout is a clinical child psychologist who has worked with thousands of kids over the last 20 years, in schools and in her clinic.  

Kirrilie is the author of "When Life Sucks for Kids" - a highly acclaimed self help book for 8- 13 year olds to help them cope with tricky situations with school, friends, family, feelings and life.