Emotions can be frightening for all of us, especially for children. But if students don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings, they may turn to acting out. This fails to resolve the feelings and makes a teacher’s life much more difficult.
I learned to focus on the reason behind the behavior. Everyone responds differently to situations or feelings. Some children hit others when they become angry or frustrated. Others talk incessantly when they are nervous or excited. Still others stop responding completely when they are sad, or may even show signs of self-harm. Students often can’t see that these feelings and behaviors are connected. Teachers can help students voice their feelings.
At some point, this clicked for me and it became one of the proudest moments in my teaching career. I had seen some magnets and posters that had pictures of different facial expressions with the names of the corresponding emotions underneath. I took this idea and picked out the emotions that seemed to be most applicable for my students. I created slips of paper with the phrase “I feel:” followed by a variety of emotions they could check: angry, sad, disappointed, worried, frustrated, nervous, excited, and happy. There was also a space where they could write their names and any other notes, to explain further. I was inspired and wrote one more option: “I just need attention.”
I explained my ground rules to the kids. The papers were kept in a corner of the room and the kids could get them at any point as long as they were quiet. They could fill them out, no matter what we were doing in class, and hand it to me or put it on my desk. I explained that I may not be able to look at it right away, and that even if I did, there was no guarantee that I could do something right away, but that as soon as I could, I would talk to them about it.
The kids never misused this tool. I found my students very often didn’t need me to do anything. Many of them truly just needed to acknowledge what they were feeling or, as I had stated, just needed attention.
Some words had to be explained, of course. “Frustrated” was an exceptionally powerful word for many children who had never known what it was that made them feel like hitting something or breaking their pencil. A common write-in was that the writer wanted to hit someone, so we had a class discussion (and many, many individual discussion) about how it was acceptable to feel like hitting someone, as long as you didn’t actually hit someone. I knew I was getting through when one particularly troubled girl ran toward my desk with clenched fists clenched, saying, “I’m not going to do it, but I want to hit her. So I’m telling you instead.”
My students also learned that it’s possible to have many emotions at the same time, and this paper helped them sort it out to an extent. One boy, whose mom was getting out of jail soon, kept taking the papers and filling them out with “happy,” “excited,” and “nervous” all checked. He didn’t want anything from me – he just wanted to keep saying it. Another child checked every single emotion, every time. His life was a tornado of emotions, and he often added that he hated himself. I tried to take the time to talk to him at recess about this on a regular basis.
Another girl filled out a feelings paper, as the students called them, almost every day, and checked “I just need attention.” She would then underline it multiple times, circle it and add exclamation marks. Sometime she would rewrite it several times. The amazing part was that she really did just need attention. I would get one of these papers in my hand, walk over to her, comment on her work, touch her shoulder, or just say hi, and she’d be all right for a little while.
I don’t think that these papers solved any of the problems in my students’ lives. They still had parents in jail, witnessed and suffered abuse and experienced the tragedies that come with living in a low-income, high-violence area. But the act of identifying their feelings and having them validated seemed to be a tool that helped many of them take control over their emotions. They seemed slightly less at the mercy of their feelings and slightly more able to determine what they needed. I hope that they remember that their feelings are valid and that someone cared about helping them figure that out.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.