Putting Unpleasant Emotions to Work

Throughout an ordinary day, individuals experience a wide range of emotions. As adults, we accept this reality. We’ve even learned how to tap into ‘survival’ emotions in order to overcome difficult situations.

Yet, many teachers feel their job is to encourage students to be happy or calm all the time. Not only is this unrealistic, it doesn’t allow students to leverage ‘unpleasant’ emotions toward a productive end. Although we want a classroom climate where students feel safe, calm and comfortable, we also want to provide rich learning opportunities where students might feel, at times, challenged and even uncomfortable.

“All emotions have the capacity to be adaptive; they’re neither good nor bad,” says Miriam Miller of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI). “Ultimately, we need to match our emotion to the job at hand, through emotion regulation, or shift the job to match the emotion. The point is to recognize the wide range of emotions – and use them more effectively.”

For example, feeling uncomfortable is an adaptive mindset for engaging in debate or standing up for an injustice; when a person has lower energy and feels slightly unpleasant, they are better suited to tasks like editing or error analysis.

The Mood Meter
If awareness is the linchpin to greater understanding and better decision-making, a good starter tool might be the Mood Meter. Miller suggests teachers and students check in throughout the day, using the Mood Meter app or similar tool.

“Students returning from recess or lunch are often in a high-energy state. Most teachers intuitively regulate their students, decreasing the energy by giving a calming task, like silent reading. When students check in on the Mood Meter, they can recognize their emotion and choose strategies to self-regulate. It becomes less about the teacher regulating the students and more about the students regulating themselves,” says Miller. “Using the Mood Meter gives us a process to recognize and regulate our emotions. As we like to say, you have to name it to tame it!”

The Mood Meter is an anchor tool from YCEI's social and emotional approach called RULER. RULER is an acronym that represents the skills of emotional intelligence (EI):

  • Recognize emotions in ourselves and in others’ through cues like facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and physiology
  • Understand the causes, and subsequent consequences, of experiencing emotions
  • Label the full range of emotions with accurate vocabulary
  • Express emotions effectively within various contexts
  • Regulate emotions by using a wide range of strategies

RULER is an evidence-based approach to systemically integrating SEL, and specifically EI, in schools. The first year of the program focuses on adult development. Teachers learn about and model EI, and work to create a positive emotional staff climate, before implementing RULER with their students.

Scientists, Not Judges
Schools are emotional spaces, and teaching and learning are emotional processes. At times, it’s easy to jump to assumptions about how others feel and behave. As educators, we need to resist the urge to be critical and reactionary.

“Be an emotion scientist,” Miller tells her crowd. “Emotion scientists are empathetic, inquisitive, active listeners, contemplative, and focus on the facts. As emotion scientists, we create emotionally safe spaces for ourselves, and our students, to thrive.”

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