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[Admin Tips] Navigating Change and the Role of Emotions

[Admin Tips] Navigating Change and the Role of Emotions

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. —Georg C. Lichtenberg

Our whole lives are defined by change, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. The start of a new school year is often a time marked by change—new students, new members of the school community, new tools for teaching. But, variation in routine and connection can make us crave stability and comfort, two traits not commonly associated with the patterns and process of change. If you include the experiences from the last school year and this return to school full of unknowns, there are a lot of emotions to manage.  

In his book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, Marc Brackett, Ph.D., writes:

We think of work as being driven by skill sets and information, by brainpower and experience, and by the hunger for achievement and accomplishment. All those things are in the mix, of course. But emotions are the most powerful force inside the workplace—as they are in every human endeavor. They influence everything from leadership effectiveness to building and maintaining complex relationships, from innovation to customer relations.  

How do we successfully wrestle with workplace emotions in the face of change?

Change is essential to growth, but let’s face it—change is scary. Change raises a lot of emotions because we cannot predict or control change. It can strike at the core of our sense of stability and survival instincts, often throwing us into our more reactive “downstairs” brain that provides base emotions and functioning. This is because emotions, good or bad, have the power to disconnect us from our “upstairs” brain that provides logic and reason, making us more reactive than responsive.

This is normal, and we all have greater or lesser success at managing change depending on our self-awareness, level of control, skills, and is the things that are going on in our lives. If you want to know more about how emotions pop the top on logic, check out Dan Siegel’s talk on the model of the brain.

So, as an administrator, what might you be seeing? It would not be uncommon to see staff members who lack a bit of focus. You might see educators short on patience or asking more questions about things they have resources for or have already been told. The latter is an attempt to gain control over narratives and worries in their heads that maybe they are missing something or are in jeopardy in some way. It is hard to absorb new information when the brain is in “fight or flight” mode and uncertainty is a prime trigger.

“When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.”

—Chinese proverb

We can all be leaders in how to navigate change. How can you support your teachers or classroom in managing uncertainty and gray areas, and how can we all begin to feel a little more in control?

Here are five steps rooted in brain science and social-emotional learning to help manage emotions and successfully navigate change:

Build self-awareness

Help teachers take the temperature on where they are. A few minutes of checking in before a structured meeting can help support productivity. Not only does it give leaders information on how their team is functioning, but it can help move the team from the emotion brain to the logic brain. Simple, two-minute mindfulness or breathing activities work well. Leaders can create these brief moments at the opening and/or closing of a meeting.

Name your emotions

Administrators can help their teams by recognizing the spectrum of emotions flying around by explicitly naming them. You can say something like: “I know you all are in a state of anticipation about recent or upcoming changes. Anticipation can create interest or vigilance, or both. This can produce anxiety, and anxiety can be motivating or paralyzing. If you need support, ask. In the meantime, I recognize the challenge. We have important work to do.” For a resource on emotional vocabulary, check out Plutchik’s wheel of emotions.

Focus on the facts

Even when detailed information has been shared, in times of stress, people forget their resources or the nuance of how an answer applies to them. Administrators can proactively take a few minutes at the end of the meeting to share again some of “what we know.” It can be reassuring to teams to acknowledge that things are not normal yet” and that “communication is open and ongoing. Focus on information relevant to the short timeline between meetings rather than the whole picture to support manageable steps forward. It can help to hear something several times, even if it is to simply reassure everyone that there is no new news.

Help each other identify the focus of one’s circle of control

One of the surest ways to “pop the top” on our logic brain is to focus on things we cannot control. Many people have been having this experience during the pandemic. If you have teams or educators struggling, you can help support them by explicitly helping them define what they can control. Clear expectations with short-term deliverables in the moment help. This is a great skill for partnering with and empowering students as well.

Assume positive intent

This takes practice, but we all want to be happy and avoid suffering. All of us are at different states of emotion, and we have different demands on our lives. Any defensiveness often comes from fear, so lead with compassion and assume people are trying to show that they are competent and valuable.

Remember, even the people who build walls really want to build windmills.

For more information on how anxiety can impact our teams check out this Edmentum blog post: Understanding How Anxiety Can Impact Us & the Functioning of Our Teams.

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.