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Build Your Emotional Vocabulary to Impact Learning During the School Year

Build Your Emotional Vocabulary to Impact Learning During the School Year

Most of us have a complicated relationship with emotions. If you have ever asked how someone is doing and been met with the expected short “fine” in response, then you know what I’m talking about. “Fine” is that go-to word that can actually mean:

  • I don’t know
  • Not fine
  • I don’t want to tell you
  • You don’t really want to listen
  • Leave me alone
  • Please ask me more

Humans have this tenuous relationship with how we feel and what we say about it. How many times a day have you been greeted with: “How are you?” How many times have you answered honestly? For teachers and staff preparing to return back to school in a world of uncertainty, emotions are all over the place, and finding the words from moment to moment is a real challenge.

Why is this? Because emotions can be overwhelming, and dealing with them feels like it will take too much time.

I don’t know about you, but when I have a lot to do, I sometimes feel that if I take time to recognize how I’m feeling it might derail me. That could mean I won’t get my work done, I can’t care for the others around me, I can’t manage my class, I can’t complete the lesson, or I might not know what to do with what I am feeling. In all of those cases, recognizing how I’m feeling seems to take time I just don’t have. However, we know that emotions impact our focus, decision-making ability, and our relationships.

Just like following the safety procedures on an airplane, we need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. Unrecognized emotions can affect those around us. Have you ever snapped at someone you care about when you were not really mad at them? Even if you can “control” outbursts like that, unrecognized emotions can take a toll on your health and well-being in other ways.

One strategy to avoid being overwhelmed is to schedule regular emotion check-ins with yourself—just a few minutes to take your emotional temperature and ask yourself what you need. This takes less time than waiting for a future crisis that requires more time to manage. These small moments can make your work time and interactions more productive. Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Take a short walk and think about how your body feels as you walk. Where are you holding tension?

  • Step out of the house or classroom and find a patch of grass, tree, or garden and take a seat for a few minutes. Notice what is around you, and then reflect on how you are feeling.

  • Close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing. Slow it down, and assess what is happening in your body, where you hold tension, and what emotions you are experiencing.

  • Most of the things we respond to daily are not life or death. Practice taking a pause before each response so that you become mindful of what is driving it. This practice will serve you well when you are less calm.

Using downtime to practice small strategies like these regularly will give you skills to use when you need them. They are also easily transferable to students, and you can even practice them together.

We don’t have the words

Most of us have a limited vocabulary about emotions. Research by Brené Brown found that when people were asked to name the emotions they can recognize, the mean number identified was only three: happy, sad, and mad. We often expand the list of emotions to include words like frustrated, anxious, excited, depressed, lonely, and worried, but the spectrum of what sad or happy means is so much richer and nuanced. Creating opportunities to expand the words to describe emotions can help you and your students pinpoint what is going on.

One model of five main emotions, listed below, gives you an idea of the spectrum of words to describe various levels of each emotion:

  • Fear, including nervousness to terror
  • Anger, including annoyance to fury
  • Sadness, including helplessness to anguish
  • Disgust, including dislike to loathing
  • Enjoyment, including compassion to ecstasy

Each term has its own unique elements. Some are more intense, and others can last longer at a lower level. To understand these better, I recommend checking out The Ekmans’ “Atlas of Emotions.

Building an emotional vocabulary can help you identify how you’re feeling in more accurate words. This can help you feel more confident when it comes to conveying exactly what is going on and how to manage it. There is a difference between being “nervous about an outcome” versus “desperate that something goes according to plan.” Desperation comes from “the inability to reduce danger” or a lack of control versus nervousness, which is “uncertainty as to whether there is danger,” where there is still room for control. Knowing these nuances can really feel empowering for you and your students.

Finally, talking about emotions can also create a sense of vulnerability. What if the person who asks me really doesn’t want to know how I’m feeling? What if what I’m feeling makes him or her feel bad? Others may have something worse going on. Will others think I can’t handle things? If I tell people how I feel it, will give them power. Well-known author Brené Brown debunks this through her research. In fact, it’s clear that naming our emotions accurately helps reduce the power they have over us. To learn more, check out her interview with Marc Brackett on her Unlocking Us podcast.

This year has been full of so many challenges, and they’re not subsiding. Even the people around me who are more practiced at naming and managing their emotions are feeling overwhelmed. There is only so much we can manage without intentional self-care. That means, now more than ever, it’s important to practice skills that support a healthy emotional life. Downtime is a great time to start a routine. As we approach the start of the new school year, we can work on these skills and see that they are easily transferable to our students and staff.

As back to school time approaches, there are still so many things out of our control that it can feel overwhelming to think about. Take a look at our blog post Controlling What We Can Control: Self-Awareness and Self-Management where we unpack a few strategies to help regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves when things in our environment feel out of our control.

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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.