Every student in a primary school is essentially a big person in a smaller body. Emotions flood through each body moving into and around a school at all times. These emotions affect how children think and make decisions, which is known as our behaviour. Every time a moment of deep sadness and dysregulation (a mini crisis for the Emergency Room department) occurs in a child, it can be mapped back to a root cause based in emotion. By taking time to understand our emotional intelligence, we build a healthy, informed relationship with our emotions which results in increased resilience, the ability to manage challenges and overcome obstacles. In order to ensure students acquire global competencies such as character (understanding their own strengths and challenges), collaboration and citizenship, an emotion revolution is taking place in our very own school to nurture connectedness and wellbeing, which is the essential baseline for humans to be creative and critical thinkers.
PERMISSION TO FEEL: SLOW DOWN AND ENGAGE WITH YOURSELF
Mark Braken PhD in his book Permission to Feel, highlights the danger of not listening to the response to our standard question, “How are you?” and the gradual suppression of emotion that occurs as we mature out of our early childhood and progress through the schooling system into adulthood.
In order to overcome this negative pathway it is critical that we learn how to recognise and deal with emotions so that we can identify important information about ourselves and be well-armed for dealing with the world.
At Moriah College, the behaviour management system includes an intervention process to slow down the emotional response, name and notice the dysfunction and map a way of overcoming the problematic response. Additionally, positive behaviours are highlighted so we understand why things went well and how we can continue to build on our strengths.
Teachers and Wellbeing leaders (inclusive of the psychologists) take time to ask critical questions such as “what happened?” and “how are you feeling?”, and more importantly they take time to listen. Ultimately, the dialogue they structure is mirrored by students, who learn how to connect with themselves and complete self-talk in order to move themselves forward without being a slave to their emotions. The buddy system is where Year 6 student leaders are encouraged to learn this “speak”, live the “narrative”, and teach it to their younger buddies, who might also reach out to them when they experience challenge.
Emotional intelligence is defined as the “ability to identify feelings and emotions in oneself and others, and use it to guide behaviour”. It is precisely this aspect of intelligence that is being cultivated every time we step into our schools. This increased knowledge in students brings their heads (rationalising emotion) and hearts (generating emotion) together in order to ensure educators grow balanced individuals.
BEFRIEND ALL EMOTIONS
Emotions deemed as negative, such as stress and tension, don’t always need to be regarded as the enemy. Feeling fear or stress before delivering a speech or completing a test is viewed as necessary to focus our attention or create the hype to capture an audience. Additionally, anger can assist us to locate our safety mechanisms as we sense danger or define boundaries when we sense challenge. This is called “befriending” or “creating alliances” with our negative emotions to harness them and effect positive outcomes so they work for, not against, us.
GROW EMOTION SKILLS
Humans aren’t born with a well developed menu of emotion skills, but we can all benefit from practicing emotion skills to develop our emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent little people don’t simply act compassionately or show sensitivity or emotion by crying or shouting, instead they act like “emotion scientists” who constantly enact a process of scientific thought. A model of such thinking is the RULER model and can also be used by adults in their own lives and in their interactions with their children. The bold items below (Recognise, Understand and Label) identify the emotion, and the italicised items (Express and Regulate) suggest how to deal with the emotion. Essentially, an emotion is named and understood in terms of how it originated. The model then exposes why the reaction occurred and how the trigger could be managed.
|R||Recognise||facial expression / relaxed or tense body/ sound strained/ speaking clearly or mumbling|
|U||Understand||What triggered the emotion, how intense was the response and how unpleasant was the experience? This is known as a mood metre analysis.|
|L||Label||If we label strong emotions accurately it makes them less scary. The mood metre helps us establish the intensity of the emotion as being furious or irritated, terrified or worried.|
|E||Express||The above expressing of emotions assists us to manage situations that trigger us. It does not mean we respond with the raw intense bundle of emotions we view in babies and simply dump our bad mood and fight or flight response on others, it means we have the vocabulary of vulnerability to let people in on our feelings underneath the anger or bad mood that is present.|
|R||Regulate||Strategies to respond to the well articulated emotion are critical. They include mindful breathing, self-talk and a toolkit of strategies to deal with the challenging situation. The situation can be as simple as “no one will play with me at break” or as complex as “I feel very depressed about aspects of myself”.|
When we accept and understand the complex machinery of emotion that works within each of us, both big and small, we can navigate our world in a productive way.
PARENTS AS PARTNERS
The actions of adults in schools and families play a key role in this process. By regulating their own emotions and acting as behaviour models, adults teach children how to deal with theirs. Before children can regulate their own emotions, they depend on adults to provide co-regulation. This can be hugging a child when they are distressed, or providing a distraction so they calm down during a tantrum, and then reflecting in the calmness of reason that ensues. With older children, adults model self-talk when they themselves face challenge. They openly identify the triggers that set them off such as overwhelming work demands, dysregulated actions around them, seeing mess or even hearing noise. They always default to using the regulation technique of asking out loud, “How would my best self behave in this situation?” The options are named and line of action is identified.
When students step into and through Moriah College every day, they move with this subtext offered to them by the adults in their world and by peers as they acquire emotion skills. The Friendology and Positive Psychology wellbeing programs, in conjunction with the positive behaviour and behaviour management framework, slow down thinking and responding and enable students to express their emotion and locate a regulated response. The psychologists and the mindfulness processes they foster assists to calm heightened reactions which block rational thought and further cultivates the safety net holding all these growing individuals. The other important adults are our parents as partners. Their “after hours” interaction is even more impactful and increases in benefit when it uses a common vocabulary and approach. This reminder and strategy from our two Primary School psychologists will assist our partners to join the revolution in the ER department at Moriah. To fix the root cause of the injury, we should all use the most valued piece of medical equipment, our RULER, to underline and measure exactly what is happening to each of us. Together, we can increase our emotional intelligence and respond consistently in the best way possible. And if we make a mistake we know exactly how to fix it so that we don’t sit in error, but rather travel in success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.