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Making the emotion-behavior connection

Emotion drives behavior, especially among youth. How to help students drive in the right direction

9 min read

Voice of the Educator

Making the emotion-behavior connection


One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is being able to manage both the academic and social-emotional needs all of the students in the classroom. Students’ behavior has the potential to interfere with nearly every aspect of the classroom, making it quite difficult to teach when behaviors aren’t regulated.  It’s simply not enough to teach academics; we need to teach social and emotional skills as well. For early learners, in fact, this might be even more important than academics. 

Schools are searching for programs that target the core competency areas as outlined by Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a leading source on SEL. Programs that have students discuss and participate in activities within these domain areas are important. Discussions and activities that introduce the concepts of self-awareness and self-management can help to make students more aware of themselves and the way they interact with others.

Tackling the broader concepts of social interactions and relationship skills is also critical. These concepts are central in any classroom and can drive many important conversations and activities within an SEL curriculum. Teachers are increasingly getting encouragement to weave the core concepts of conversation, collaboration and debate into their everyday teaching. Students can practice all of these skills daily while working in science labs, games in P.E., or even at recess. Group projects can be opportunities for students to take the perspective of their peers and to show empathy and kindness to group members. Some in the SEL field have indicated that a curriculum isn’t even really necessary, as long as teachers integrate and provide opportunities for students to practice.

A New Way Forward

There are some limitations to this broad approach to SEL, however. The most obvious is that students are at very different levels of competency, particularly in the early grades. As a result, some students are often doing most of the “SEL heavy lifting” while others are observing and not ready to contribute much to the group.  Another issue is the burden it places on a teacher. It’s challenging to find both the time and the activities to properly integrate SEL into the class day. Not all teachers feel comfortable with SEL and many want more training and support. Perhaps the most specific criticism for the current approach is voiced by the 62% of teachers who say that student behavior is interfering with their ability to teach.  What if kids need more than just discussion in order to learn social and emotional skills?

To really develop SEL skills in our students, we need to take a step back and look at how our students develop these skills in the first place. Located at the core of SEL is emotional regulation. Emotional regulation can be thought of as the process we use to manage our emotions.

Our emotions drive our behaviors.

At the heart of every event or situation is an emotion. How we manage that emotion determines what happens next. If a student is able to successfully manage feeling bored during a math lesson, they are able to remain focused and participate in their math group. If a student is unable to manage feeling anxious during a writing assignment, the feeling of anxiety might drive the behavior of refusing to work. We might see the student put their head down on their desk and refuse to continue working. The skills needed to manage these emotions aren’t always known to students and, even when they are, are not “automatically” used. This is especially true in younger children. The good news is they can be taught.

The key to learning both academically and socially/emotionally is to have the skills that comprise emotional regulation and also be able to apply them when needed. Developing these skills comes naturally to some students and less easy for others. But every student can benefit from explicit instruction in the skills of emotional regulation and learn how to apply these critical skills in school and in life.

Start With Emotional Regulation

Imagine starting a math curriculum in the third chapter. Some of our students might be able to do the work because they learned some of the skills in earlier grades or picked them up watching an older brother or sister. The majority of our students, however, wouldn’t know what to do, and teaching them advanced concepts initially wouldn’t help them to have a solid math foundation. Now let’s think about many current SEL programs; they often start by talking about following directions, empathy, and listening skills. These are important concepts and ones that all students need. However, they don’t help students to build the skills that form the foundation they will need to really master the skills of social and emotional learning. Teaching the skills that form the basis of emotional regulation does.

“Chapter One” in an SEL program must teach the foundational skills that help students to understand their own emotions. In practice, this means we first teach students to be able to identify, understand, and manage emotions. Then, we help them connect their emotions to an event or situation. This builds meaningful context that helps students understand why they feel the way they do. We then help students connect an emotion to the resulting behavior. Once students understand the concept that their emotions drive their behaviors we can help them learn strategies and mindfulness techniques to manage the emotions they feel. These new strategies will help them to manage their behaviors. Central to these skills is the idea that the students are in charge of themselves and their behavior. This is powerful and positive.

When students have mastered the management of emotions, they are the drivers of their own goal-directed and purposeful behavior. Their foundation is solid and they are ready to build a lifetime of learning academically and socially/emotionally.

What it Looks Like in Practice

We had a student many years ago who had a really challenging time managing his school day because he was unable to manage his emotions. If someone accidentally bumped into him in the hallway, he would cry.  If he didn’t understand a math problem, he would cry. If he was confused about one of his classroom assignments, his response was to break down into tears.

The solution prior to our working with him was to give him access to a classroom assistant and create a behavior plan for him. The assistant would help him to navigate the “difficulties” he would face, which often meant managing the problems for him. He wasn’t improving with this plan and we knew we needed to make a significant change to his support. Our process started by helping him to learn different emotions. When he was upset we would show him two or three different “emotions characters” and this helped him to learn what he was really feeling. Then we slowly paired different strategies with the emotions. For example, when he was anxious he would get a drink of water and take a quick walk before returning to his assignment. Over time, and with consistent practice, his crying was significantly reduced. He didn’t need the support of his assistant to manage his day―he was doing it on his own. He also spent much more time in the classroom and his work improved as he was present for instruction. His social interactions were also improved as he was able to participate in group activities.

The important takeaway from this success story: don’t assume kids can identify their own emotions. When they are emotionally reactive, the support we are giving them might skip over that very crucial step and move right into behavior modification. But how can we expect them to change their behavior when they don’t know what’s driving it? We shouldn’t, but we often do. Teach kids to identify, understand and manage their emotions and they will be able to change their own behavior.

Starting the Process

Teachers can start the process of learning to manage emotions by talking about and identifying emotions in the classroom. Here are some strategies and activities that get things moving:

  • Use books, movies, and other videos to help teach the many different emotions we experience each day. Seeing characters talking about their emotions is an excellent first step for kids who are reluctant to talk about their own emotions. It’s a safe way to explore and practice identifying emotions but can still support learning. 

  • As educators, share examples from our own lives. “I couldn’t start the car this morning and I got so nervous and anxious because I thought I would be late for school.” or “My son’s soccer team won their tournament. I was so excited I was cheering on the sideline!” Talking about emotions in the context of activities is an easy and powerful way to help students understand what they feel and why. Help them to label their emotions and you will be teaching them the first step toward emotional regulation. 

  • Start an “emotions box” to begin creating the emotion-behavior connection. Ask your students to identify their emotion and the event or activity that the emotion came from. Students can anonymously write the emotion they identified on one side of a card and the event/activity that drove the emotion on the other and place it in the box. Then, once or twice a week, go through the box with your students and share the cards. You’ll be able to share all of the emotions the class experiences and why! It’s an easy step but helps build the emotion/event connection. 

Starting a new SEL program can be a challenge to be sure, but starting with the foundational skills is the best way to achieve success. The most important thing to remember: change takes time and practice. Take the one-month SEL challenge. We recommend you plan to really make the emotion-behavior connection a focus in your classroom for one month. Start with the basics, and reinforce and practice on a regular basis. With time, you’ll see that your students are beginning the process of real and lasting social and emotional learning.

Educational psychologist Lori Jackson and special educator Steve Peck each have more than 15 years of experience working with students and their families in diverse school settings. They co-founded The Connections Model, an education technology company that develops tools and curriculum aimed at nurturing social-emotional learning. Follow them on Twitter @TheConnectModel


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