As part of my job as an educational psychologist at a K-8 school with a mission for gifted education, I run our social-emotional learning curriculum. What this means in practice is that I get to help kindergartners sort through what it means to be a friend and how to know when they need quiet time, while also helping 8th graders work through their first romantic challenges while trying to discover who they are as people, separate from the identities their parents have chosen for them. In other words, the K-8 experience of social-emotional growth runs the gamut from the earliest skills of self-regulation to quite advanced questions of identity and belonging.
But while the skills of social-emotional learning change as students get older, one basic principle stays the same. Across all ages, social-emotional growth requires two things: Being able to recognize emotions and then being able to do something about it.
You can see this Recognize-and-Act paradigm in the five “core competencies” described by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the leading organizations in the study, design, and delivery of SEL ideas and materials. These competencies are Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making. You can look at it this way: Self Awareness and Self Management is like recognizing and acting from a intrapersonal perspective (within yourself), while Social Awareness and Relationship Skills is recognizing and acting from an interpersonal perspective (with others). Responsible Decision-Making is like a bridge from recognition to action — its a checkpoint that connects understanding and actions.
No matter whether you are a teacher or other practitioner working with kids, or if you are a parent, of if you are simply interested in better managing your own emotional ecosystem, this idea of recognizing and then acting offers a framework for growth. Within this framework are SO MANY strategies, activities, and exercises that can help kids learn these skills. Following is a very basic framework that I hope you can use to get started:
With intrapersonal or interpersonal challenges, start by asking your students (or yourself!) questions like, “What am I experiencing?” and “How does this feel in my body?” and “What clues can you use to know your emotions?” If you’re working with an interpersonal challenge, help students work through how they think others are feeling, too. The goal now is understanding, what CASEL calls Self Awareness or Social Awareness. You can reinforce (and normalize) this process by modeling the way you work to understand your emotions — don’t forget to model your positive emotions as well, maybe saying things like, “Wow, when you all work hard during class, it makes me feel so good!”
Next, work to identify the “size” of students’ emotions. With young students, I’ll use a color wheel or emotions board or hand gestures to give kids the language they need to express how “big” or “small” their emotions are. With older students, we’ll use a 1-10 scale. At the end of this step, students should be able to describe the emotion they’re feeling and how acutely they’re feeling it.
The next step is helping students make responsible decisions about how to manage these emotions. Often, we’re helping students deal with negative or disorganized emotions, and, depending on the situation I would encourage you to consider shifting your goal from making a negative emotion disappear and more toward helping students reduce the severity of their negative emotions to bring the experience and expression of these emotions back into a manageable range — maybe from the 7-10 range back into the 2-4 range.
Social-Emotional Learning is not about teaching students to repress their emotions, but to experience them, manage them, and express these emotions in appropriate ways! And for every student, the best way to shape negative or disorganized emotions will be different. After recognizing a “big” emotion, some students will benefit from time alone, maybe going for a walk or involving themselves with an engaging puzzle toy; while other students may need to talk through their emotions with a trusted friend or adult. Work with students to identify a “toolbelt” of strategies they can use to regulate their emotions, whether that’s toning down anger or sadness, or boosting positive emotions about a situation you think they can get excited about.
Again, what we DON’T want is for students to feel like they can never be mad or sad — repressed emotions have a way of bubbling to the surface at times and in ways that can be destructive. And, of course, this is just a very basic framework that I hope helps you think about ways you might incorporate SEL instruction into your curriculum, family, or life. But by recognizing emotions, deciding on a responsible course of actions, and then using strategies act on this understanding, you can empower the young people in your life or empower yourself to take control of emotions in a positive and productive way.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.