Fostering Emotional Literacy Begins With the Brain
Teaching elementary students the neuroscience of emotions helps them understand their feelings and empowers them to respond with intentionality.
A fourth-grade student has an angry outburst in the middle of your lesson. How do you respond? Emotions are contagious, and your initial reaction might be to respond in anger. What happens if instead you build on your relationship and learning? Using proximity and calm, you say something like, “Wow, I can see you’re having a big feeling right now. Let’s take a beat together.”
In some instances, everything shifts.
By affirming students’ emotions, helping them to name their feelings, and talking through the next steps, teachers can often assuage a volatile moment. Building in lessons on emotional literacy is an important component of emotionally safe classrooms. Emotional literacy is an ability to (1) express and process emotions, and (2) identify and respond to emotional cues from others. While at times this may seem like social work, it’s also scientific.
Using Neuroscience to Normalize and Empower
Teaching students the neuroscience of emotions helps normalize emotional responses while empowering young people with the science of why we have big feelings and how they happen in the brain. In biological terms, emotions are our brains’ response to stimuli or experiences. While some are certainly more pleasant than others, emotions aren’t good or bad. All emotions are information.
When teaching about the neuroscience of emotion, I start with the limbic system. This set of brain structures plays a significant role in the formation of memories, emotional processing, and behaviors. I use a mnemonic I developed for my book Brain-Based Learning With Gifted Students to help students learn the different parts of the limbic system: Hippos’ teeth have awful odor (hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and olfactory bulb).
We then work through the functions of each of these structures so that students are empowered with neuroanatomical language to describe their emotional processes. For example, a fifth-grade student might say, “Watch out, Miss! That is a big amygdala trigger for me!” Or a third grader might say, “I don’t know how those unicorns got in my hippocampus, but let me tell you about my dream last night.” The endless jokes about our olfactory bulbs span across the grade levels.
Emotions (feeling) and cognition (thinking) are not separate processes. Instead, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors lead to coordinated responses across the brain affecting attention, working memory, and executive functioning. For this reason, teaching and learning about emotions supports teaching and learning about anything else in your curricula.
Building a Vocabulary of Emotions
Emotional regulation is the strategy people use to understand and respond to their complex feelings. There are two primary types of emotional regulation. Implicit emotional regulation refers to automatic processes in response to emotions. Explicit emotional regulation refers to conscious efforts to use strategies to respond to emotions. Explicit emotional regulation is a teachable skill that we can all improve, beginning with how we name and talk about our feelings.
There are about 3,000 words in the English language to describe emotions, but most people likely use fewer than 20 on a regular basis. A limited emotional vocabulary means that we miss out on important nuances in understanding and talking about our feelings. Feeling frustrated is different from feeling angry, insecure, or overwhelmed. There are some key strategies to help students grow their emotional vocabularies, but this pre-work shouldn’t happen during a highly charged emotional experience; we need to build these techniques into our daily lessons. Below are three strategies I’ve used in elementary classrooms.
- Feeling brainstorms. Challenge students to think of as many types of fill-in-the-blank emotions as possible. For example, can you think of 20 types of happy or sad?
- Anchor charts for emotions. As students generate these lists, track the new feeling words on anchor charts in your classroom. Challenge students to use them in their writing, in academic dialogues, and also when talking about their own emotions.
- Use emojis. A teacher I know has his students act out different emojis to explore emotional cues. This strategy is often a great community-builder and even works well in online classes. Whether you act them out, brainstorm, or sketch, helping young people name and distinguish between different feelings can help expand their emotional vocabulary— an important step in preparing for that next big feeling.
Stop, Name, React
I teach students to stop, name, and react when they’re faced with a big feeling. First, they pause. If the student is working on a math problem, they should stop calculating for a moment and take a deep breath. Deep breathing is linked to brain health, attention, and awareness. Next, they use their emotional vocabulary work to name the feeling with specificity.
Finally, I ask the student what they want to do with their feeling. Will they get a drink of water? Take a few more deep breaths? Do they need to talk to someone? Would it help to squeeze their hand into a tight fist, count to three, and then release? Knowing there are options for what to do with a feeling can be freeing. Later, when the student is calm, we also talk about what might have been happening in their brain at the time.
A Lasting Impact
These strategies help young people listen to their feelings more deeply, understand the function of emotions, connect emotional processing to specific structures in the brain, and, in our best moments, respond with intentionality.
This way, when you go over to that distraught young person and say, “Wow, I can see you’re having a big feeling right now; let’s take a beat together,” the student will already have prior knowledge about why feelings happen and, more important, prior experiences that tell them you care. From here, we can work together to make astute choices as we all keep moving forward.
It’s also wise to remember that psychological safety and physical safety have a direct impact on emotional safety. No matter how complete and clever our teaching on emotional literacy is, if we aren’t also actively working toward justice, inclusion, equity, and belonging, then we aren’t cultivating emotionally safe classrooms.