George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Negativity Jammers

Ten techniques that help students control their emotions.

January 25, 2017
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How many times have you been thrown off your game by a student’s random emotional outburst?

Many of my high school students acted impulsively in class, sometimes violently. And my response was equally impulsive—I tried to suppress their feelings, which, I should mention right away, never works. Unfortunately, when we direct kids to leave their emotions on the playground, students hear what we mean loud and clear: “Be quiet and compliant.”

Directing students to celebrate only after academic wins is equally misguided, as most championship-winning coaches know. They’ll tell you that emotions—inspiration, intensity, exhilaration, frustration, love, and compassion—when carefully cultivated, strengthen kids’ capacity to meet goals.

Children need to express their emotions, and we can help them learn to do this appropriately. The following negativity jammers, or state-change strategies, will improve students’ attitudes, beliefs, and enjoyment of school.

1. “Stop” This is a neurolinguistic programming formula developed by James McClendon III “to arrest negative, disempowering feelings and memories that fuel negative behaviors and replace them with more powerful emotions and behaviors.” The technique always helps students feel happier and more confident. When you notice your mind perseverating on hopelessness or self-criticism, interrupt debilitating thinking loops by doing the following:

  • Notice when your thoughts turn negative.
  • Change your posture immediately. Sit or stand up and say, “Stop!” while shaking your arms to interrupt unwanted thoughts.
  • Cue up an image of a time when you felt unstoppable. This step works better when your replacement memory has previously been identified. Feel the positivity in your bones.
  • Squeeze your fist and say, “Yes!” to celebrate.

2. Priming This is a well-documented technique to trigger subconscious thinking and put students’ brains in drive. In a 1998 study, one group of college students wrote about the attributes of professors for five minutes. Another group listed attributes of soccer hooligans for the same amount of time. Those primed with professorial words scored 13 percent higher on a subsequent test. Prime students in your class by posting the following words prominently in your classroom: focused, engaged, determined, disciplined, confident, creative, and successful.

3. Box Breathing When introduced to Navy SEALs, deep, diaphragmatic box breathing (this illustration explains the name) reduced performance anxiety and improved their focus during battles. Before an exam, direct students to:

  • Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds.
  • Hold their breath for another 4 seconds.
  • Breath out slowly for 4 seconds.
  • Wait 4 seconds before breathing in.
  • Repeat all the above five times.

4. Good New and Gratitude (G.N.G.) At the start of each class, I have students stand in a circle and briefly report on any life events that make them feel grateful: birthdays, trips to the beach, pizza for lunch, a new Beyoncé album, etc. In three minutes, everyone feels elevated and ready to learn.

5. Touch Humans need to be touched. In the ’80s and ’90s, Romanian babies who weren’t touched suffered lifelong cognitive and physical hardships. NBA teams that performed more fist bumps, chest bumps, and hugs in the first half of a season won more games in the second half. This is because touch builds trust, lowers stress hormones, and improves performance. So direct students to fist bump you and each other (fist bumps spread 90 percent less bacteria than handshakes) at the beginning of class.

6. Flow According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow performance is an “effortless, spontaneous feeling” of engagement. When learning challenges are too hard, teach students to break up a task into smaller parts to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Or have them race against the clock to avoid boredom when work feels too easy. A few adjustments can make academic tasks flow.

7. Emotional Goals Ask students to write down one specific emotional goal; e.g., “Caring: Tomorrow I will smile, greet one peer in every class by name, and ask a specific question about his or her life.”

8. Meditation Chaining Meditating for 11 minutes a day enhances positive emotions and decreases anxiety. For motivation, I recommend that students download this free calendar with all the days of the year printed on a single page and X out every day that they meditate. Although Jerry Seinfeld developed this system to motivate himself to write regularly, the technique can be used for any goal. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” says the comedian. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day.”

9. Loose Intensity: The Contest Many kids simply don’t know what it feels like to be simultaneously focused and relaxed—the way Muhammad Ali looked before fights with Joe Frazier, and the optimum stance for any task. So I hold impromptu contests to determine which learner appears the most observant and at ease. Are shoulders, hands, and jaws loose? Are eyes focused or checked out? I encourage the entire class to imitate the winner.

10. Bliss Break Before a team activity, ask students to silently group up with peers who have the same eye color. This will necessitate kids actually looking into each other’s eyes. Keeping the activity silent means nobody can shout, “Blue eyes over here.” They’ll giggle nervously and produce oxytocin, the love hormone, which leads to feelings of well-being.

Neuroscience suggests ways to make kids happier and less resistant to learning. Moreover, students who are in control of their emotions can accomplish anything.

What are your tips for helping students manage their feelings?

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