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Cracking the Code of Student Emotional Pain

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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Young girl with face buried in her hands

Every instructor wants to crack the code -- to determine just what children and adolescents need to transform feelings of defeat, cognitive and emotional exhaustion, and outright hostility into something positive. They want to connect with students whose stress response states are chronically activated. They want to help learners know that they are more than just their genetics or their history. They want to share with their most fragile students that the traumas of their past can strengthen rather than harden their minds and hearts. No one needs to live in constant conflict and pain.

Interpreting Negative Behaviors

Because the brain is a vulnerable and habitual organ, people in pain often cause others pain. When students feel threatened, they protect themselves in any way that they can. They lie, manipulate, and terminate relationships when their peers perceive them as unsafe and unpredictable. Such behaviors may be interpreted as a form of communication. Instructors can, however, begin to see underneath those undesirable behaviors and recognize that behind every act of defiance or misbehavior is strength. And teachers can begin to mirror this strength to our most vulnerable young people and show them where they are strong by asking, "What went wrong?" instead of the more typical question, "What is wrong with him?"

Where to Begin When Students and Teachers Feel Stuck

The questions below are excellent discussion starters for eliciting student perspectives, feelings, and thoughts that youths might never disclose otherwise:

  1. What do you want?
  2. Do you have a plan?
  3. How can I help you?
  4. What are your resources?
  5. What feels difficult?
  6. What could be the best possible outcome?
  7. What is the worst thing that could happen?
  8. Is your interpretation really true?
  9. How do you know this?
  10. What is a first step in improving this situation?

When instructors listen with open and sensitive minds, they can identify whether a student's responses are unwarranted. This is an opportunity to validate what was heard and to simply be present.

Resetting Expectations

Below are three collaborative processes that will help students reset expectations and rethink outcomes when they face an academic, emotional, or social challenge.

1. Rewiring Student Brains

As note takers, teachers can record a list of bullet points or keywords for the students as they share feelings and thoughts. These lists can be woven into a story that students compose as a work of art to share. It is the instructor's purpose to help learners perceive themselves as experts in their lives. As co-designers, we can fashion a diagram or mind map that illustrates students’ thoughts and feelings to help them understand new options and opportunities, and to perceive their challenges as something that can be conquered. Our brains are wired for change, and they rewire with every new experience, thought, and relationship. This is the greatest miracle of a living system.

2. Learning From Emotions

It is the instructor's responsibility to share 21st-century brain research with his or her students. Neuro-anatomy discoveries during the 1990s enabled us to observe active images of the brain's metabolic processes. As a brain responds to a directive or image, its feeling and cognitive lobes ignite. We now understand the role of emotions, perspectives, and stress on brain function and learning. Sharing this information with students can empower them to employ improved methods of self-assessment, thus enhancing their personal responses to stimulation and improving their sense of efficacy.

3. Teacher Well-Being

There is nothing more significant in the student-teacher relationship than the instructor's self-awareness and self-care. Our emotional states of mind (our non-verbal affect) seep into our relationships with students. What we feel and experience is intimately and quickly picked up and mirrored by our students. Contagious brain states cannot be ignored. To counter negative contagion, I have embarked on activities that I enjoy: yoga, reading, and walking in nature. Every day I plan two activities -- no matter how small -- that fill me emotionally, enhancing my relationship with my students. Detaching from student choices is critical to my well-being.

As the poet Mary Oliver once stated, "The only life you can save is your own!" Moreover, what teachers see as wrong or negative can be the very best possible experience that a student needs for emotional and social growth. As Dr. Vicara Satya Mary Connelly says, "Wake up and be well; practice until there is nothing left and then some. The only life you can save is your own, so treat yourself with ferocious love and compassion."

As a teacher, what self-care practices do you engage in? And how do you help young people work with and learn from their emotions? Please share your thoughts below in the comments section.

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Candy Cohn's picture

Thank you for posting this article. As the assistant director of Maine Arts Camp, I strongly encourage our staff to let campers express themselves through art not only in classes but also when feeling frustrated, angry or sad at other times. Personally, I take care of myself by doing early morning bike rides, reading, meditating and hiking. I've learned the hard way that making time for these things is so important, especially when living with the children and staff you work with!

j_espadilla's picture

As a future educator , I must know that one of the roles of a teacher is to counseling my students. Every teacher is guidance teacher. He/She acts as counselor to the learners especially to those learners that have been encountered problems where in they might need a comfort and a shoulder to cry on. Teacher must be an open-minded person where in they must listen to the different stories of the problematic students and comprehend what's behind those stories in order for them to give some sort of advice that may be guide for them in order to conquer those problems.

besh_joel's picture

As a future teacher I must take part on my students' emotional stregthening. I think, it's a teacher's duty to show the learners that they are not alone, let them feel that someone cares about them and in order to this, we teachers must listen to them, understand and try to put ourselves in their shoes.
Children & Adolescents, nowadays, are so fragile. We must handle them with care for them not to be broken and for them to shine.

Morgan Boulware's picture

As a teacher, I quickly jump to "what is wrong with this kid" when a student is acting negatively. I need to learn to help them channel their emotions into something positive. Helping students learn to assess themselves will benefit them for the rest of their lives. I believe that getting students to trust and respect you as a teacher will help them open up to you about their emotions. Last year I did the "I wish my teacher knew" writing activity. I learned a lot about my students which gave me insight on to why they act out the way they do. My goal is to help students get through their emotions instead of just writing them off as a behavior issue. I could help change their life or help them grow as a person if I take the time to help improve their lives.

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

WOw, what incredible comments and feedback from everyone!!! Thank you so much!!

EgonWerlen's picture

You are right.
Knowing the emotions of students to help them learn better is a good way.
But your three advices seem me rather simple. I doubt if much people would get them right to have some positive outcome.

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