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Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: Emotional Management

Randy Taran

Filmmaker, Project Happiness
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In this nine-part series, we will look at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children. These are very useful in helping students learn, manage emotions better and increase empathy. Each blog features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS:

  1. H = Happiness
  2. A = Appreciation
  3. P = Passions and Strengths
  4. P = Perspective
  5. I = Inner Meanie/Inner Friend
  6. N = Ninja Mastery
  7. E = Empathy
  8. S = So Similar
  9. S = Share Your Gifts

In this post, we will explore Ninja Mastery, a.k.a. learning emotional management.

What if your kids could learn that managing their emotions gives them a real advantage in school, in relationships and in life in general? Like ninja masters, they can train themselves to harness their inner resources and redirect their energy to successfully deal with the challenges that come their way. In this article we’ll explore some approaches that can help.

When Emotions Take Over

Most people would agree that emotions are a tricky thing. On one hand, they are guideposts to let us know how we are feeling. They direct our attention, and we rely on them to help us make good decisions. When emotions are in gear, "Upstairs Brain" the pre-frontal cortex, the more evolved part of the brain that helps with good decision-making and emotional management, hums along. On the other hand, when emotions escalate, the "Downstairs Brain," the amygdala, the more primitive part of the brain, surges into action, especially when its alarm bell senses danger. During those episodes, the pre-frontal cortex doesn't even have a chance. It can feel like our emotions (and amygdala) are taking over our bodies and hijacking our minds. What to do?

Recognize That Emotions Come and Go

The great thing about emotions is that they are fleeting. Feelings are temporary states rather than permanent traits (I feel really upset, mad, glad or sad right now -- not forever more). Like clouds, some feelings are wispy, while others are dark and gusty. But even the intense feelings do pass. Neuroscientist Dan Siegel recommends that kids "let the clouds of emotions roll by."

Remember the Ocean, Not Just the Waves

Another analogy is that emotions can be like turbulent waves thrashing about on the surface of the ocean. It's good to know that, although it may be a stormy day on top, there is a huge calm reservoir in the ocean below. Ninja masters learn to use their powers to tap into those calm depths even if there are challenges at the surface.

Six Ninja Strategies

Here are some ways that may help to deal with a strong emotion, like sadness:

  1. Focus your mind on something more positive that helps you connect with happier feelings.
  2. Take ten deep breaths.
  3. Run, jump, sing or dance your way into a better mood.
  4. Appreciate something good about yourself and your life. A gratitude journal is a great tool.
  5. Reach out to someone who cares about you, and talk about what's going on.
  6. Remember you are in charge of how you respond; your emotions do not have to run the show.

The Trouble with Anger

Depending on the situation, some emotions can be more challenging than others. Anger can be daunting! Though feelings of anger are natural, okay and part of being human, when anger takes control of the mind, it can make us react in ways we may regret. To deal with this emotion, it’s important to:

  • Understand your anger
  • Work through your anger
  • Resolve your anger

Understanding What Causes Anger

One way to help students understand anger is by listing on the board circumstances that may cause it. Examples could include when someone hurts you physically, when someone puts you down, when you cannot say how you feel, when you believe someone wasn't fair, if someone breaks something of yours, or if you did not get your way. Poll students and list which ones affect them the most.

Working Through Anger

Anger is a powerful force, and we must learn to disengage when it wants to hijack our mind. As students learn to recognize that they are getting angry, they can either continue to interact and let the emotions escalate, or separate from the situation and talk about it later. By physically removing themselves from the anger trigger, they create an opportunity to come back to a calmer place.

How You Deal with Anger is a Choice

Consider starting a discussion about ways to resolve anger. (Find lesson plans and additional resources at to learn more about this.) Some examples might be: talking and listening to the person you feel angry with, talk to a friend or an adult you trust, accept that you can't change things, apologize, etc. You can also have the class come up with some negative examples like hitting, blaming, arguing back even harder or breaking something. Engage students to discuss the consequences for both positive and negative choices. All ninja masters know that you have the power to choose how to respond to any situation.

Have you noticed that emotional outbursts or conflicts are on the rise? How do you deal with an escalation of emotion in the classroom?

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Project Happiness: SEL Curriculum for Elementary Students
From Project Happiness, this 9-part series includes social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary school students.

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

ElementaryMyDear's picture

One of the things I struggle with in my elementary students is teaching them how to handle emotions. Teaching them this ninja mastery is a great way to look at it! And--what kid doesn't want to be a ninja? I just came upon this. I will have to look back into the rest of your series. We have discussed a lot at my school about deescalating situations and this is something that I will need to share with the faculty. Thank you so much!

Randy Taran's picture

Thank you for your comment! Knowing how to deal with emotions is so intertwined with a student's ability to integrate new knowledge. So happy that you are sharing this with your faculty :)

Randy Taran's picture

Bruce, thanks for your thoughtful post. The ninja strategies are not meant to be sequential. They are 6 options to be used as the situation demands. I agree 100% that we should not disregard or paint over emotions - they are important indicators to pay attention to and acknowledge. That said, after awareness, and depending on the situation and the individual, it can be helpful to have some strategies. I appreciate your comment.

Randy Taran's picture

Dear G Lowenheim, thanks so much for your comment. I loved what you said, " In psychology, and certainly in schools, emotions (even strong positive one -- like hilarity for instance) are usually related to as problems." It doesn't have to be that way. Vygotsky"s work sounds fascinating. Thanks for such an excellent reference!

M&M's picture

This blog post has been helpful to me, especially after the day I have had in my classroom! I teach in an elementary self-contained special ed classroom where the purpose of my student's placement is academics. However, I encounter several behavioral and emotional issues on a daily basis due to social management skills and academic frustration. I like your term of a 'ninja master' being one who can learn to manage their emotions - the keyword here being 'learn'. It is easy to tell the students to control themselves or calm down, but it is difficult to actually teach them to 'learn' to calm down. I appreciate the 6 ninja strategies you proposed in your blog, especially number 6. I constantly remind my students that they cannot control what is said or done to them, but they can control how they react. We talk about ways to cool down when situations arise, but in the true moment, it is difficult to put those strategies into play. I enjoyed your blog and I look forward to subsequent posts about this topic!

Bart Welten's picture
Bart Welten
Passionately dedicated to pastoral education

I'm finding this whole series is an "uplift" for me and for my students. The language is somehow clearer and more specific than one usually finds around each of these issues. . . And the practical guides are simple and effective. You've provided us not with answers but springboards, and a refreshing plunge into new waters. Fabulous work! Thanks

Randy Taran's picture

M&M, If students take away one thing, I hope it will be what you had mentioned - that though they cannot control what is said or done to them, they can learn to control how they react. The fact that they have a choice can be very empowering in and of itself. Thanks for your comment!

Randy Taran's picture

Dear Bart,
I love that said "You provided us not with answers but springboards." How insightful - the answers are within each of the students - our job is to help them access them. Thanks so much for your comment!

Hilone's picture

[quote]Starr,Beautifully said :)[/quote]

Without any doubt!!! Every time I'm looking into the line "Remember the Ocean, Not Just the Waves" I feel something ! I know someone else who also writes this fine and also teaches better. Reach him here: Management skills

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