Setting the Emotional Tone of Your Classroom

  Illustration by Kate Moore

Illustration by Kate Moore

The beginning of the school year is a critical time for setting the emotional tone of your classroom and your school community. Emotions run high at this time of year; there’s excitement, fear, anxiety. The ways in which you invite, receive, and honor these different emotions will communicate a lot to students and will shape the way they act. They will pick up on unsaid cues as much as explicit instructions; ignoring emotions is a strong statement in of itself.

Sharing emotions honestly is a tremendously scary thing to do, even in close relationships, and it’s even scarier in a classroom of peers who may prey on a moment of vulnerability. Building a learning environment that feels safe and open takes a lot of hard, intentional work. One of the hardest things about that work is being able to stay present through moments of emotional intensity. When a student is upset, our reaction can be to try to shut it down; we worry it will get out of control or will upset other students. We may tell a student to stop crying, to calm down, to go to the office. It’s a reasonable reaction. We are responsible for all the students in the room and we want to ensure their safety; we want to ensure they have a chance to learn and that their opportunities aren’t limited by the emotions of another students. It’s a super tough spot to be in.

The risk in shutting down the emotion is that we tell students their feelings don’t matter. Who you are does not matter. What you are going through at home doesn’t matter. You are here to learn this content and that’s all that matters. To a degree, it makes sense. We are trying to teach our students certain content. We can’t have a therapy session every day. But by asking students not to bring certain parts of themselves to school, we subtly tell them we don’t care. Over time, if they don’t think we care, why should they care? Why should they care about doing their work? About respecting their peers or us? About coming at all? By trying to stay focused on the school work we make it harder over time to do just that. Instead of a joyful learning community, we have more students who feel disenfranchised and apathetic and that school is not the place for them. On the contrary, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “…a sense of connectedness improves students’ grades and test scores as well as their lifelong health.” (Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools. Tom Little, and Katherine Ellison. W. W. Norton & company, New York London, 2015)

How to start

  1. Practice slowing down in the face of emotions

  2. Invite emotions into the classroom, don’t shun them

  3. Help students learn to identify their emotional state

Practice slowing down in the face of emotions

We want to get to a point where our response to emotion is slow down and be present rather than react and shut down

The first step in building a learning environment that is safe for different emotional states is to stay open and compassionate in the midst of emotion. Since emotional reactions can be so scary, we easily have our own flight reactions. Instead, breath. Tune in. Ask yourself, “what must be happening for this child that they are acting this way?” Stay away from words and reactions that could shame the student.

Instead of “stop crying,” identify the student’s emotion and show them you aren’t angry with them for it. “You seem really upset right now. That’s ok.” Then try to give them space to experience their emotion without shutting them down. “Why don’t you sit in the reading corner and write or draw about what happened.” Asking them to stop feeling their emotion will not lead to a productive class for them and it will probably impact other students as well. Instead, give the student tools to process their emotion.

Invite Emotions into the Classroom

We all have bad days and good days. What we need to do as a learning community is support each other through those different kinds of days.

A next step beyond not shutting down in the face of emotions is to actively invite them in. Let students know — “in this classroom, you bring your whole self. It’s impossible to check those emotions at the door; of course you bring them in here.”

Sit in a circle. Let students look each other in the eyes. Ask “what do you want to learn this year?” Go around the circle; give each student a chance to answer. Then go around again — “what are you worried about?” Then again — “what would make this a safe, open learning community this year?” Write down their ideas. Ask, “can we all agree to these as guidelines for the year?”

As a high school teacher, I was also in charge of the drama club. Each day before rehearsal began, we started in a circle and had an emotional check-in. Sometimes I felt irritated by the complaining students did about homework or little grievances. But by the end of check-in students were generally ready to put their energy into the play. Over time, they also built up a trust with each other and with me. They knew it was ok to be themselves and to be vulnerable, which also meant they were freer to be creative on the stage. Because we invited emotions and vulnerability into the room, they were able to become better performers.

Help Students Learn to Identify their Emotions

Now that you’ve made it clear that emotions are a normal part of each day, you have to live up to that invitation. Students will have different levels of fluency with their emotional states and it’s important to recognize that while emotions are welcomed in the classroom, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to let an emotional outburst cause harm to someone else.

Help students practice identification every day:

  • Ask them to write down how they are feeling at the beginning of each class.

  • Ask them to identify the things that are contributing to their emotional state

  • Have a jar on your desk — tell students if there’s anything they want you to know about how they’re doing today, they can put it in that jar.

What to do with big emotions:

  • Set guidelines ahead of time.

  • Let them know that anger happens; it’s ok to feel angry. But we all have to agree that hurting someone else is not ok. If you are feeling angry, it’s your responsibility to identify it and let me know.

  • Have a designated spot in the room; if a student needs a break, they can go there. This spot should be a place of peace and calm. It should not be a spot for students to get on a device; flitting through social media or playing a video game is not likely to help calm the overwhelming emotions. Instead, provide paper and pencils. Students can write out how they are feeling, or draw it. They can read a book. You can have headphones and calming music.

As you create the culture of your classroom, remember to invite emotions in as an inevitable and dynamic part of the learning environment. By planning for and discussing them intentionally, you can nurture a learning environment that accepts and embraces students as they are.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about student emotions and it certainly won’t be the last. You can catch up on our previous blog series on classroom emotions over here. And, if you’re a school or district Pear Deck subscriber, don’t miss this month’s Resource Roundup filled with even more social-emotional learning resources!


This week’s post was written by Chief Educator Michal Eynon-Lynch