Suggestions for teachers in meeting the needs of students who present with challenging emotional profiles
by Julie Bassi, Ph.D. - School Psychologist
If a child can’t tell you how they feel, help them connect what their [actions, body language, etc.] are telling you about how they feel. If you’re stuck, wonder about what they’re feeling based on what you’re feeling. Children, when they are communicating through their behavior, often create parallel feelings in caregivers. Use your own reactions to guess about what might be going on for them. Stay calm by focusing deeply on the bigger question, namely: “what might be going on for this child in this moment?”
GOAL: To connect emotionally. To know your student well. To honor, validate and respect feelings. To ensure a place of emotional calm and connection as a basis for higher level learning.
TRY TO AVOID: To imply that your own agenda is more important than the child’s agenda. To “demand/command” compliance. To prioritize productivity over sincere emotional connection/validation. To engage in a power struggle.
Some children, in some moments, reflect incredible levels of emotional sensitivity. This sensitivity can leave a child feeling vulnerable, which leads to a genuine feeling of not feeling validated. Emotional sensitivity can be evoked by the simple act of coming to school, particularly when strong attachments in the child’s home life have not been properly formed. A child who is at risk emotionally often requires an even stronger emotional connection with his teacher than other students - beyond neutral, to include consistently genuine, caring, and loving interactions, not all at once, but developed with time (success breeds success). Prior to the teacher/student relationship being established (which takes time in the beginning), it can be very difficult for these children to comply with expectations in the classroom, particularly academic and/or behavioral requests, without the development of a strong, emotional rapport. If rushed or evaluated in a way that feels uncomfortable for the student, he/she reverts to a primitive mode of responding. The child might appear to be reacting. But if he could talk, at a more mature level, but instead, despite all the best intentions and efforts, he might feel misunderstood. In other words, the teacher must prioritize her emotional connection and relationship with her most emotionally challenged students from the beginning. If not, it is possible that the child can demonstrate behavioral noncompliance and primitive reacting which becomes reinforced with time, affecting not only himself, his teacher, but also threatens the integrity of the classroom.
When children (all of us, really) believe with our hearts that the teacher or caregiver validates us and understands us, we re-engage. Our strong feelings melt, and we become more capable of performing and/or responding favorably to the expectations within a given setting. We are more open to logic and reason (and learning) when we feel connected on an emotional level. This is a universal human principle.
It is very easy to become afraid, defensive, and/or take things personally when children react to teachers in an emotional or noncompliant way. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by children who present as emotionally needy. In fact, it can produce an almost a visceral reaction, particularly when the words that children use and/or the way that they react feel personal. Furthermore, the words or actions that angry or noncompliant children hurl at adults can feel familiar for the adult in another context, and/or bring up memories of past experiences or current troubling relationships, creating a greater sense of fear and desperation from within the adult. The most important thing to remember is to try very hard not to react personally - not to interpret the anger as directed at you or the misbehavior as a reflection of your capacity as a teacher. Instead, focus on thinking deeply about what message is the child trying to communicate in this moment?
Adults will have the greatest success in finding out what children are feeling by asking the child in an authentic, caring, listening manner what is going on. When children are very upset and still cannot communicate using words, read their body language (their facial expressions, their actions) and say, “it looks like you are feeling angry right now. Am I right?” Once you have an idea of what they are feeling, validate that feeling. “Thank you for letting me know!” Ask clarifying questions. Become a social detective and try to align with the child. “I can understand how you feel. I can imagine that is hard. I’ve felt that way before.” Furthermore, create ways to let the child determine when he’s ready to re-engage. This does not mean that we must control or be in charge of the child. It simply means to listen, to be present, to honor their feelings. You might say, “It looks like you might appreciate some space. How about I step away for a moment? When you are ready, raise your hand and I’ll come by to check in with you.”
Person-to-person interaction is the most powerful mode for sculpting minds—it has a name in neuroscience: interpersonal neurobiology. Our interactions with children over time literally build their brains. Think of the converse of a loving connection, abuse and neglect. We know abuse wires a child’s a brain in ways that undermine self-regulation, learning, trust. Neglect, especially 0-3 years leads to children who seem autistic—pervasive developmental delays.
Brain research is shedding light on the idea that memories form mental images, which create expectations. In other words, a child’s actions and reactions are very much affected by his/her expectations of validation and emotional connection. If a child believes that his classroom environment provides a relationship with his teacher in which mutual respect, trust, and love is formed, then the child will be more inclined to be in a positive emotional place for learning. This trust takes time to form, and it cannot be formed during periods of “command/demand” and/or the semblance of a power struggle. Primitive coping strategies such as digging in heels simply promotes more of the unwanted behavior. On the other hand, trust is formed by one positive interaction at a time. A foundation of emotional connection implies that safety and trust are crucial for higher level thinking/learning. Ross Greene: “All children want to learn and grow, if they can.”
Similar to the message that Maria Trozzi brings, whereby after a tragedy it is better to have known teachers interacting with students rather than trained yet unfamiliar counselors, the emotional, TRUSTING bond that is established between teacher and child in a classroom environment predicts that a child with emotional volatility will succeed in a classroom and comply with expectations.
Children can sense when we are not in the moment with them. When we’re not in the moment with them, we’re not making a brain-to-brain connection and we miss the opportunity to help mold healthy brains. Being in the moment simply means validating feelings so that they can move on to join friends in the activities of the day. Being in the moment means being fully present, looking the child in the eyes and at his/her level, communicating compassion, understanding, and respect. It means asking questions and listening well - listening to their words, their actions, their expressions.
It is also important that teachers take the time with their students during morning meetings and throughout the school day to foster what it means, what it feels like, and how to practice true attention/listening skills. Although some children struggle more than others, all children benefit by practicing how to be a good listener, and in ways that are fun, clever, presented in an engaging context (puppets, games,), and practiced over and over again. If the emphasis is “do your job,” “let’s get back to work,” “use your time wisely,” the language may sound unappealing from their perspective. Some of our most at-risk students may simply not engage unless drawn to such tasks because it is pleasant and “fun” to do so. Success breeds success. Memories and identities are formed - about themselves, about school, about how good it feels to learn and explore the world when emotional connections are secure. We must honor all our children and the emotional parts of themselves that show up to school each day. We must differentiate for these different stages and places within a child’s emotional realm.
We have examples of vulnerable students who are faring well in our school - through positive connections with their teachers. These examples are testaments to what we know from the research about promoting emotional intelligence. As professionals who care deeply about the social, emotional and mental health aspects of the children we serve, cutting edge, evidence-based research in the area of neuroscience, through practical implications, offer enhanced awareness for teaching our students, particularly those who are most vulnerable.