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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

An Emotion Revolution in American Education

By Marc A. Brackett , Diana Divecha & Robin S. Stern — April 30, 2015 6 min read
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Today’s guest bloggers are Marc A. Brackett, Diana Divecha, and Robin S. Stern from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

There is a quiet kind of revolution taking place in classrooms across the country. More and more educators--encouraged by psychologists, pediatricians, social entrepreneurs, and economists--are talking about feelings in school.

But what feelings, exactly, should classrooms focus on? The answer: All of them.

Research on emotional intelligence shows us that all emotions matter. Emotions are signals: they provide information that things are going well or not so well, that we should approach or avoid a situation or person. Emotions are adaptive: they help us deal with the ever-changing conditions and challenges we face each day. When we use emotions wisely, they positively influence our health, decisions, relationships, and performance at school and work. When we ignore or suppress our emotions, they derail us from our goals and impede our success.

Emotions can be viewed as the product of two interacting dimensions: pleasantness and energy. Pleasantness or valence refers to our subjective evaluation of the environment; energy pertains to our body’s activation or arousal. These two dimensions create four categories of emotion that describe the complexity of both children’s and adults’ emotional experiences.

High pleasant/high energy emotions like excitement, joy, and hope are a natural draw for anyone. And they have a place in school--they unleash positive pro-social energy, they generate school spirit, and they make people feel good. When teachers cultivate these emotions in a classroom, students are eager to pay attention and learn, they enthusiastically brainstorm new ideas, and they are responsive to teachers as partners in learning and growing.

Mellower feelings that are pleasant but moderate-to-low in energy also are important. These include contentment, relaxation, and peacefulness. Emotions like these do not only keep stress at bay, but they facilitate a refined ability to reflect, listen carefully, and connect with others. This is the perfect quadrant for projects requiring collaboration or, working through a solution to an interpersonal problem we may be struggling with.

Less pleasant (but not negative) and lower energy emotions like loneliness, sadness, or melancholy, can be more difficult to talk about or readily value, especially in school. But these feelings can alert us to relationships that are in need of repair, or help us to write a letter of apology. Kids and adults alike have these feelings regularly--sadness at the loss of a loved one, disappointment at the realization that someone can’t respond to our needs despite our strong wishes. Allowing students to experience these emotions is key not only to their being fully present, but also to not being controlled or startled by them as they move through their day and life. These feelings can also point to the interior self to refresh and restore a mind tired from a hyper-stimulating world. In school, these feelings can facilitate careful work, like double-checking calculations, editing a draft, studying problems.

What about emotions that are unpleasant and high in energy like anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, and stress? Educators may be rightly concerned when students arrive at the school door in these states, and, for some, the first impulse is to force students to control these feelings. Doing otherwise can “open up that can of worms” as some parents might phrase it or lead to major disruptions in our classrooms.

While these feelings can be unpleasant for sure, they are real and important to understand and manage effectively: We rely on anger to mobilize us against injustice, and on fear and anxiety to flag possible danger. In the classroom, it is useful to mobilize these feelings to help students relate to injustices and to inspire them to make positive change in the world. After all, it is teens’ feelings of injustice that have ignited some of the most important revolutions--anti-apartheid, anti-poverty, pro-democracy.

To many educators, feelings are something to be discussed in preschool or elementary school. Yet important new research in developmental science is showing us that the periods of middle school and high school are critical to the development of the brain’s ability to get the socio-affective regions of the brain to “talk with” the cognitive control regions of the brain. This is why self-regulation and delay of gratification are emerging as predictors of key outcomes, including academic achievement, for students.

Learning to identify and manage feelings, especially the intense ones, is an effort and a discipline, but experiencing them gives teens important information about themselves and their worlds, the directions they might want to choose, and the skills they will need to get there.

Teachers know that teens sometimes seem like “all feelings,” and current research shows that teens seem “stuck” more in some feeling states than others, and that worries many of us. American teens are some of the most unhappy and isolated among the developed world, and many are bored and “checked out” at school. For some, stress has edged beyond that of adults, with levels of anxiety some college counselors call “unprecedented.”

Educators must pay attention to recent research which shows that increasing numbers of youth are experiencing stress, loneliness, depression, and frustration. We also need to hear directly from our youth about what they believe is causing these feelings. That’s why the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Born This Way Foundation, founded by Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia Germanotta, have just announced a national campaign to address the emotional needs of high school students: the Emotion Revolution.

The Emotion Revolution is launching with an anonymous online survey asking high school students across the nation to share their feelings about school. The survey takes just 7 minutes and allows students to share what they believe needs to happen to bridge the gap between the what they currently feel and what they want to feel. Approved by Yale University’s Human Subjects Committee, the survey does not require parental consent and is open until the end of June.

We want and need to hear from as many high school students around the country as possible and we need your help to spread the word. The more data we collect, the stronger the research will be, the more we will learn about high school students’ needs, and the more effective the tools we can develop to help them and the teachers who educate them will be.

Perhaps after we share the perspectives of hundreds of thousands of students, politicians will listen and support national legislation that was recently proposed by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). The act that was introduced amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act so that existing professional development funding could be used to provide teachers with tools and training to support evidence-based practices for social and emotional learning (SEL).

We need help from high school educators around the nation! Please share the survey with the high school students in your schools and communities and encourage them to participate. The link to the survey is here. To Learn more about the Emotion Revolution visit here.

In October 2015, the Emotion Revolution summit at Yale will feature youth participants from around the United States, Lady Gaga, and Yale President Peter Salovey. The results of the survey will be unveiled and youth will have the opportunity to share ideas with educators, academics, and policymakers on how we can create improved learning environments - where students’ emotions are acknowledged and addressed in ways that help them to achieve their goals. A discussion about what it will take for our nation’s to take seriously the adoption of social and emotional learning (SEL) practices also will take place.

Please spread the word and encourage students to both take the survey and apply for a fellowship to attend the summit at Yale.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.