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Connecting with Kids: New School Year Excitement

By Lori Jackson and Steve Peck

With a new year comes new students, new challenges, new goals and—best of all—that new year excitement!

There’s nothing better than a fresh start for both educators and students as the year begins. The first few days are a learning period for everyone; from the first-year learners to the experienced teachers who have seen it all. We all learn about different summer experiences—the highlights, lowlights, travel, new pets and more.  

Is there a common connection we can find in all of the summer experiences that we can use to teach students more about themselves and their peers? We think there is. The connection—whether it was a day at the beach, an extended trip to a new vacation spot, or simple quality time with family and friends—is that each and every event had different emotions associated with it. Our experiences are all different, but we likely share similar emotions. Discussing our summers is an excellent entry point to creating a classroom culture where we’re comfortable talking about emotions and how they drive our behaviors.

Emotional regulation is the key to supporting student behavior

When we start teaching students to identify different emotions and the events that drive them, we are really helping kids to learn the process of emotional regulation, which can be thought of as the ability to manage the emotions associated with an experience or situation. When you think about it, this is what students will need every minute of every day they spend in school, and it continues to be a critical skill as they advance through life. It’s important to start these discussions early in the school year, as students enter with different experiences and the teacher’s expectations are still unknown to them. 

When we are looking for a way to manage classroom behavior, understanding the impact of emotions and teaching the skills to manage them really is critical. This is why the beginning of the year is the perfect time to talk about emotions, the different events that drive emotions, and the behaviors that come from them. In our work, we say that students who can manage their emotions are “Ready2Learn,” demonstrating why it’s so important to make this a priority as soon as possible—so every student has the opportunity to become ready to learn and to engage with the year’s content. 

Some evidence of a student being Ready2Learn includes displaying goal-directed and purposeful behavior that shows they are “available” for learning. Every student needs support to show these behaviors, but some may need more than others. We must get an early start at the beginning of the year to identify those students who may need a little extra support learning to manage their emotions.  

Getting started, one step at a time

So, how do you start identifying students’ individual needs, so you can then transition into teaching these skills? The indicative behaviors may look different depending upon the student. Some will be talkative when it’s time to work. Others might have a difficult time working with peers. Others still may refuse to participate in different activities or assignments. As a result, it is important to be specific when identifying the counterproductive or off-target behaviors you are seeing. When collecting these off-target student behaviors, it is important to include the where, when, what event may have preceded the off-target behavior.  

Engage with these students to see if they can identify the emotions that they were feeling before their off-target behavior was displayed. It is likely that many will struggle to do that. One tip to consider is, before engaging with the student, review your observations and try to understand which emotions likely drove their off-target behavior. Then, have a conversation with the student to see if they can identify the emotion and then help them to find a strategy to manage the emotion. Another idea is to model and discuss your own emotions and how they link to your own behavior. It’s also helpful for you to note positive behaviors in your students and ask if they can identify the emotions that are driving them. We often focus on the less positive emotions when we see behaviors—it’s awesome to let students know that emotions drive positive behaviors too! 

Just like with all subjects, some students will grasp these ideas quickly and others will need more assistance and support. Students who are unable to identify their emotions frequently struggle to manage these emotions appropriately. This can result in their unregulated emotions driving off-target behavior or these students not being engaged in the classroom. To make lasting changes in student behavior, the first step is identifying the underlying emotion.

Emotional regulation is something that most do without even recognizing they are doing it. Think about how many different emotions you have running through your head, even as you read this article. Now think about all of your new students as they sit in the classroom. Sometimes we think it’s amazing anything gets done! But, when we start the year teaching kids to identify, understand and manage their emotions, we are setting the stage for a year of success.

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