• Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #13: Interpersonal

This is post #13 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.

In Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen (2005) shares that emotional states are something that we experience. They come and go like waves on a shore and the tides of the ocean. They happen to you but are not you. This distinction is fine but necessary because many students that fail to note the difference can begin to define themselves by their emotional states.

If, for example, you are often happy and gregarious, you will probably see yourself as a cheerful person. This self-identity will be shared by others as they begin to form generalization based on these typical emotional states. While having a positive image is helpful, it’s not always true. Sometimes people who are strongly labelled as cheerful feel trapped in that role and have difficulty expressing other, more negative emotions, even when they are natural.

Likewise, someone who is more pessimistic and morose can be tagged as a downer and a party pooper. These people begin to see themselves through the lens of these emotions and struggle to shift into more neutral or positive emotional states. If for some reason they are not in a bad mood when interacting with friends, this change of state can sometimes shock others and cause awkward social interactions.

When students learn to become attuned to their emotional states, especially with a nuanced vocabulary, they begin to distance their core identity from these feelings. They can stand aside, so to speak, and observe these emotions and even begin to influence them. They aren’t sad, they just feel sad. They aren’t angry, they merely feel angry. With this knowledge comes the ability to change their feelings productively.

If I wanted to change my height, I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve been the same height since I reached maturity and I’ll only lose height as I begin to hunch over with old age. My height is a fixed quality about me that is, for the most part, out of my control to change. I’m fine with my height, so it’s not a problem, but many people wistfully wish they could be a little bit taller or even a little bit shorter.

My weight, on the other hand, is within my control. Though I can’t directly affect my metabolism and body structure, I have total control over my diet and my exercise. I can, if I choose, bulk up with protein shakes and massed weightlifting. If I wanted to, I could go on a cardio kick and slim down. How I eat and how I exercise put my weight in my sphere of influence.

How do students view their emotions? Do they see them as fixed feelings that savage them without mercy? If they view their emotions like a fixed physical quality like height, it’s easy to see how they can quickly become disheartened. The truth of the matter is our emotions are transient and within our sphere of influence. We cannot turn them off and on like a light switch, but with dedicated attention and discipline, they can be managed much like our weight.

That’s powerful!

What can you do tomorrow?

Teach emotions. Use the five parts of RULER (shared in video) to begin developing your students’ emotional literacy. A good starting point would be to find a mood meter online (many free images exist for download) and begin to use it with students.

Check in daily. You can talk about a different term each day, have kids check in each morning by placing a magnet on it that shows their current mood, or add it to your safe place.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Students develop emotional literacy by:

· Recognizing emotions in themselves and others;

· Labeling emotions with and increasingly nuanced vocabulary; and

· Regulating their emotions through breathing, reflection, and other techniques.

Yet to turn children loose without the tools necessary to solve their own problems is unethical. To avoid creating your own version of The Lord of the Flies, use a five-part problem-solving process called stand that students can use for peer problem-solving (Borba, 2017).

The first step is to stop, look, and listen to their feelings. If students are in conflict, they must first cease and recognize not only their own feelings but try to identify the feelings of the other party. They should stay calm, take a deep breath, and analyze what’s going on. This initial step, if followed by students, immediately kicks the brains of both students into the higher, upstairs region of the brain that allows for problem-solving.

The second step is to take turns telling the problem. Each child speaks in turn using I statements, describing how they feel because of whatever transpired. After each child has spoken, they then turn the situation around using you statements. This second part is crucial as students work to adequately capture what the other person is feeling and promotes empathy.

The third step is for the two students to brainstorm alternatives. Working together, now that they have spoken with each other and summarized the viewpoints of their peer, they begin to seek solutions to whatever caused the initial problem. This brainstorming is truly a wide-open exercise, naming as many solutions as they can think of.

Fourth, the students begin to narrow down the ideas generated in the brainstorming. They look for fair solutions that are viable, don’t violate any rules or norms, and are supported by both people. This is the hinge point of the entire exercise and the one that teachers do not need to short circuit by jumping in and rescuing students. When teachers too quickly solve the problems of their students, they restrict their problem-solving muscles and keep them stunted. When, on the other hand, they give them the freedom to try to solve their own issues, students’ social-emotional literacy and empathy soar.

Finally, the two students decide on the best choice. They shake on it, fist bump each other, or do something formal or informal to note that both parties agree on the solution. This helps them learn that they can solve their own problems and work through issues on their own.

Unfortunately, this will not work in all circumstances. There will be some times that you’ll need to step in and guide the discussion or even make the decision. This does not need to happen all the time, however. Give your students the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to solve the problem on their own first.

What can you do tomorrow?

Teach conflict resolution. There are several different options in this part for building not only the empathy of your students but also helping manage interpersonal conflict. Introduce your students to the stand procedure and allow them to use it to work through minor conflicts.

Explore another’s point of view. Help students take the perspective of someone else to encourage empathy and resolve issues emerging from hurtful words or actions.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Students practice empathy by:

· Actively working to solve relational problems with classmates;

· Taking the perspective of other students; and

· Role playing to understand how their words and actions affect others.

To read more posts in this series, click here.


Borba, M. (2017). Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Touchstone.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. ASCD.

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