Three Steps to Emotionally Support Students to Promote Academic Success

The Relationship of Emotions and Academics

“Jesse” got in a car accident on the way to a job interview. He was not physically hurt, but he felt emotionally shaken. Upon arrival, Jesse snapped at the secretary. During the interview, he struggled to retrieve words. These behaviors were uncharacteristic for him and yet, consistent with the effects of emotional trauma and stress. Not surprisingly, he did not land the job.

Jesse’s experience illustrates the relationship between emotions and cognitive functions. You probably see evidence of that relationship in your classroom. A plethora of research confirms that emotional factors influence students’ ability to concentrate, communicate, regulate emotions, and form relationships.

There is a common saying among educators, “Maslow before Bloom.” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes what motivates people. Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning describes levels of thinking. The saying “Maslow’s before Bloom’s” means that students must have their physical and emotional needs met before teachers should expect substantial academic progress.


Three Pillars of Supporting your Students’  Emotional Needs

You probably have children in your classes now struggling with emotional trauma and chronic stress. Chronic stress is ongoing, such as prolonged food insecurity. Trauma refers to events, such as the death of a loved one. Some traumas, such as abuse, occur repeatedly.

If a child is acting out and showing a lack of self-regulation, their need for emotional support is evident. However, not every child who needs emotional support shows it externally. The quiet child following the rules may be silently struggling, too, hoping someone will notice. Addressing and supporting your students’ emotional needs requires intentional effort.

Like most teachers, you would fix all the issues in your students’ lives if you could. While you may not own a cape or magic wand, three actions will make you a superhero in the lives of many children.

  1. Build a trusting relationship with all children.
  2. Teach emotional awareness and self-care skills.
  3. Identify children who need more support than you can provide and refer them to qualified specialists.


Building a Trusting Relationship

Your students will probably not tell you about their fears and insecurities on the first day. They must feel that you are a trustworthy person before they allow their vulnerabilities to show. You will earn students’ trust by creating a safe space for them. Give students control of how they share, be available to listen (or read) without judgment, and follow up on what they share.

Tell your students from the beginning that if they tell you that someone is in danger, you must report it. You do not want to breach their trust if that situation occurs.

Students will test your trustworthiness and open up slowly. The kid who starts talking about bickering with their sibling may be working up the courage to confide a more intense problem. That progression is why active listening is vital even when a particular struggle seems trivial.

Remember to follow up on celebrations too! A simple, “Congratulations on scoring a goal!” goes a long way towards your students seeing that you value them as people beyond the classroom walls.

Checking in with your students also contributes toward building a trusting relationship. Daily emotional check-ins give students practice with self-awareness. They also provide opportunities for students to alert you when significant changes occur in their lives.

Daily check-ins do not need to take up much class time. Depending on your learning model, students can do their emotional check-ins using a Google form or paper form. Either way, the students should be able to control who sees it. Forcing them to share their stories and emotions with you or other students will erode trust.

The actual check-in could be as simple as choosing the appropriate emoji to represent their current emotional state. It could be as involved as filling out a quick questionnaire. The questionnaire might ask questions such as, “How are you today?” “What is making you feel that way?” “Do you want to talk more about this?”

In addition to daily check-ins, you may want to incorporate regular in-depth check-ins. These could take the form of drawing, journal writing, and individual conversations. The longer check-ins give students more time to reflect on their feelings.


Teaching Self-Awareness and Self-Care

Your students will likely start by only sharing basic emotions, such as mad, sad, and happy, because they may only be aware of the surface level of emotions. As you build rapport and students become more self-aware, they will communicate a broader range of emotions.

There are many great programs for helping students build emotional awareness. They start by teaching students to identify their feelings. The Zones of Regulation® by Leah Kuypers is a popular program for younger children because it correlates emotion with learning readiness. Other programs use Plutchik’s emotion wheel to recognize opposing emotions, emotional intensities, and emotional combinations.

Students must go beyond identifying emotions to transition from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They must feel in control of their lives and feelings.

Talk about ways to self-regulate when their emotions overwhelm them. Research shows that engaging in mindfulness practices is key to self-regulation. There are great apps, books, and games to help teach mindfulness strategies. The strategies are often as simple as counting to ten, breathing deeply, and positive self-talk. Remind them that self-care, such as getting sufficient sleep, exercise, and human contact, are vital ingredients to self-regulation too. Edutopia’s list of mindfulness resources for distance learning offers some helpful suggestions.


Identifying and Referring Children 

Some of your students need more than what a listening, caring teacher can provide. They will require action, and the best way you can be a superhero is by connecting those students with the appropriate person. As a mandatory reporter, you must contact child protective services if you hear of abuse. Let professional investigators do the rest.

Teach your students about various resources available to them. Many school communities have hotlines, counselors, and other professionals that students can reach out to and ask for help. Provide a list of community programs to help with food, health, and clothing. Depending on the population you serve, you may want to alert them about which programs require proof of residency.


Academic Rewards are only the Beginning

Students who feel unsafe, unloved, and unworthy often struggle to remember information, understand concepts, apply new skills, or create things. You might say that the “lizard” part of the brain (amygdala) must be calm before the “wizard” brain (frontal cortex) functions optimally. The lizard part of the brain is the part that operates flight or fight responses, while the wizard part drives decision-making, self-control, and creativity.

Of course, emotionally supporting your students helps them in areas beyond learning. Young people need to learn how to navigate complex social relationships too. A teacher that communicates, “I hear you.” “I see you.” “I care about you.” will affect students profoundly and positively. That message has a rippling effect throughout the community.

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