Helping Students Become More Skilful at Managing Challenging Emotions through Mindfulness

by Shelley Murphy

We are facing great challenges and change in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing racial injustice. As a result, many of us are experiencing unrelenting waves of stress and worry in response to the uncertainties before us. A certain level of stress and worry during this time actually acts as a natural protector. It guides our behaviours in ways that are meant to help keep us safe. For this we can thank the natural intelligence and wisdom of our minds and bodies. At the same time, we need to be intentional about making sure that we are not getting caught in an ongoing and constant loop of fear and worry in ways that are no longer protective. It can be especially difficult to disrupt this ongoing loop in a time when our daily circumstances seem to require a constant need for vigilance. To stay healthy and resilient our minds need opportunities to build resilience.

When thinking about how to best support children at home and in school, it’s important for teachers and parents to give attention to their own emotional needs. We can go back to the message we receive on an airplane just before takeoff that reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before supporting someone else with theirs. We are advised to do this because if we were to run out of oxygen in an emergency, we would be helpless to support anyone else. This is an important metaphor for life. When teachers focus on self-care, it ends up being protective for students as well. This is why if teachers or parents ask me to name the most powerful mindfulness practice for children, my answer is always the same: YOUR practice.  Even if teachers never introduce mindfulness to their students, if they commit to their own practice, there is almost always a positive ripple effect in the classroom.

We know from something called stress contagion that children will often take their cues from the adults around them. If we are feeling calm, the children around us are more likely to feel at ease. This doesn’t mean that teachers and parents shouldn’t talk about their feelings. In fact, by talking about our own feelings, we invite children to identify and share their own.

Science has shown that naming or labelling difficult emotions, like fear and worry, actually helps to loosen their grip. When students are in a heightened state of stress, the part of their brain that is necessary for thinking, reasoning, emotion regulation, and learning is less readily available to them. Teachers can provide children with opportunities to cultivate the skills they need to manage challenging emotions so they can meet each moment of their school day and beyond with less stress and greater awareness, attention, and resilience. Mindfulness of emotions helps them do that.

Mindfulness of one’s emotional experiences is central to well-being. Think of your students who are generally good at managing their emotions in positive ways. They are often the same students who show resilience when faced with challenges. Mindfulness practices and activities can help students to become more skilful at being aware of their emotions as they arise in the present moment and to become familiar with identifying, understanding, using, and managing their emotions in positive ways.

When students are able to identify and manage their own emotions (and those of other people) they are showing what has been called emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Students with strong emotional intelligence are better at managing stress and conflict, showing empathy and kindness, communicating effectively, making informed decisions, building strong relationships, and overcoming challenges. Of course, as teachers know, there is a strong connection between a student’s emotions and their ability to manage their impulses. It is not surprising that research has shown that emotional intelligence is central to success and happiness in life. Studies show that regular mindfulness practice with emotions helps boost emotional intelligence by improving a student’s ability to self-regulate in different situations. Regular mindfulness practice helps students become better aware of the connection between their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors. It helps to create some thoughtful space between a student’s actions and reactions. This space strengthens a student’s ability to respond more skilfully, instead of letting their feelings and emotional impulses govern their actions.

This is an especially important skill when students are confronted with stressful states and difficult emotions. Mindfulness helps children become better attuned to their feelings, which helps them manage and cope with life’s challenges. While students strengthen their emotional awareness through formal practices, the benefits extend throughout the course of their day, as they become increasingly aware of their emotions and how they influence their responses.

One way to help children become better at recognizing, naming, and managing their emotions is through Emotion Mapping (see below). This activity gives students an opportunity to take some time to pay attention to how and where they are feeling an emotion, and to give it a name. While children are better able to identify emotions when they are feeling them at their extreme, they are less able to notice and name them on the way to the extreme. Through practices like emotion mapping, students become better attuned to their emotions, which leads to a greater likelihood that they will be able to regulate them. With regular practice, children become better able to recognize and name a challenging feeling which, in turn, helps to reduce its impact and build resilience.

Tips for Teaching Mindfulness of Emotions

  • Invite: As always, use invitational language when introducing mindfulness activities to students.
  • Begin with the brain: I like to start mindfulness-of-emotion activities with a brief lesson on mindfulness and its impact on the brain. It gives students agency through helping them understand how their minds work and it creates a context for activities to come.
  • Teach as content: It’s helpful to think of emotions and social emotional awareness as content and skills you can teach as you would anything else (explain, model, allow for practice, provide feedback).
  • Teach for transfer: The goal is for students to learn about and practice these strategies within your class setting and then use what they have learned in their daily lives.
  • Find teachable moments: Find opportunities throughout the day to return to concepts learned; i.e. when students are emotionally reactive, upset, anxious, etc.
  • Set boundaries and expectations: In the midst of some of these activities, students may show their vulnerability. It is important to begin these activities with clear expectations about care, compassion, empathy, and respecting the rights and feelings of others.
  • Be trauma-sensitive: For all students, and especially for students who have a history of chronic stress and/or trauma, it is important to offer flexibility. At the outset, offer opportunities to take breaks or stop activities altogether. Be sure to monitor for dysregulation and offer care and compassion to help students process their reactions.
  • Differentiate: As you would differentiate for any other learning opportunity, plan for mindfulness activities with diverse student needs in mind.
  • Integrate mindfulness practices into a culturally responsive, equity-minded, and anti-racist approach to teaching and learning: Mindfulness can act as a tool to help both teachers and students develop awareness and compassion so they are resourced to take action towards more justice and peace in the world.