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Emotional Capacity: Tapping our Internal Resources

This blog on Emotional Capacity is the 6th of a six-part series on the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching.

The season turns— and we settle back into school and a new cycle. Students and teachers alike arrive with stories and experiences from the summer. With all that is present politically, globally, and culturally— we are each being stretched to grow and expand our emotional capacity to navigate these changing times. At moments, these issues can feel overwhelming—take the issue of immigration that is wracking our nation and inciting fear in the hearts of many families with school-age children.

These ever-present issues present a number of tensions or questions. How do we acknowledge what is living in the hearts and minds of our students while continuing to focus on our curricula and lessons at hand? How do we take care of ourselves so that we don’t “take it all on” in a way that is impossible to manage or sustain? How do we grow our own ability to be present with all of the emotions that show up in school, without becoming overwhelmed?

One thing we can “do” is to focus on developing the following areas of our  Emotional Capacity:

  1. Expanding our Emotional Range: We can intentionally work to increase our comfort with and compassion for the entire range of human emotions—from anger to excitement, from grief to joy. We can begin with a simple awareness practice. On a daily basis we can ask ourselves: what emotions do I feel comfortable and uncomfortable with and why? How does this tend to impact my life and teaching? When we expand our emotional range, we are much less likely to be unconsciously reactive or to unnecessarily shut down our students because we are afraid or agitated—or to snap at a colleague because we have let our emotions build to an unmanageable place. When we expand our emotional range—we are also better able to see and recognize our own biases and filters and see how that is impacting our view of challenging situations.
  2. Understanding numbing and trauma: Increasingly, schools are recognizing that there is a profound level of trauma and unresolved grief and fear that our students walk into school with. When we have experienced or are experiencing trauma—we often learn how to compartmentalize, numb, or avoid what is painful. However, this leads to an overall desensitizing –which can lead us to cut off access to parts of ourselves. When we numb one emotion—like grief or anger, we tend to numb them all. Understanding more about the ways trauma shows up in the classroom can deeply inform our personal responses to students and our classroom management strategies. For more on this topic, please see our book p. 96-100).
  3. Cultivating a Positive Emotional Environment: We often think of the ways “negative emotions” impact our students and learning environment. But we can proactively and intentionally engage positive emotions by a) creating a relationship centered classroom—where students know they matter b) noticing and building on strengths in our students c) inviting personal storytelling and personal connections to our curriculum and content (relevance) d) integrating gratitude practices that cultivate positive emotions e) modeling and teaching students how to embrace productive struggles and to persevere through challenges.
  4. Finding our Center: Find a practice that supports you to center yourself in the midst of intense emotions within and without. This might be three mindful breaths or a self-inquiry or a journaling practice. It might include a regular check in with a colleague or a regular personal retreat. Whatever it is, consider how to incorporate it into your life on a regular basis so that you are emotionally regulated and resourced.

We are the ones who set the tone for the emotional environment in our classrooms—and we can be part of the changes we wish to see in our schools. Our efforts and behaviors matter—and they daily impact our students in ways that can hinder their openness to learning or support them to find their own resourcefulness and inspiration.

Stay tuned in October for the beginning of our series on the foundational strands of our work:  Social and Emotional Learning, Cultural Responsiveness, Mindfulness, and Whole Systems Thinking.  Throughout the series of blogs, we will look at the ways these foundational strands interrelate and support one another.

Here is a link to a classic Ted Talk by Brenè Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

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