Emotional Learning - Tips for Teaching Teens


When I was in high school, I remember sobbing in my guidance counselor’s office on several occasions. One time, it was because I had gotten into trouble in my chemistry class. Looking back on these experiences as an adult, I feel silly. But the truth is that as a teen, I didn’t have enough life experience or the skills to manage my emotions.

Sometimes, as a teacher of high school students, I forget the intensity of those feelings. I’m so intent on delivering course content that I may not notice a student’s exhilaration because it’s her 16th birthday, or I may neglect her distraught look after a fight with her boyfriend. This is a mistake.

We teachers cannot ignore the importance of emotion when instructing teenagers. At a recent TpT Conference, University of Southern California Associate Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang said, “emotions are a critical piece of learning.” In fact, she noted that when our brains are feeling deep emotions, we are “literally more alive.” Her neuroscience research shows that social and emotional factors affect students’ academic success.

But how can teachers use emotional learning to improve academic success? Twenty years of classroom experience helps me surmise some ways.

At the beginning of the school year, it’s important to use icebreakers and team builders to create a positive classroom culture. On the first day of school, students will likely experience myriad emotions- excitement to see friends, anxiety over class expectations, and perhaps, mourning for the end of summer. (I know I do.) Even though teachers may want to dive into curriculum, it’s vital to create a positive classroom atmosphere where students know their feelings will be respected. This facilitates student participation in class discussion and meaningful cooperative learning.

In English class, teachers can capitalize on the emotional responses texts provoke in readers. Poems and books make us laugh, cry, or even react with anger. Consequently, we

need to be sensitive to our students’ emotional needs when we teach controversial literature. For instance, a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird may require thorough preparation and discussion before reading even begins. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, I remember being devastated that Tom Robinson was unfairly convicted by a prejudiced jury. Many teens haven’t personally experienced such unfairness in their lives yet, so teaching literature that focuses on injustice in the world may be a good strategy for helping them develop more empathy.

In addition to feeling strongly about literature, English class provides students with opportunities to express their feelings through writing. Students should have time to write informally and personally. Journals, poems, and narratives can be incorporated into class on a regular basis. These assignments also help students develop their voices.

Sometimes, when there is a crisis in the school or community, teachers must put a planned activity or lesson on hold while we acknowledge the emotional impact of the event. By doing this, teachers respect students’ feelings and accept the reality of their worlds. This also helps to form deeper bonds and relationships with students.

Lastly, it’s important to be aware that life milestones for teens– getting a driver's license, working a first job, attending prom, applying to college- will impact their moods. Teachers can nurture students and

improve learning by planning lessons that connect to these developmental events. Furthermore, it benefits both students and teachers when teachers accept the excitement and distraction that accompany spirit weeks, class elections, and other extracurricular activities.

No doubt, some teachers will worry that facilitating emotional learning in the classroom will require them to sacrifice academic rigor, but this does not have to be the case. It simply requires balance between content and understanding. Ultimately, emotional learning helps strengthen student motivation, problem-solving skills, and social intelligence, guiding them toward leading healthy, productive lives.


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