When Emotions Run High

I’ve seen tempers explode right in the middle of class—hackles up, fists bunched, and bitter words thrown across the room. These high-running emotions always daunted me. After all, most of my students had larger bodies than I did and louder voices and a greater willingness to take a swing. I obviously couldn’t fight might with might.

So how could I keep misdirected passion from hijacking my class?

Here’s a simple series of interventions that worked . . . at least sometimes.

  1. Start with action. Countering emotion with emotion usually escalates emotion. And logical thinking doesn’t work, either. When the amygdala—the emotional part of the brain—is activated, the reasoning brain shuts down. But when action meets emotion, there’s a chance.

I had a list of options I used: Sit down. Meet me in the hall. Take this attendance sheet to the office. Go get a drink.

A student may not be able to control rage. But sitting down or taking a few steps toward the hall. . . maybe.

  1. Continue with thinking. “Here,” I’d say, handing a student paper and pencil. “Write. Tell me what happened.”

And students usually wrote several pages, the first half sheet usually full of a heavy jerking scrawl. Further down, the script often lightened and smoothed out. And the content became more reasonable. I could see evidence of logic flowing through the brain, once again.

  1. End with emotion. Now that blood was flowing through the whole brain, students could express emotion in helpful ways. It was at this point and in private that I tried to draw out emotion.

“How do you feel,” I’d ask, “about what happened back there?”

And students were usually able to articulate with greater clarity and more understanding.

With many old routines upended, with uncertainties about Covid-19, and with new rules about masks and distancing, the start of this year is sure to bring heightened emotion. Perhaps this process of moving from action to thinking to emotion can help.

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