Emotional granularity is the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision. Sure, you may know that you’re feeling down. But, do you know if you’re feeling frustrated, worried, scared or insecure? Our emotional vocabulary is our toolbox for dealing with the emotional distresses that come with everyday life. The more words for emotions we have at our disposal, the more tools we have in our toolbox.
Plainly, when we can find the right words to label our emotions, we are better equipped to make good choices.
According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barret, who coined the term emotional granularity, “people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings — those ‘50 shades of feeling crappy’ — were 30 percent more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.” Low negative emotional granularity has been associated with stronger reactivity to negative affect and higher vulnerability to poor mental health.
When dealing with students, emotional granularity matters for all emotions but it matters most when it comes to anger: our children’s and our own. It’s helpful to think of “mad” as a tip-of-the-iceberg emotion. With a little empathy, patience, and curiosity, you might discover worry, anxiety or confusion below the surface.
When a student slams a door in your classroom, it’s tempting to yell at them or to write it off as a “bad kids being bad.” However, angry outbursts in our classrooms should be seen as signal flares. That simple slam might indicate conflict with a close friend at school, bad grades in a class, an embarrassing moment on the playground, worry about basketball tryouts, a need for lunch money or a lack of sleep. From the words of a seventh grader: “I wish my parents would remember that when I get mad at them, it’s almost always because I’m stressed about something else.”
1) Build an emotional vocabulary word wall
Give your students confidence in their emotional vocabulary with a word wall. Lauren Ross, LCSW and school social worker for the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, Colorado, suggests creating a word wall filled with feeling words or hanging a poster in the room with “feeling” faces. Having this toolkit ready and available for students can also help take away some of the stigmas that surrounds talking about your feelings.
2) Have a daily check-in on your students’ emotions
Set the tone first thing in the morning and begin the school day by asking your students about things that might be bothering them - no matter how small it may seem. Ask your students about their homework or what they ate for breakfast. Ask if anyone fought with their brother or sister. The idea is to discuss any event that likely elicited a feeling and have everyone share. This sets the tone for the day, giving you the heads up on who might have a tough day and why. However, it’s also important to emphasize to your students that they should only share as much as they feel comfortable.
3) Designate a calm-down spot
As teachers, you have the responsibility of creating a healthy and safe classroolm environment, where all feelings are okay, and where taking care of yourself is normalized and respected. “A ‘calm-down spot’ in the classroom is a great way to do that,” says Ross.
“I usually recommend a pillow or beanbag, a feelings poster, a couple of calm-down strategies such as a stress ball or Theraputty to squeeze, books about emotions, and a timer.” Once it’s set up, make your kids aware of what the calm down spot is and why it helps our classrooms.
This is also a great way to reframe the traditional idea of a “time out.” Instead of being punished when a student misbehaves, they can rest assured that their emotions are valid and that the calm down spot is simply a space where they can recenter and regroup their emotions.
4) Teach your students that emotions drive behaviors
It can feel uncomfortable to awkwardly ask students, “How do you feel?” Instead, we need to be asking how an event—like a big test coming up—makes the child feel and how that subsequent emotion makes them behave.
“Teaching emotions and how emotions drive behavior is a positive approach,” says one therapist, “You need students to connect emotions to behavior. Making these connections is critical, and we need to do it frequently and consistently as this is a main driver to change the way kids think.”
5) Be patient and share your own emotions
The kids who have the most difficulty managing their behavior are often the ones who are falling behind or have gaps in their academic knowledge. So, not only is it important to get to the core of the issues by teaching emotions but doing so with patience is key.
Don’t be afraid to share your own emotions as they occur throughout the day. You’re not superhuman and you will feel a variety of positive and negative emotions throughout the day, just like your students. Share your feelings with your students—it’s a perfect way to help them understand the connection between feelings and behavior.
“When these situations occur, ask yourself what your emotion was in the situation and what you did to manage it. Then share that with your kids.”