Emotional Development in the Classroom

Emotional Development in the Classroom

By Nicole Gaffney

Chapter 8: Emotional Development


Emotional development, like any other form of a child’s growth, affects a student’s academic achievement. There are many students who are successful at reading other’s emotions and regulating their own.  However, there are children who lack this ‘skill’ we call emotional competence. Classroom behavior and a child’s thought are both effected by emotion (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). According to Education.com, “If a child’s academic tasks are interrupted by problems with peers, following directions, or controlling negative emotions, the child will have trouble learning to read or staying on task in other educational activities.” (Odle, 2013) However, effective teachers can promote children’s emotional competence, which can lead to greater school achievement (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

When young children do not know how to identify emotions, handle disappointment and anger, or develop relationships with peers, a teacher’s best response is to teach (Fox & Lentini, 2006). According to our book, teachers can help children learn about their emotions through victim-centered discipline. (Bergin & Bergin, 2012)  When we teach children how their behavior might affect others, we can help them develop empathy.  An example of this would be if a child reacted to another student by hitting him in anger. The teacher would point out that the victim feels sad and hurt because the child hit him or her. This can be a powerful teaching strategy. However, what can a teacher do to help children with these skills before the problem behavior occurs?

Emphasis on teaching social skills is just one component of multiple strategies to support a child at risk for challenging behavior (Fox & Lentini, 2006) Just like any other skill, teachers use many strategies to educate children. We can do the same with social and emotional skills. According to Lise Fox and Rochelle Harper Lentini (2006), social skills that teachers can explicitly teach are:

  • Identifying feelings in oneself and others
  • Controlling anger and impulses
  • Problem solving
  • Suggesting play themes and activities to peers
  • Sharing toys and other materials
  • Taking turns
  • Helping adults and peers
  • Giving compliments
  • Understanding how and when to apologize
  • Expressing empathy with others’ feelings
  • Learning how to recognizing anger in oneself and others
  • Learning how to calm down
  • Understanding appropriate ways to express anger

It is important that we teach our students these skills no matter what age or grade we teach. Hamburg (1992) observed that many students have been exposed to attitudes and behaviors that are actually just the opposite of those listed above. Some children are not getting the instruction at home that they need at home before starting school.  Over the past few decades, children’s families have changed and evolved and now include non-biological parents and siblings.  Because of our changing society, contemporary students may lack basic social, and emotional skills and capabilities previously taken for granted (Hamburg 1992).

One way to teach these social and emotional skills is by following the “Stages of Learning” (Fox & Lentini, 2006): skill acquisition, fluency and maintenance/generalization. When we introduce a new skill, we explain the skill and demonstrate it. Many times, modeling the appropriate and undesirable behavior would be effective. We could also use children’s literature, incidental teaching and games to teach these new skills. Next, teachers would provide practice time. This can be done with small groups and partners.  During this time, teachers would walk around giving positive feedback. After skill acquisition, we build fluency by allowing time for more practice over the course of a few days. Then, to ensure maintenance and generalization of a new skill, after introducing the skill and providing practice opportunities, teachers can offer repeated opportunities to practice the skill in familiar and new situations. (Fox & Lentini, 2006)

In addition to the direct instruction we give to our students. Teachers can also make an imperative difference by using emotion contagion and social referencing to help students understand the appropriate ways to regulate their emotions (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). Teachers set the tone for the environment, and by being a positive influence and stable emotional aspect in a child’s life; we can change a child’s educational experience by influencing their feelings and thoughts.


Bergin, C.C. & Bergin, D.A. (2012).  Child and Adolescent Development in Your Classroom.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Fox, L., & Lentini, R.H. (2006). You Got It! Teaching Social and Emotional Skills. Young Children, 61, 1-7. http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200611/BTJFoxLentini.pdf

Hamburg, D. A. (1992). Today’s Children: Creating a Future for a Generation in Crisis. New York, NY: Times Books.

Odle, Teresa. (2013). Emotional Development. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/emotional-development/#D

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which specific social and emotional skills do you teach in your classroom? How does this affect your classroom’s behavior or academic problems?
  2.  In what ways do you promote positive emotions in your classroom? How do you react to unwanted behaviors or negative situations?
  3. How do you deal with the lack of social and emotional skills taught by parents? Do you communicate with parents about these skills and the importance of them?
  4. Is there a particular student whom you can remember that was affected by their lack of emotional regulation? How did this impact their learning and peer acceptance?
  5. What would you do if one of your students were constantly disrupting the class by having an emotional outburst? Would you seek another resource?
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12 Responses to Emotional Development in the Classroom

  1. Which specific social and emotional skills do you teach in your classroom? How does this affect your classroom’s behavior or academic problems?

    This school year I have started direct instruction in social skills and behavior. One thing I have taught is calming strategies to use when feeling angry. We work on deep breathing, taking a short break, talking with an adult, writing in a feelings journal or using a fidget to help calm emotions so that we can next, problem solve. Of course there are guidelines for how to use these strategies. We practice as a whole group and then independently.

    I believe this has helped decrease behavior problems and conflict in my classroom this school year. In the past I had a number of behavior infractions by this point in the school year but this year has been different. Although we have not gotten too deep into social/emotional skills, I feel I have create a good foundation which allows my students to work through problems rather than getting frustrated and shutting down. I am anticipating an increase in academic success as well. My students now use common language and “I feel” statements. This has opened up communication not only for me and my students but also for my students and their peers.

  2. anonymous50 says:

    1. Which specific social and emotional skills do you teach in your classroom? How does this affect your classroom’s behavior or academic problems?

    Some of the specific social and emotional skills I focused on in my classroom were patience, impulse control, tolerance, and empathy. The patience and impulse control, I approached through clearly articulated and consistent rules, scaffolding compliance through monitoring, feedback, and positive reinforcement, always cognizant that some students would master the patience or impulse control sooner than others.

    The tolerance and empathy were imbedded in the thematic content of the literature and the associated discussions, writing assignments, and projects. As one example, prior to reading Diary of a Young Girl, we viewed the 1973 documentary, Eye of the Storm, about a third grade teacher who introduced her all-white, farming community students to the injustice of racial prejudice by creating eye-color based prejudice in her classroom. Watching those children so easily turn on and judge one another put the prejudices and discrimination practiced in Nazi Germany into a perspective to which middle schoolers understood. Also, by equating the number of Holocaust victims to the number of residents in our state, then our town, and finally, the number of students in our 450-student school, assigning real faces to the ‘victims’, the Holocaust took on a more conceivable, thus meaningful, perspective. Each year, by the end of the discussion, the horror and empathy were evident in their faces. These and other exercises then translated into more significant discussions and even, at least temporarily, more supportive or tolerant attitudes toward one another.

    I always felt that by forebearingly guiding my students in achieving patience and impulse control, everyone benefitted by allowing the ability to make the best use of the academic time allotted. Likewise, by taking advantage of the opportunities in our literature to expose them to injustice and intolerance, they then became more empathic and helpful toward one another, which in turn created a more positive learning environment in which we were able to tackle difficult tasks and accomplish fairly lofty academic goals together.

    • Autumn says:

      I think that you do a beautiful job of inculcating a sense of empathy/tolerance in the classroom. Confronting the “me” generation can be very challenging for both teachers and parents alike. Television and internet have ushered in a new wave of seductive, yet undeniably questionable values that command a strong response. Inoculating our students against the pervasive materialism and narcissism, celebrated within these mediums is a collective responsibility.

  3. Katie Williams says:

    Which specific social and emotional skills do you teach in your classroom? How does this affect your classroom’s behavior or academic problems?

    I really like the list of social skills you gave that teachers can explicitly teach to students. I teach my students to problem solve, share, take turns, give compliments, and understand how and when to apologize. I think my students are becoming more aware of their emotions and are increasingly able to demonstrate self control. I can see classroom behavior becoming more cooperative thus improving academic success. Students are able to work more collaboratively.

    I think there is room for improvement on my part with teaching social and emotional skills. In the past, I have found myself thinking, “Well, I’ll just let RBHS take care of this,” instead of realizing my responsibilty to teach the whole child. I want to do a better job especially of intentionally teaching students to identify feelings, control impulses, calming techniques and learning to express anger appropriately.

  4. Brooke says:

    In what ways do you promote positive emotions in your classroom? How do you react to unwanted behaviors or negative situations?

    This has been a tough year so far for me. I usually feel like I keep a laid back and positive environment in my classroom, however, this group of students has really made me think. My team has a large group of Special Ed. students with Autism and many have trouble regulating their emotions in the classroom. We were having so many daily classroom interruptions due to these uncontrollable emotions that we had to create and implement some procedures team wide. The special education teacher created a special set of procedures for these students, including “Zone Cards” they can utilize when they feel like emotionally erupting or during an emotional eruption. I know some of these students do not have the ability to regulate or have to make a very conscious effort to control it, but having a plan and a general atmosphere of patience and acceptance helps these students relax and regroup after hitting their emotional peak.

    It is definitely not uncommon for any of my 7th grade students to act out and lose control of their emotions. I had a student last week who completely lost his mind when he received a low test grade. His binder went flying and he slammed his head on his desk crying. I kept my cool and asked him to meet me in the hallway. I calmly asked him to get a drink and run a note all the way down to the front office to cool off. When he returned the students were already busy working on their assignment and didn’t even notice him. I reminded the student that the test was not the end of the world and gave him the big picture of my class grade. While he was much less agitated, he wasn’t entirely calmed down, so I let him work in the hall and I checked in frequently. I think it is very important for the teacher to not add to the drama when students fly off the handle and definitely do not take it personally. I usually find that talking out problems and letting the students describe their feelings (getting it off their chest) makes them feel better. The teacher does not have to agree, but giving the student chance to air their frustration and then time to reflect is positive. In general, making sure you form relationships and bonds with students, pay genuine compliments and listen to concerns all help create or sustain a positive classroom environment.

  5. Drew Ibendahl says:

    Is there a particular student whom you can remember that was affected by their lack of emotional regulation? How did this impact their learning and peer acceptance?
    Two years ago, I had a fifth grade student who had an extremely difficult time controlling his emotions. He had very few peer relationships and even fewer positive peer interactions. He had a history of frequent outbursts with peers, teachers, and administrators, and unfortunately, this history set the tone for every year following. When he came into my classroom at the beginning of the school year, I made sure to try to set a positive tone for the upcoming year. By a month into the school year, he had displayed many of the emotional outbursts he had done in previous years. He was a very bright student, but often failed to complete his work or put the necessary effort into the work. His grades were definitely not a true reflection of his ability. Group work was nearly impossible, as there were very few, if any, students who willingly accepted him into their group. Even while in groups of peers who tolerated him and he felt comfortable with, he did not have the skills to participate, which led to more problems. He had served multiple in-school suspensions and an extended out-of-school suspension for some inappropriate and borderline violent outbursts. Following Christmas break, I learned the family was thinking about moving out of the district. Fortunately, they decided not to do so. For this student, a fresh start was not what he needed, and more change and instability would only compound his issues. I began working with this student during breaks/recesses. Some days we would work on social skills, but most days, we would just talk about school, about home, about friends, about hobbies, and interests. He spent time in my room with me eating lunch and helping me around the classroom. I knew his parents were hard-working and willing to do whatever they could for him, but they worked long hours and were often home late from work, while the kids stayed at grandma’s. This student told me the best times at his house were when he and his family sat down for dinner together. By the end of the year, he wasn’t the most popular student in the classroom. He still had occasional outbursts and was still a little inconsistent with his school work. However, he made excellent strides, both academically and socially. I feel as though he developed a sense of trust and a connection with me, which, carried over into his sixth grade year. I learned just as much, if not more from this student than he did from me. I have had many students I felt I did not quite make that connection with that could have helped them turn the corner, but this particular student made me further realize the importance of my own empathy for my students and really understanding where they come from.

  6. Jimmie Jo says:

    Is there a particular student whom you can remember that was affected by their lack of emotional regulation? How did this impact their learning and peer acceptance?

    Honestly, I think it is hard to forget the students who are affected by their lack of emotional regulation. They are a lot of hard work! But, as a teacher if you can make a difference in their lives, they are students you will probably never forget!
    T was in 5 schools during his first year of 1st grade. He came to our school to do his 2nd year of 1st grade. The last school he had been in the year before had retained him. He had problems keeping his hands to himself and making appropriate conversations with his peers. He was very defensive and defiant…and knew exactly what buttons to push with other students and myself. He once told me, “You are just one of those teachers who just don’t like KIDS! Ouch! That stung! It was a very tough first couple of months. My other students did not want to play with him or even work with him in class.
    I am a firm believer in building relationships with students. I decided that no matter what he said to me I was NOT going to react. I was going to be kind, loving and resolute with my expectations. I talked to his mom and we set up some counseling sessions with our school counselor. She gave him some lessons on handling anger and making friends. We made a plan that if he felt angry or out of control that he could call a “time out” to get himself back into control. His behavior steadily improved throughout the year. He did have set backs, but as his attitude and behavior improved so did his learning. He moved again at the end of the school year. I sure hope that his 2nd grade teacher is continuing to help him to learn to regulate his emotions.

  7. Andrea says:

    Which specific social and emotional skills do you teach in your classroom? How does this affect your classroom’s behavior or academic problems?

    I try to promote a positive classroom environment. At the beginning of the year I set expectations on how students should treat each other in the classroom. Not only do I expect my students to treat each other with respect, I do my best to model the type of social and emotional skills I desire in my classroom. We have discussions that no one is perfect, but we need to always strive to do the best we can. If we get it wrong, then we need to try fix it and try to better the next time a particular situation occurs. Even though I teach science, I try and use situations that arise in the classroom as teachable moments and model sympathy and empathy. I also try to provide opportunities where students can see my sense of humor and they find that school can be fun. Teaching science addresses all three learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory & visual). The activities that we do vary throughout a class period that it is very rare that students have two days in a row that look alike (ex. note taking, labs, demonstration, activities, etc). In order for the class to run smoothly, I had to thoroughly and repeatedly teach expectations and procedures at the beginning of the school year. This has helped keep the behaviors in check and decrease time off task. Academic problems have also decreased, because students spend less time off task.

  8. Sinclair says:

    5. What would you do if one of your students were constantly disrupting the class by having an emotional outburst? Would you seek another resource?

    This reminds me of someone with verbal and body tics and how hard it is to handle someone with them. A case manager that once worked for me made all kinds of sounds and awkward body movements, especially when nervous or in a group of people. It was very distracting! When he was in his work cube he made funny sounds and often talked to himself, unaware that everyone around was listening and making fun. I made a signal with him. When he started talking to himself or making sounds, I would say something like, “Jeff, are you talking to me, I was day dreaming and thought you said something?” He would then reply with something funny like, “No, but I do need to go and take one of my happy pills.” This really took a lot of the pressure off him and reminded him to stop the behavior.

  9. Karen says:

    What would you do if one of your students were constantly disrupting the class by having an emotional outburst? Would you seek another resource?

    This has happened to several students in my school, not necessarily in my class, but occasionally. If a student had an emotional outburst in my class I would pull him/her over to the side and have a conversation with them. I would try to figure out what is going on, particularly if I know this student well and it is not typical of them. If it is truly uncharacteristic of them I might talk with the school counselor, nurse, or social worker and ask them to check in on that student. If the emotional outbursts continued to happen I would continue to work with the child to find the source of the outburst. For one student in my class whenever we took the fitness test he would fall to the ground crying, we determined that it was because he felt like a failure. Instead of looking at the state standards for passing we worked together to come up with goals that he would be able to reach. I celebrated even small improvements in his scores. Unfortunately, not all cases are that simple. If a child has had a multiple outbursts I would bring them up at our student concerns meeting we hold once a week with the school counselor. The school counselor may be able to provide me with more information or may do some digging herself. If the cause is unknown I will likely call home with a follow up call coming from the school counselor or social worker. I think it is important to work as a team to help students. Sometimes other teachers have better relationships and know what is going on or it just provides them with a heads up. The support staff at school are vital resources because they often know things we don’t or at the very least can check in with the student to find out what we can do to support them.

  10. Autumn says:

    How do you deal with the lack of social and emotional skills taught by parents? Do you communicate with parents about these skills and the importance of them?

    I maintain that it is critical to address a student’s lack of social and emotional skills in the swiftest manner possible, as these issues have the potential to evolve into something far worse over time. I find that engaging parents in productive discussions concerning their child’s social and emotional development can be very difficult, since they are typically inclined to see these matters as a reflection of their parenting style. Given the sensitivity of this subject, I try to be forthcoming with clear feedback/suggestions, interjecting positive commentary regarding other aspects of the student’s performance, as appropriate. This generally serves to help “cushion the blow.”
    Additionally, I invite parents to troubleshoot these issues with me, supplying concrete examples of how their child’s social skills are impeding their ability to blossom as people. Ideally, we then develop an action plan for the student. I tend to eschew techniques which, by design, simply delay intervention (the ones most often proposed by parents). I have no desire for my observations to be perceived as criticisms; however, I do feel that honesty is essential.

  11. Janet says:

    4.Is there a particular student whom you can remember that was affected by their lack of emotional regulation? How did this impact their learning and peer acceptance?

    As a special education teacher, I deal with emotional regulation on a daily basis. I use direct instruction to teach a multitude of strategies to my students. I am always telling them that they have a tool belt and we need to fill the tool belt with a variety of tools that will help them be successful in the classroom. It takes a lot of work to learn how to work each of those tools and then to know which tool to use in any given situation. Every day we work on identifying emotions (often they are only able to decribe how they feel with words such as “good” or “bad”. We talk about how emotions change frequently throughout the day and I have to point out the changes as they occur. We also work on strategies such as relaxation, breathing techniques, imagery, mindfullness (being in the present, not being hung up in the past or spending too much time worrying about the future), and using positive statements. If you were in my classroom, you would hear students make statements such as “I can’t do this!” or “I’m stupid!”. We spend a lot of time working on thinking positively and this takes so much practice. The students have positive statement cards on their desk and we also have posters with positive statements around the classroom. When my students are unable to regulate thier emotions, it impacts thier learning to a great degree. They miss out on instruction and it is hard for their peers to watch them lose control. I try to teach the students how to recognize triggers and body signals, so they can realize when they need to use one of the “tools” in their toolbelt to help regulate their emotions in order to get back on track. When I observe a student using the tools they have learned to regulate their emotions, we celebrate their sucess!

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