Riding the Cyclone: Regulating Emotions in Middle School | Elaine Griffin | 6 Min Read

News flash: Water is wet and middle school is an emotional roller coaster. Strapped into their seats, students experience the highs and lows of progressing through puberty and finding their identity as well as the twists and turns of navigating more complex social relationships. They  are often awash in unrecognizable and seemingly ungovernable emotions while they climb formidable hills, plunge into stomach-wrenching demon drops, and get tossed topsy-turvy. And  they ride without the experience or tools to know that life’s strange and unexpected loops do eventually become not just manageable but even wonderful, as we learn to love the surprises unfolding around and within us.  

Does the middle school ride need to be frightening instead of exhilarating? 

Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and the founding director of  the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, doesn’t think so.  

Mark Brackett

Having spent his career studying emotional intelligence, Brackett contends that children can learn the skills they need to address their feelings in healthy ways. In his recently released book “Permission to Feel,” he presents a process he helped develop for young people that guides them in identifying and expressing their emotions. Inviting his readers to become emotion scientists, he suggests that the skills needed to effectively manage feelings are no different from other mental skills; we simply need to internalize them and practice them. Modeling healthy emotional regulation is especially important for parents because children learn how to process their feelings from  the adults around them. 

Before proceeding to a few key takeaways from Brackett’s book, I need to address one last thing. A lot of people consider emotions to be “touchy-feely,” falsely believing that feelings get in the way of rational thought. But research into the science debunks this myth. “Emotional intelligence doesn’t allow feelings to get in the way—it does just the opposite,” Brackett persuasively argues. “It restores balance to our thought processes; it prevents emotions from having undue influence over actions; and it helps us to realize that we might be feeling a certain way for a reason.” 

Here are just some of the important reasons that Brackett argues we should become emotion scientists. 

1. Emotions are inextricably linked to achievement: 

“The research is clear: emotions determine whether academic content will be processed deeply and remembered. Linking emotion to learning ensures that students find classroom instruction relevant.” When students perceive a classroom environment as welcoming and supportive, they earn higher grades. Additionally, the “three most important aspects of learning—attention, focus, and memory—are all controlled by our emotions, not by cognition.” When we separate academic skills from social-emotional learning, we aren’t just creating a false dichotomy. We’re undermining effective academic performance.  

2. Emotions influence our physical health: 

Brackett presents compelling research relating our feelings to our health. For example, anger is linked to heart disease and heart attacks. Negative feelings lower our immune responses and prolong the symptoms of an illness. At the same time, positive emotions such as gratitude increase oxygen flow, speed recovery, and strengthen our immune system. If you can learn to regulate your emotions, you will improve your overall health. Just expressing your emotions can have a profound impact on your health by lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, and increasing immune function.  

3. A rich emotional vocabulary is necessary for managing emotions: 

Studies demonstrate a disturbing “vocabulary gap” between poor and wealthy children in the United States. Children in higher-income households are exposed to a greater number of words, which gives them an advantage in school. But Brackett contends that this “gap fades when it comes to the words we use to describe our feelings;” the two most used words, across income brackets, are “fine” and “busy.” This, in turn, means: (1) all of us can benefit from becoming emotion scientists, and (2) kids from lower-income households who become emotion scientists can thereby go a long way toward reducing the consequences of a vocabulary gap when it comes to social-emotional learning.  

Brackett shares a chart with a plethora of emotion words, called a Mood Meter, to help his readers understand that emotions are complex and nuanced. If you can label exactly how you are feeling, you are much better able to address that particular feeling. For example, stress is not anxiety. Stress occurs when we have too much to do and too little time. Anxiety occurs when we worry about an uncertain future. These two very different feelings require very different solutions. Labeling also helps modulate our reactions. For example, frustration is less potent than anger, and our reactions to these emotions should reflect that. We need to get “granular” to precisely identify how we are feeling.

4. Emotional regulation is dependent on specific, learned skills: 

Using the acronym RULER, Brackett presents a 5-step process with a proven record of helping kids with emotional regulation. Essentially, there are five skills needed for effectively identifying and expressing emotion. Parents should practice these skills too, as their modeling of the components is important for children.  

  • Recognizing: Notice the emotion by paying attention to changes in your thoughts, your body, or your energy level. 
  • Understanding: Reflect upon what caused your new emotional state. 
  • Labeling: Give a precise name to how you are feeling. Labeling accurately gives us a better understanding of ourselves and allows us to communicate our feelings to others. 
  • Expressing: Think about how and when to express your feelings. Context matters. Expression is a “co-skill…you can’t really do it alone.” You need a good listener, one who is open and nonjudgmental.  
  • Regulating: Act upon your emotion. Acting doesn’t have to be dramatic and probably shouldn’t be. Brackett recommends taking a “Meta-Moment” by breathing deeply. This creates a pause between your emotion and your reaction and lowers your cortisol levels. At the same time, picture your best self and act in accordance with that image to prevent making a permanent mistake based on a temporary feeling.  

5. Emotional regulation depends on a lot of unrelated factors: 

In order for you to be effective at emotional regulation, you need to take care of your  physical body.  

A few examples: 

Sugar and refined grains raise blood glucose and reduce “self-control.” A lack of exercise affects our mood. 

“Inadequate sleep is associated with reduced connections between brain regions responsible for cognitive control and behavior.”  

Conversely, doing things you love can “build up cognitive reserves.” Taking walks, going out with friends, and reading a good book are all restorative outlets. We can also practice mindfulness, which helps us use our breath to stay in the present. Spending time on screens is less helpful. Brackett writes that we are getting worse at reading emotions due to our time online. When we spend time on screens, we are taking time away from in-person and phone conversations, the kind of exchanges that give us practice at reading emotions through non-verbal cues. 

Brackett makes an important point in the middle of his book: we tend to focus “exclusively” on  negative feelings when we talk about our emotions. He asks that we make a concerted effort to discuss our positive ones, too. By sharing our feelings of joy or contentedness, we may be able to amplify and extend those feelings. And I do mean extend: “emotional contagion” is a real and well-researched concept. Our positive moods are contagious, and others reflect our good feelings back at us.  

Giving our loved ones permission to feel begins with a sincere question, “How are you feeling?” Let’s support our middle schoolers by recognizing and honoring their emotions. By doing so, we will help them become young adults armed with self-knowledge and agency. By doing so, we will help them become more fully rounded. By doing so, we can help them learn how to lean into and even enjoy some of the curves of that rollercoaster ride which is life’s surprising, thrilling ride. 

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

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