By Edwin Figueroa, Operation Respect consultant
Over the years, I have often found that, when I ask students how are they feeling, their responses are too general and lack self-awareness. They typically say happy, sad, or angry. Especially when conflict happens, the first response is usually that “I am angry!”
To expand students’ feelings vocabulary and build their self-awareness at PS 16 in Staten Island, we have been working with them using lessons from the Don’t Laugh at Me curriculum. One way is to talk about how these initial emotions can have different degrees. Happy can go from glad to ecstatic. Sad can range from blue to depressed. Anger can go from annoyed to furious. We spend a lot of time identifying underlying feelings, especially around anger. We strive to raise their self-awareness of the myriad of feelings we can all have.
Using scenarios or role-plays is a great way to explore those feelings. An example is “How would you feel if your best friend started hanging out with other students?” That’s the focus of the How Would You Feel If… lesson in the first unit, and it’s one of our favorites.
We also find that we have to let our young people know that it is okay to be angry. They often connect anger as something negative rather than a natural emotion. They often connect their typical responses (name-calling, screaming, pushing, or crying) to that situation as something negative. But what other feelings may they have? The underlying feelings in that situation could be confused, jealous, or embarrassed. The challenge of expressing our underlying feelings is not unique to young people. As adults, we too get stuck in the emotion of anger. We recognize that, unless we can talk about these underlying feelings, the conflict may never be resolved.
Once we raise self-awareness, we need to teach skills that enable us to express our feelings in a constructive way. A great lesson from the Don’t Laugh at Me curriculum is using “I-messages.” Unlike “You messages” in which we are pointing our fingers at the other person, I-messages are a great tool we can use to express ourselves with hope that the other person can hear us. The framework of I-messages is “I feel _______, when you______, because_______.” Using our earlier example, we can say “I feel confused, when you stopped being my friend, because I thought we were close.”
I also encourage students to work further and express their needs by adding something like, “So can you tell me what happened?” In a couple of classes, I have asked students to keep a journal of the conflicts they had over the course of a week. Students were eager to share (without giving names) the types of conflicts they had with peers, teachers, and at home. We worked hard to brainstorm possible I-messages they could use to help resolve those conflicts. As with any skill, the more we practice the more proficient and comfortable we become.