The important role of emotion in students' lives

If you analyze the many problems and issues students so often struggle with, many are literally defined by generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion. For example, anger problems, anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, low self-esteem, and too much stress. Students often experience physical symptoms or even illness because they have a dysfunctional amount of emotion. 

By dysfunctional I mean more than is helpful or necessary, more than they want to have, more than is healthy for them, more than they know what to do with, and a type and amount that works against them instead of for them. 

Many other problems or issues are caused by generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion. For example, arguing, fighting, violence, vandalism, bullying and verbal abuse. Still others are what they do to attempt to get relief from such emotion. For example, smoke, drink, use drugs, overeat, starve themselves, binge and purge, self-mutilate, stop working in school, be truant or go A.W.O.L., or even attempt suicide. Smoking, drinking and drug use can lead to addiction or overdoses. 

All of these emotional disorders or behaviors negatively impact student readiness, willingness and ability to learn, and our ability to teach them. And yet we typically do very little of what we could do to help students manage what goes on inside their own heads. 

E-motion is energy to move. Nature intended it to help us get what we want and need in life, and ultimately protect us from threats. Anger and anxiety are the two halves of our fight or flight responses. In truly life-threatening situations, a lot of energy to move would be helpful. Many young people have early life experiences that understandably triggered their fight or flight responses. It’s understandable that their fight or flight would be more easily, and needlessly triggered in the future. Anxiety or anger makes them react to life events, often needlessly. It makes them less response-able, or able to respond to life in the best possible way.  They lose response-ability, or the ability to respond in the best possible way.

When people generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary, they are less likely to consider consequences before acting. It’s harder for them to access and act on helpful advice or information they’ve been given. For example, telling an angry person “Just ignore them” or “Don’t let it bother you” – good advice but it probably won’t be something they’ll be able to act on while angry. They will struggle  to learn from their own or others experiences. It’s why so many kids are chronic offenders despite all the punishment they receive, and often even get worse. People are also more likely to violate their own morals and values (and then feel ashamed, guilty and depressed afterward) when generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion.

Shame, guilt and depression don’t seem like energy to move, but still cause people to react to life. Smoking, drinking, using drugs, and suicide are examples of reacting instead of responding in the best ways. Anger and anxiety can ultimately lead to homicide; and shame, guilt and depression to suicide. 

Many young people have also had lifetimes of being told, and believing they don’t live up to others expectations. That’s the formula for shame and guilt. They can make future life events seem like bigger threats than they really are, and lead to anxiety or anger. Low self-esteem is really shame about the past, and anxiety about  the future because of it. Anger, anxiety, shame and guilt can all be precursors to depression.

The flip side of all this is that young people have to be able to get into the right mental and emotional place to be ready, willing and able to learn, and for us to teach them. Too many struggle to get there, and don't know how. Classroom or school discipline, or failing grades do not teach them how. It just gives them a reason to try to conform to behavioral limits we set up, or improve. But if they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, they won't be able to, or perhaps even want to. Behavior always follows a person's emotions toward his/her life events. Their emotion may even cause them to do the opposite of what we want, regardless of the consequences.

So what could we do to help them? How can we teach them to be more response-able, or better able to respond to life events instead of reacting, or even worse overreacting to them. There are two ways to make what you don’t like worse – do nothing, and overreact to it.  Most people do the latter because they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their real, imagine or remembered life events.  To teach them to have more response-ability, we can and should do the following:

1) Teach them a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat to help them see the important role emotion plays in their lives; to see where they are emotionally at any given time, to see the effect the way they feel has on their behavior, how their thoughts play an important role in how they feel, and what they do. More importantly, to help them see where they might want to be instead, and what it will take to get there. 

There is an article on this blog about how to construct a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat. If you'd like a copy of it, please email me at:

2) Teach and encourage them to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance to combat the shame and guilt – and Unconditional Other Acceptance to temper any anger at others. You can read about how to do that at:

3) Teach them to have an internal locus of control - that it’s really the way they choose to think or look at what happens, and what others say and do, that really determines how they feel. And that they have all kinds of cognitive choices that really determine how they feel – choices they alone can make. These choices are their source of power and control over their emotional destiny. You can read about how to do that at:

4) Teach them to recognize four common types of irrational thinking that cause how they feel, and what they do. Dr. David Amen calls these ANTs or Automatic Negative Thoughts, and says people have ANT problems. You can read about the four types Dr.  Albert Ellis identified at:

5) Teach them how to correct that irrational thinking in themselves, and tactfully challenge it in others.

You can read about how to at:

6) Teach them a simple, step-by-step approach to any troubling life events. In math, we teach  kids that  if  they approach any problems in the same step-by-step fashion, they are more likely to  get the right answer. The same is true in everyday life. Dr. Ellis created a simple five step process – A, B, C, D and E. You can read about it at:

These are four of the ten "tools" in The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life that I believe we should be teaching or giving to all students, starting early in their school careers in age appropriate ways. You can read about all ten "tools" at:

I also believe we should first teach these "tools" to all new and currents teachers. You can read about why and how to do so at:

Teaching kids to have control over their emotional thermostats is even more important with the most troubled and troublesome students. To read about the step-by-step "Tool Time" approach I take with them, go to: