3 Strategies to Navigate Emotions

I recently met with a fantastic group of principals. Two weeks into the new school year and they were already discussing serious issues taking place at their schools. You could almost touch the tension in the room. We started the meeting with a simple breathing exercise, so we could all (including myself!) get our minds ready to engage and participate in meaningful ways. Learning ways to navigate emotions and deal with the stress of daily life is a major goal in Social Emotional Learning that applies to both students and adults.

In an earlier post, I discussed how emotions guide our cognitive learning and decision-making. According to Immordino-Yang (2016), emotions are the rudder that steers thinking and they are necessary to engage complex thought. This is why we want adults and students to notice and name their emotions on a regular basis. However, when our emotions are running too “high” they can hinder our ability to make meaningful decisions or engage with the task at hand.



Think about your emotions as a thermometer. If the temperature is too high, you will most likely feel “out of control” and your ability to make sound decisions will be affected.

Navigating our emotions means being able to get back to the safe zone. This is an important skill for both the adults working in schools, such as principals and teachers, and also for students. Let’s explore a few strategies that can help us navigate our emotions.


1. Practice and Teach Mindful Breathing. Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to the present-moment experience. You pay attention to your breath, your body, and your emotions without judgment. Mindfulness encourages a curious and kind attitude towards oneself, and is a great strategy to navigate your way into the safe zone. Paying attention to your breath for even just 2 minutes can give you and your students great relief. Ready to breath? Check out these teaching resources and this list of activities for teens. If you want to learn more about mindfulness or take a course, check out Mindful Schools. Their educator course includes a curriculum for children and youth.

2. Create a Calming Corner. This is a quiet area of the classroom or school equipped with soft furnishing and soothing materials to help students (and adults!) de-escalate when moving away from the safe zone (i.e. when getting very upset). The objective is that students will be able to use the Calming Corner and go back to class activities independently. This strategy helps develop self-awareness and self-management skills. Check out this article for details on how to set it up. What about adults? They need Calming Corners too! I worked with a dean of students who set up a Calming Corner for adults in her office. She had candles, chocolate, toiletries and other items that her staff enjoyed. Many teachers would stop by during the day, sometimes to say hello and other times to take a little break. Give it a try!

3. Do Emotional Check-ins. Emotions are data, they provide meaningful feedback about ourselves and the world around us. Let’s use that data! An Emotional Check-in is a time when students and teachers can connect and reflect on how things are going. It can be done during your morning meeting, advisory period or during difficult transitions (for example, when students come back from lunch or recess). You can check-in with your students by asking:

  • Show with your fingers how you are feeling right now. 1 finger (I am feeling awful) to 10 fingers (I am feeling ecstatic).
  • Share how you are feeling right now. I feel _____.
  • (If you have picture cards) Choose a picture that represents how you are feeling right now.

You can go around the circle and have all students share or have students share in pairs. It is important for you to model, so share yours as well! What about adults? This is a great strategy to do at the beginning of staff meetings. Teachers appreciate having some time to check-in before discussing report cards or the new math curriculum!


Emotions are a feedback system and provide meaningful information about ourselves and the world around us. Unfortunately, when emotions are running too “high” we can feel out of control and our ability to make decisions can be impacted. Mindful Breathing, a Calming Corner or doing regular Emotional Check-ins are all strategies that can help adults and students navigate their way to a safe zone. If used regularly, these strategies can help us develop awareness of our emotions and become proactive before they get too intense. Give them a try and let me know how it goes!

By |Published On: September 7th, 2016|Categories: Emotions, SEL, Teaching Strategies|Tags: , , , |

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