Teaching Students to Manage Their Emotions

2011Symposium_1_2As much as we might want it to be otherwise, teaching music does not just involve teaching music. Because we are teaching children and teens, we must sometimes or even often teach our students non-music specific life skills so that they will be equipped to learn music. One of the most challenging areas for many children and teens is understanding and managing personal emotions. So many of our students, live on the edge emotionally. They are volatile, and can be set off at only a slight provocation. If we are completely honest, we were the same way when we were that age, and even now can fall into emotional disarray as someone may “push our buttons.” Many methods and techniques have been advanced to successfully deal with youthful emotions and their ramifications, many of which have merit and practical value. I would like to discuss one that I find particularly helpful, Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior. Developed by Dr Albert Ellis, it is a theory in which Dr. Ellis stated that, “it is largely our thinking about events that leads to emotional and behavioral upset. With an emphasis on the present, individuals are taught how to examine and challenge their unhelpful thinking which creates unhealthy emotions and self-defeating/self-sabotaging behaviors.” Though used in a clinical setting to treat emotional issues, the principles found in the theory are helpful tools for teaching students how to manage their emotions and emotional excesses.

According to Dr. Ellis, feelings are a combination of events and thoughts. First there is an activating event. A person imagines the event through the lens of beliefs about the event, him or herself, others, and life. The imagined event leads to thoughts, and thoughts lead to feelings. A person cannot control the event or the imagined event, but can control the thinking, which in turn will control the feelings. When we think of something as a need, necessity or demand, extreme

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

feelings result. Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration, they lead to feelings of guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, all the way up to anger. By learning to think of needs as wants, necessities as preferences, and demands as desires, a person can lower emotional severity, changing anger into frustration, anxiety into concern, depression into sadness, shame into regret, and guilt into remorse. These less severe feelings are more easily managed and are less volatile and less likely to lead to upsets and serious disturbances in a classroom. Students with these more manageable feelings are able to respond, which involves thought, instead of react, which involves an impulse.

Students can be taught to make cognitive choices at the thinking stage. These choices include how they look at what happens, what meaning they attach to what happens, what they focus on about what happens, what they compare things to, what they expect of themselves, others, and life, what they remember about the past, what they imagine will happen next, how much importance they attach to what happens, and what they spend their time thinking about. A tool to help students make good cognitive choices is to practice unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other acceptance. Unconditional self-acceptance means that anything you think, feel, say or do is perfectly understandable given what your life experiences have been. Someone else who has gone through exactly what you have been through would probably end up thinking, feeling, saying and doing much the same things. This does not mean that what you are thinking is good or healthy, or helpful, and it does not mean that you should not change what you think, feel, say, or do. It does mean that given your life experiences, what you are now thinking, feeling, saying or doing is understandable. It is alright that you feel as you do now, and we are going to learn and work on feeling, saying or doing things differently because changing these things will be better for you.

Going along with unconditional self-acceptance, is unconditional other acceptance. This simply transfers the same view held of one’s self to another person, so that I realize that what another person thinks, feels, says or does is perfectly understandable given what their life experiences have been. From this perspective, I can approach another and help them change to more positive ways of thinking, feeling, saying and doing while maintaining a respectful and positive attitude and image of the other person. All teachers should practice unconditional other acceptance toward their students, and should teach by example their students to practice it with each other. For more information on Dr. Ellis’ theory, visit itsjustanevent.com

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