Self-awareness is the first component of a healthy social-emotional person. It can be much harder to learn skills based in self-control or an understanding of others if you don’t have a foundational understanding of yourself. There are many aspects to being self-aware, but today we are going to focus on five.
1: Identifying emotions
This can be more difficult than we, as adults, often give it credit for. How many times do we have a hard-to-identify uneasy feeling, a turn of the stomach, a sense of being anxious or irritable without being able to put our finger on why?
As a young child, all the emotions that we experience can kind of blend together. A bad feeling is a bad feeling, whether it’s anxiety, sadness, rejection, etc. Some students, as they get older, never learn to differentiate between negative feelings. Imagine how frustrating it must be to feel anxious all the time—but, since you don’t know you’re anxious, you can’t do anything about it!
One way that we can help build up this skill in our students is to narrate for them when we see signs. “I notice that you are wiggling and frowning a lot right now—do you feel anxious?” “I see your hands are clenched. Is something making you angry?” Eventually you can get to the point that if you mention the physical sign they will realize what they are feeling and cope if needed, and finally (hopefully) to the point that they can self-regulate.
2: Expressing emotions
Once students are able to identify what they are feeling, it is crucial that they learn how to appropriately express them. Expressing emotion can be hard for some children, because it implies admitting a vulnerability; for a while, we may need to show them how to do so. To do this can be tricky, because we often have to look past a misleading behavior to determine what they are really feeling.
Jayvon is out at recess. You see him approach the swing and ask for a turn; nothing out of the ordinary. The next thing you know, Jayvon grabs Mark by the shirt and pulls him out of the swing, making Mark fall and scrape his elbow. To you it seems like a cut-and-dry turn-taking dilemma.
What you don’t know is that about two minutes earlier, Jayvon had asked Shawn if he could play with them. Shawn had (not in a mean way) said no, because they already had the number of players they needed. Jayvon, not knowing how to appropriately express or handle his disappointment, had lashed out at the next person he interacted with.
Later posts will delve more into specific ways to teach appropriate expression. Please share below if you have some strategies that work!
We have already spent a good deal of time discussing the importance of self-esteem in the classroom, so I won’t delve too dep into it here. But think of all of its effects! Jayvon could have the confidence to handle a minor rejection and find others to play with. A student may have the capacity to attempt the given assignment, instead of ripping it up in an effort to avoid looking “stupid.” Self-esteem impacts every area of a child’s life, and we have the ability to build it up!
4: Body consciousness
This is nothing more than the awareness of where your body is in space. We’ve all seen that kid (or adult) who is like a bull in a china shop. They bump into everything (and everyone). They knock things over, may need to move or pace constantly, may be all over the room all the time.
Some people assume that these kids are just clumsy, but a lot can be accomplished by teaching them to be more aware of their body. For these students, the more physical structure and verbal reminders we can provide, the better. The key is not to penalize them, but just to make them aware of their physical selves and its effect on others. These students may need the two squares of space rule when walking in line (leave two floor tiles between yourself and the person in front of you); they may need taped boundaries around their desk/chair/workspace; a designated movement space within the classroom where they can pace, wiggle, or fidget as needed may also be beneficial.
Verbal reminders also help to ingrain this awareness into students. “Go to the wiggle space if you need it.” “You knocked that over—I’m glad it didn’t break!” “You bumped into Mary. Make sure she’s okay.” Remember that a calm, even neutral tone is usually best.
5: Boundary consciousness
This skill really is a sort of culmination of the other four. A student needs to be able to recognize their emotional boundaries. In order to do this, they have to recognize their emotions, and when those emotions are getting out of hand or agitated by someone or something else. They need to then have the ability and confidence to express that breach of boundary in an appropriate way.
For example, a student named Keith is around other kids who are making “yo mama” jokes. Keith’s mother is not in his life, making this a sensitive subject for him. Ideally, Keith would recognize that his friends are breaching an emotional boundary, realize that they are probably not doing it intentionally, and react appropriately by leaving the group for a while or by asking his friends to talk about something else.
All of these skills can be hard to learn, and harder to teach, especially boundary consciousness—I know adults who still struggle with that. The key is to teach them through the application of other skills, and not in isolation. It is very important that we do not delay the teaching and practice of other skills because of a lack of mastery in these. More strategies to come, I promise!
Do you have some questions or concerns about teaching self-awareness? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!