I will never forget one of the more pointed insults levied at me by young Peter last year during one of his episodes. “You’re stupid, because you talk about feelings too much.” I never really bothered processing that one with him, because I don’t think he’s quite able to grasp the core of his statement. When Peter is uncomfortable, he switches to angry, and when Peter is angry, he wants to push things away, and Peter’s not too nice when he’s pushing things away. My work with him since his kindergarten year has centered around trying to help him sit comfortably with strong emotions–to identify them within himself so that he is less volatile in his reactions to the people around him.
It’s worked, in some ways, wonderfully well–not my work, alone, but rather the solid foundation set by his amazing kindergarten teacher , built patiently upon by his first grade teacher , and constantly reinforced by his loving, supportive parents, who have secured outside counseling and social skills groups. Because of all of this–because of all of us–Peter is much more self-aware than he was when he started school, and the tools that he is emergently able to use to regulate his strong emotions are tools that can benefit the rest of his class.
So, one of the ways I work with Peter is through lessons which don’t target him, directly–by addressing the whole class, I give Peter the information I want him to have, and I normalize it, because he sees other kids responding as well. The spillover effect is also quite potent, as many of his peers also struggle with strong feelings and impulse control, but very few of them have as many resources as he does. The lesson I always begin with is an introduction of a powerful tool–the Zones of Regulation.
I like, when I’m working whole-class, to begin every lesson with a read-aloud: it takes me back to what I most enjoyed about being a student myself and gives me a chance to warm up my audience before I do the teaching. When I introduce the Zones to kindergarten and first grade classes, I like to use Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days: it’s a vibrant account, illustrated with beautiful pictures of fanciful animals, moving through feelings with quick, clever rhymes.
It’s an awesome book, and I love it, but I also like something that delves a little deeper and connects a bit more tightly to how feelings play out among people in ‘real life’. For this, I reach for Jeron Ashford Frame’s Yesterday I Had the Blues.
The narrator tells about his feelings and those of the people in his extended family, using colors and details to go through all the different emotions everyone is having before concluding that what matters most is that they have the kind of family that makes everything feel “golden.” It’s a bright, lyrical book that reads like slam poetry, and the kids always bop along a bit as I perform.
There is a great little interlude when one person the narrator talks to claims that she has the ‘indigos’, and he counters that that must be the same as the blues. She defends her position–that indigo is softer and jazzier than blue–and it leads me to make, in passing, a small point that we’ll build on for the rest of the year. The same way that there are shades of color, there can be shades of the feelings we have. I have the kids put their fingers close to each other, and say that we might feel a “little” bit of sadness. I then have them spread their arms “wide wide wide”, and point out that one might feel a great deal of sadness. We have different words, sometimes, for different amounts of the same basic feelings, and these words are useful in telling them apart. Eventually, this will gird my lesson on the difference between yellow and red zone–that the yellow zone is when we are still in control, when our emotions are checked by the ability to handle them. Once we hit the red zone, it’s hard to make good choices: my goal is to teach the anger-prone child to recognize what’s happening before “mad” becomes “furious”.
After we’ve read the book, I tell them that it’s about two very important and rich and complicated things: feelings, and colors. “There’s a way I have that to think about feelings, that uses colors to help me understand them a little better.” Then, I bring out my poster of Zones.
I have them point to something in the room that’s the same color, point back at the poster, read the description with me, and then think about a time when they’ve been one of those feelings. I conclude by pointing to each one in quick succession, asking first, “Have you ever felt anything in the __zone?” and “is it okay to feel that way sometimes?” The answer, for the record, is a resounding YES to all of them, even the red zone. I will never forget a statement a therapist made to me once, when I was scolding myself for what I considered to be excessive, irrational feelings of upset: for most people, the problem would be if that crossed the line into inappropriate actions at the person who upset me, but I was suffering simply because my feelings weren’t nice. “You are allowed to have any FEELING you have. You are not entitled to any BEHAVIOR.” The clarity that this gave me sticks with me even now, and I consider it a privilege to share that with my students.
After we acknowledge that all of these feelings exist, and that they’re okay to have, I set the stage for the future learning. “We know that every day, people can go into and out of all of those Zones. And that’s helpful, because when you recognize how you’re feeling, you’re more able to control it. The Green Zone is the zone that’s most comfortable for learning, and there are things you can do to help move towards the Green Zone. And with the other zones, there are ways to take care of yourself.”
I’ll revisit this poster many more times, with targeted mini lessons exploring each of the Zones. We’ll think about how we feel in each of them, how to recognize and respond when another person is in one of them, how to move ourselves past our more problematic Zones. One day’s lesson just sets the stage for the learning to come–social/emotional learning that, hopefully, will help make the academic stuff a bit easier to handle, because it’s easier to learn when your feelings are cared for.
And even Peter knows, that’s not stupid at all.