These are weeks of the year when emotions can become intense, and behaviors can challenge our patience. The coming end of the year can raise anxieties about exams, final grades, and other opportunities and consequences in students’ lives. We, too, can experience uncertainties, anxiety, and worry.
How we choose to respond to our emotions and the emotions of students will play a consequential role in how they’ll feel about, behave, and process what happens in the final days and weeks. We can be a stabilizing force or a stimulus for further anxiety and emotional outbursts. Fortunately, this can also be a time for modeling and teaching students how they can gain and maintain control in the face of challenges and disorientation. Here are five statements that we’d be wise to avoid and strategies we can employ to continue to teach and support students as the end of the year approaches.
Don’t worry, you’ll do/be fine. Predicting the future isn’t useful in most circumstances. Students won’t always do or be fine, and they may have solid reasons for being worried. Students are responding to their interpretation of what’s happening. They may feel uncertain, threatened, or worried for reasons that are important to them and unknown to us. A better approach is to help students to understand and develop strategies to deal with their anxiety and worries. As examples, we might ask students to think about what’s worked for them in the past. Or we might ask them what advice they’d give to a friend who was worried about a similar situation.
You need to cheer up/calm down. It usually isn’t helpful to tell students how they should feel. Their emotions are real to them. The problem isn’t their feelings, but what they need to do with them. Our role is to help students learn strategies for dealing with their feelings. As examples, we might teach students self-soothing strategies, such as taking a walk, listening to music, or drawing or writing to express their feelings. Or we might encourage students to engage in mindfulness activities that help them become better aware of, reflect on, and manage how they’re feeling.
Don’t let me see/find/catch you doing that again. While our intent might be to have students not engage in unacceptable behavior, this statement says something different. The message is that students shouldn’t be caught. We don’t want students to focus on not being caught. We want them not to engage in the behavior. A better approach is to help students to understand why the behavior is unacceptable and develop alternative behaviors that help them to be successful through other approaches. For example, rather than telling students not to be caught copying other’s work, we can counsel students on the importance of asking questions, seeking clarification, or otherwise securing assistance that helps them to learn and be successful on their own.
You’re smart/talented/gifted. Praise can be a motivator, but it can also get in the way of learning and success. When we tell students they’re smart, talented, and gifted, students might assume they shouldn’t have to struggle, make mistakes, or seek help. When they find themselves in situations that challenge them, they can worry or assume they’re not as exceptional as our praise indicates. Consequently, they may choose to give up or find other ways to continue to appear intelligent. Our praise can be more helpful and supportive if we focus on the effort and strategies students employ in their learning and work. Effort and strategies are within students’ control while intelligence isn’t.
You’re making me mad/angry/furious. This statement may be intended as a warning to students, but the fact is people don’t “make” others angry or upset. Anger is a reaction that comes from within us. We have the power to determine what we think, how we respond, and how we’ll behave. When we say that someone’s causing our emotions, we deny responsibility for our feelings and behavior. We also risk sending the message to students that they don’t have to take responsibility for their behavior. Rather than blaming students for our emotions, we might say that we disapprove of the behavior, or state that behavior is unacceptable and offer alternative actions they can take that would be acceptable. For example, we might offer to meet with a student privately to discuss the situation.
We can’t avoid many of the emotions that accompany the end of the year. However, we can use this time to teach, coach, and counsel students how to manage what they’re feeling and develop strategies to respond to the challenges they face. Of course, we too can employ these strategies to help us to stay calm, focused, and successful as we negotiate our way to the end of the year, too.