In my lifetime, I’ve gotten a lot of advice. From family members, friends, veteran teachers, administrators, professors, parents… Some of it is good, some of it is helpful, and some I completely disregard—either to my benefit or peril.
But the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received was in Dr. Johnson’s classroom management course, during my junior year of undergrad. I’ve forgotten her exact wording now, nearly 7 years later, but it boils down to this: acknowledge it. It’s the best piece because it’s simple, universally applicable, (aka it applies to my teacher AND non-teacher personas) and has, no lie, made an actual difference in my life.
In my classroom, it’s a total game changer. My relationships first philosophy is a mainstay of my class culture, and its foundation comes directly from this piece of advice. If a kid is acting out or their emotions have taken over, the first step I take is to acknowledge the way they feel. Simply saying, “I hear you”, or “I understand”, or “I feel that way too sometimes”, or even “That sucks” is so powerful. It makes them feel heard, less alone, and it opens the door to furthering the conversation, maybe even to solving the problem together. If you’re doubtful, think of the last time you felt overwhelmed or angry or anxious. Would it have helped to hear someone start by acknowledging that they’ve listened, that they get it, that they hear you? I’m betting on yes, because it certainly helps me.
Now, I don’t just acknowledge the emotion and move on. It must go further and yield a solution or common ground, but this initial step is an important one, and it’s a pretty straightforward, simple concept. You have to start by showing the kid that their feelings are valid, that it is absolutely okay to not be okay in that moment, and that you are there. Humans need this, kids especially. They struggle to process what they’re feeling, especially when the emotion is big and/or negative, and we’ve got to be there in that moment to help them do it. And to do that, to get to that point, we’ve got to validate it. To confirm that they are not crazy, and that they have every right to feel the way that they do.
I just recently watched the Mr. Roger’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and it reminded me of how simple, yet vital, this acknowledgement is. The reason Mr. Rogers is so well loved, and was so revolutionary, was his belief that emotions are not wrong or bad, but that they are natural. They are to be embraced because they make us human. He also felt that instead of punishing kids for losing control of their emotions, or advocating for hiding them, or, my favorite, completely ignoring the fact that kids have real and legitimate reactions to big events— he taught us that we must acknowledge their thoughts and feelings, normalize them, and then help our kids better understand what to do about it.
It works absolute wonders in the classroom, especially for building relationships with students, because you are living the notion that their voices matter, that they matter, and that the way they feel is completely and totally okay.
This advice can also change your non-teacher life. Listening to someone who is overwhelmed, or anxious, or angry, and simply letting them know that you hear and understand them can make a world of difference. My life, and my husband’s, are both busy. Between my 6th grade teaching gig and my position at a local university, his part-time school and full-time job, not to mention our other commitments, we are going. The stress is real and can get out of control. One of the best feelings is to be able to just vent or rage or stress about it to him, and then hear him say, “I understand. You are doing a lot, it makes sense that you’re overwhelmed.” It validates my feelings, helps me feel heard, and calms me down almost immediately.
Acknowledging someone’s emotions can take many forms, and the best way to do it really depends on the situation and who it is. It could be as simple as saying, “I hear you”, but other times you may have to get more specific and legitimize the exact situation or feeling. Sometimes repeating what someone has said and letting them know that it really is as tough as they feel could be the best thing to do. Other times they may need to focus less on the negativity and require a push to move past it.
No matter how you acknowledge someone’s emotions, it’s important that you do. It makes a huge difference, especially to our kids, when they hear that the way they feel is okay, that it is not wrong to have big emotions or to get upset or angry. When we acknowledge them, we help diffuse the situation, find better footing, and pave the way to move forward.