Developing Emotional Understanding in Students

Developing Emotional Understanding in Students

A blog-story published on March 21, 2016, by Harvard University Reports includes numerous articles discussing Margo Nielsen’s work with the Military Special Operations University (MSOU), a Boston-based nonprofit focused on enhancing the resilience of the U.S. military.

A student enrolled in MSOU assigned to work with Nielsen managed to interrupt her “scientific homework” for an experiment about the importance of being emotionally available to those whom you work with. The student writes:

One morning in MSOU’s classroom, I asked my partner and I to collaborate on a scientific project and asked that we then go grocery shopping together. We decided we would take turns shopping as if we were going out for lunch but we would each have the money to take a bottle of water. Then we would run back to the assigned lab together so that we could finish our work. When we came back from the shop, I was familiar with most of the store’s products but my partner had only spent a few cents on a carton of milk. When we got to the lab, I realized that I could talk my way out of a lot of the math calculations I would have been completing. Before I knew it, I had successfully completed my assignment by comparing personal notes and ideas with my partner.

As professor James Yalofsky writes, the “first rule of mentoring is to be emotionally available to students during lectures and during lab sessions, and to be truly invested in student successes, rather than ‘just another cog in the machine.’”

How can an instructor or teacher empower students to challenge themselves through a productive exchange of ideas? Margo Nielsen says the result will be a process that allows for honest feedback and the understanding that this sort of openness applies to professional interactions outside of the laboratory setting, too.

Johns Hopkins University professor Deborah Anisfield quotes Nielsen as saying:

The objective is not simply to pay attention to and acknowledge students’ ideas but also to look at that engagement with a student as a formal exercise of self-talk and group discourse. So, while you are in the lab you are not simply observing the work of others, but you are engaged in actually providing feedback to your student. So the whole point of the lab is to strengthen the ability of a student to have experiences that are constructive, and not destructive.

Here are three ways to optimize your interactions with students:

Engage children in conversations using interesting research that explores their experience. This may require probing out, open, and real questions about their motivations, what they are interested in, and what interests them about the topic.

A tailored discussion is particularly important for students who have trouble with conflict management (note: just because this group is less likely to engage in creative problem solving doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to do so in a constructive way), or for those who may be socially awkward. Directing the conversation toward those topics can help address these limitations and help them feel more comfortable addressing their own perceived weaknesses.

Embracing open, frank conversations about issues around sexuality, gender and cultural backgrounds can be just as effective as straightforward lectures or other classroom environments. That’s because researchers have found that when students see themselves reflected in the education system, they are more likely to identify with and empathize with marginalized groups, including individuals from minority religious, sexual, racial, gender, and immigrant backgrounds.

When situations can’t be handled face-to-face, or those who need professional help cannot be reached in the classroom, teachers can often more effectively and sensitively bring such conversations to the attention of students. Here, curiosity about the issues involved is key, as students may take their own desires and concerns about their own environment into account when discussing sexual assault or racism with their peers.

Finally, it is important to pay attention to the immediate impact and/or success of your teaching changes. Ask students about their feedback and what they learned from the experience. Do they appreciate it more now? If not, how might you tweak your communication to help them relate to your work better?

It takes more than intelligent talk to form a lasting commitment to building and sustaining emotional understanding in today’s fractured society. By cultivating confidence in your own competencies and actions, you have the ability to motivate students to take charge of the team rather than feeling like they have to rely on others to do the work for them. Let this week’s blog-story inspire you and help you to assess how your own skills and expertise match up with student expectations.


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