15 Ways to Reflect when everyone is overwhelmed
Early in the school year, I asked students how they were feeling and I was surprised by the answers. They gave so many responses that were “happy but also sad” or “kind of worried but also good.” One said, “I’m feeling everything.” Another specifically explained, “I’m like 20% happy and 25% excited and 10% angry and 15% sad.” They didn’t quite add up to 100% if I was following them correctly but I do teach 2nd grade. I listened to them share how they were feeling in a very casual sharing time and was blown away by their ability to recognize that they could have vastly different feelings simultaneously. I feel that way a lot. I am happy, and my life is pretty great. Also…I’m heartbroken and worried and anxious and afraid and excited and frustrated and hopeful and disappointed. I feel everything. As adults, I think we often don’t allow our emotions to be complicated even though you’d think we would understand the nuances of emotions more as adults. I immediately wanted to validate this sharing among my class by saying,
“Yes, it is normal to feel more than one emotion. You can feel everything.”
In my classroom, I want us to be able to share all of those emotions, let them wash over us, realize that emotions come and go, sit with our uncomfortable feelings, and be able to choose how we respond to those feelings. Here are some ways I’ve tried to develop that process in my students.
1. Breathing Exercises
I do multiple mindfulness and movement breaks such as yoga stretches with my class. “Yoga Instructor” is a classroom job I have. If I did nothing else, I would just lead breathing exercises with students.
Count to 5: One of my favorites is one I do randomly if the class appears distracted as a whole or unfocused and lost. I hold up my hand and open up my fingers one by one to count to 5 as we breath in, then I close my fingers to my palm one by one as I count to 5 as we exhale. There are multiple types of breathing exercises but the simplicity of this makes it my favorite. It also quiets everyone down quickly.
Triangle Breath: Students can trace a triangle in the air or on their desk to breathe in, breathe out, pause for equal counts.
Square Breath: Students can trace a square in the air or on their desk to breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold for equal counts.
Rainbow or Flying Breath: Students can lift heir arms over their head to breath in then release them down to their sides as they breathe out.
Heart or Belly Breath: Have students put their hands on their stomach or over their heart or one on each and breath deeply filling up their body with air. This one is great for reminding students that are diaphragm is meant to be pushed out not sucked in when we inhale.
2. Swirling and Twirling or Bursting
When we think about calming our bodies down, we often think about the need to be still and quiet, but often movement is what we need to release the pent up energy. I love standing and swinging arms side to side to wrap and flap around my body. Keep your knees loose when you do this. I like spinning. It can be helpful to swing arms between your legs while letting out a big breath then standing up to inhale again. Jumping and releasing out all of the energy through arms and legs in one big burst of an exhale is really lovely too. If you just breathe in and build up the feeling and energy, then release it, it feels so much better.
3. Tighten then loosen the body
Similarly to the jump and release I just described above, building up an emotion or tension and then releaseing it can be a way to tune into our feelings. Often we don’t realize exactly where the tension is in the body or if we are suppressing an emotional at all. It can help to tighten up the body in phases – curl toes, straighten legs, tighten stomach, clench your jaw, make fists – then slowly release each part of the body. When you tighten everything, you can then focus on relaxing each muscle throughout the body. If you do this slowly and purposefully, you’ll notice that after it’s done, you’ve actually released muscles you didn’t realize were tense in the first place.
4. Color Symbol Image
One of my absolute favorite thinking routines (see the Harvard Project Zero site for many more ideas) is Color Symbol Image. This routine is meant to encapsulate an idea, a book, a movie, a character, etc. into a color, a symbol that has its own meaning, and an image that is more like a whole picture. Instead of asking, what did you do over break or what did you do over the weekend, I enjoy allowing students to respond with this. Then, I can talk to students as they work in their journal asking them what the color means to them, why they chose that symbol, etc. I have done this as an opener in the beginning of the year as well and then students did a gallery walk of one another’s journal pages. Then, I had them do another thinking routine in response: Connect, Extend, Challenge. What was something that connected to their summer? What was something that extended an idea they had? What was something that challenged their thinking or surprised them?
5. Writing using sensory details
I love using the 5 senses to reflect on experiences. In response to our shared reading poems we read together in my 2nd grade class, I often have students respond with the sentence starters “I see…” “I feel…” “I smell…” “I taste…” “I hear…” to fill out a visualization of what is happening. This is a great set of prompts for changes of seasons or sharing about holidays. When we can ground ourselves in the moment or in a memory, it seems we can hold onto what is beneficial and let go of the rest. Reflecting on an experience in this way tethers us and releases us as the same time.
I went to a conference with a teacher friend and coworker of one for two summers in a row. The first summer was quite a strange experience with many overwhelming feelings. The best thing about this week, though, was using watercolors. I painted the folder that held all of my papers and schedules for the week. We were provided watercolors as an option for reflection exercises, and I chose them constantly. I had forgotten how therapeutic certain art materials can be. Both my coworker and I were convinced we had to get watercolors for our classes to use. We both did, and students absolutely loved them. My sixth graders were so calm while painting. Every single one of them was into it. My second graders also love watercolors and are quite careful using them. I talked to another teacher who did journaling with watercolors on Friday as an end of the week reflection. It seemed to work so well for her. I would encourage having a more unique choice of art material in your classroom and watercolors are pretty inexpensive and last awhile.
I love creative writing. In a creative writing class I took in high school, we started class with words or short phrases as writing prompts. The idea was to take one of those words and just write whatever came to mind about it, to dive deep into that word and write whatever comes to mind. This practice of writing about anything seems to draw my mind away from stress and into whatever I need to process. Changing topics partway through writing is encouraged not chastened – just let your mind flow. Let your pen keep up with the speed of your thoughts.
Another idea for freewriting is to write from a picture or use a sentence frame to get started such as “I remember…” “I don’t remember…” “I feel…” “I don’t feel…” etc.
8. Pass the Mask
This activity is a game. The idea is that you go around a circle or down a line in the classroom and make faces depicting different emotions. The face then gets “passed” to the next person and they mimic the emotion shown on their neighbor’s face. Then, they change their face and “pass” the “mask” of their emotion onto the next person in line.
Similar to this, you can do a whole class activity of “Show Me” and lead students into showing different emotions. Just call out “Show Me Angry,” “Show Me Happy,” “Show me waking up this morning.” “Show me your adult when you come home.” Activities like this can be kind of revealing – who participates, who doesn’t, who easily shows an emotion, who looks around to see how others are responding before showing you.
9. Visualization Exercises
I have a set of Yoga4Classrooms cards that includes many visualization exercises. I have found a lot of success with these with older students as well as younger students. I would definitely recommend this set of cards which is priced reasonably.
I like having students visualize themselves relaxing in a forest or walking along the beach. It can help to have them process a memory where they felt happy or hopeful or scared or worried. As students close their eyes, they can just consider processing those emotions. A favorite meditation is “Loving Kindness” where you picture in your mind someone you love who’s close to you, someone in your community, then someone you just have passed by. For each person, you repeat the mantra “May you feel peace. May you be healthy. May you be happy.” The meditation includes yourself, too. There are multiple variations to this so you can be flexible with the wording.
Below I’ll mention Cloud Thoughts where you can dismiss thoughts and feelings and watch them pass by you like clouds. This type of visualization is also helpful. We can think about switching to a different tv show, letting our thoughts drift up and away like balloons, watch them go by like we see water in a stream pass us, or watch the clouds move across the sky as they come and go just like our thoughts and feelings.
10. Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
My school participates in Positivity Project, a movement that focuses on building relationships between people and recognizing that other people matter. I love the focus on different character strengths with the idea that different people have different character strengths. They’re not your typical character trait posters of “respect” and “responsibility.” It’s “zest and enthusiasm,” “hope and optimism,” “love,” “gratitude,” etc. One of the character strengths we focus on that happens to be my #1 strength (you can take the quiz to find out your character strengths at https://www.viacharacter.org) is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence.
I personally feel (and I’m obviously biased) that this strength truly calms me down. When I can focus on nature, see the beauty in other people, appreciate a piece of art, view a pretty ASMR room on youtube as I work…these things make me calmer. I feel more reflective and in control of my emotions when I can see the beauty of the world around me. You can encourage this strength in students through beautiful images, spending time outdoors (even brief moments), and recognizing the good in one another.
11. Cloud Thoughts
I attended a series of professional development classes a few years ago from a counselor in my district. Through that class, I become a certified yoga4classrooms educator and I learned a whole bunch of other skills. One of my favorites was the idea of using clouds as a metaphor for thoughts.
If you have a whiteboard, one of those disappearing/resusable water coloring pages, a magnetic board, or an etch a sketch, you can have students write or draw their thought or feeling then watch it disappear or wipe it away. Thoughts and feelings do not hold permanence. They come and go. I love the physical manifestation of this. It can help to actually draw a cloud and write the thought inside (or very young students can simply draw the cloud and say the thought out loud) then wipe it away. This seemed almost too easy, so I tried it for myself one day. I loved it. It really helped to feel like I was letting go of that thought or feeling.
This is an acronym for:
Recognize the Feeling
Allow the feeling to be there inside you
Investigate with kindness towards yourself (What’s making me feel this way? What am I thinking that’s making me feel this way? Is that thought true?)
Nurture Yourself (show yourself love and recognize YOU are not the emotion you are feeling) Some references list this as Non-Identification but I like the word Nurture.
This acronym is useful for walking students through a feeling, allowing them to be sad or frustrated or annoyed. It’s important that we do not dismiss feelings in ourselves or others but allow ourselves to have a feeling and sit with it then let it go.
13. Take a Break
I am a huge fan of Responsive Classroom. One important tenet is that the social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. Being responsive to student needs means we are paying attention. A structure within RC is Logical Consequences, one of which is “Take a Break.” This is a strategy that teaches students to calm themselves down, use strategies to sit with their feeling, think it through, distract themselves with a fidget if needed, and choose when they are ready to return to learning. Having a take a break spot in my classroom was one of the best things I have ever done as a teacher. Using Take a Break early and often and CONSISTENTLY with students has been an absolute lifesaver for classroom management. If a student talks out, has a bad attitude, interrupts me, isn’t working on the assignment, keeps getting up – every time I send them to take a break. Sometimes I fall into the trap of making this sound like a punishment when I’m in a particularly bad mood or just impatient, but the goal is that this is NOT a punishment. It is a re-centering and re-grounding exercise. Go away for a few minutes, let yourself have the break you need, then come back refreshed and ready to learn.
14. 5 Senses to Ground You
An exercise I love which I often recommend during “Take a Break” is to think of your senses. Consider 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. I tell them not to worry too much if you can’t smell or taste anything in particular; the idea is that you are allowing your body to ground itself in reality. You’re not getting worked up by things that are not actually happening around you. This exercise focuses the mind and grounds me everytime I do it. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, a few deep breaths and focusing on my 5 senses does wonders.
15. Compass Points: Needs, Suggestions, Excited About, Worried About
This is another thinking routine from Project Zero like Color Symbol Image. The way this works is you can draw a compass. with the 4 cardinal points. I like to also make a big x so that it creates 4 distinct sections. The top triangle, North, then can get filled in with any need to knows students have. Just ask, “What do you need to know for _________?” This particular routine is great for starting out a new unit or project because it really lets you know the feelings moving forward. You can ask, “What will we need to know before writing a fiction story?” or “What do you need to know before you go to 7th grade?” or “What do you need to know in our chemistry unit?”
The East part can be filled in with anything students are excited about. The West part can be filled in with anything students are worried about. The South part can be filled in with any suggestions moving forward. It also can stand for “stance” so their position or opinion of what is happening.
If you are worried that students won’t be willing to share, you could have them write on post it notes then stick on a board or piece of chart paper or complete it through an anonymous 4 question google form. You may be surprised what kids say, though, if you give them the space to have an opinion.
I used this routine with my class several times when we had to transition to being online, being in person part time, being in person full time, etc. In fall 2020, this exercise was really illuminating for me. Kids expressed worry if I got sick and that they wouldn’t be able to learn well on the computer. There were so many big concerns they had about their family being safe and secure. I asked what they needed to know to learn online, and they asked questions that might not have occurred to me much – how to find a quiet space to listen, what to do if they couldn’t log in, what their passwords were. It was such a good grounding moment for me. I find this a useful thinking routine for any transitional moment throughout the year.
Be sure to check out other Thinking Routines as multiple could be useful.
I hope this list gives you some ideas for your classroom and allows you personally to feel more grounded and capable of managing your emotions. No one, including little kids, wants to feel like their emotions are out of control and nothing they do will change the craziness. Everyone wants to feel centered in their own body and mind and these strategies have helped me and my students do just that.