What’s the Commotion About Emotions?

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Imagine the good feeling of being tucked nicely into your bed. Your 6:15 a.m. alarm sounds, and just before you hit the 15-minute snooze button, you hear the tapping of rain on your window. For a moment, you feel a bit of “yuck” about how the storm will affect your commute, and then you feel comforted and happy when you remember that you will get to stop by the local coffee shop for your favorite coffee before you start your day. Later, as you are dressing for work, you begin to think about an upcoming social mixer that you re­ally wanted to attend but can’t because the tickets are just too expensive, and a tinge of the blues fills your heart.

As you’re putting on your shoes, you open an email from your sibling, whom you’d let use your credit card to make a $120 purchase, and you are shocked to see they actually made a $750 purchase.

Thinking you’ll deal with that situation later, you get out the door a little early because you expect the rain will in­crease the time it takes to get to work, but to your pleasant surprise there’s no change in the traffic flow. With a little extra time on your hands, you stop at the coffee shop, but the service is so slow that now you’re run­ning late. You start to feel anxious and rushed and think to yourself, “This place is always slow… why did I stop here?” Finally, you get your coffee. Prior to putting the lid on, you see a long strand of hair floating on the top. Not only are you now revolted, but you’re also a bit enraged, feeling like this coffee shop can never live up to its overpriced expectations!

You get another coffee and realize it is now 8:15. Knowing that the drive to work will take at least 25 minutes, you feel a bit of a head rush because you have to be at work at 8:30. You call a work colleague, explain your situation, and ask them to take care of a work task for 10 minutes. Just as you believed they would, they agree to take care of it until you get there.

In only two hours, during a regular morning routine, you’ve experienced eight different emotions.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions are brain-based, subjective, and conscious states of being that are the combination of four key elements:

  1. Subjective experience
    The result of the emotional and cognitive impact that an experience has on a person, specific to them. Comparatively, an objective experience is something tangible that can be experienced by everyone.
  2. Appraisal of the subjective experience
    Encompasses the unconscious and conscious processes of the subjective experience. Factors that inform our appraisal of the experience include our prior experiences and beliefs that we hold about others in the experience. Our background, culture, and historical and contemporary cultural phe­nomena influence our experiences, as well.
  3. Physiological arousal
    The physical changes that we feel in our bodies.
  4. Behavioral expression of the emotion
    Facial, bodily, or verbal expression.

While it is essential to know that emotions arise out of subjective experiences, it is equally necessary for students to learn and understand that other perspectives exist. This learning empowers people to be able to see from different viewpoints and supports the development of skills for managing emotions.

Learning to Recognize and Manage Emotions

Social and emotional learning is about two deeply intertwined yet different sets of skills: The skills needed to be socially as well as emotionally competent. When we speak of social competence, we focus primarily on an individual’s relation­ship with others. When we speak of emotional competence, we focus mainly on the individual’s relationship with themselves, and more specifically, their recognition and management of eight basic emotions (Plutchik, 2001).

Two Considerations About the Eight Emotions

Emotions represent a range of feelings

Each one of the emotions represents a category within which we experience a wide range of comfortable and uncomfortable feelings. Our ability to identify and express these emotions and feelings have a profound effect on the de­gree of satisfaction we have as we navigate through our life. This ability will influence the relationship we have with ourselves as well as how we solve problems and engage with others. Thus, learning to regularly identify, name, and manage emotions and feelings is a critical set of skills that contribute to our success in learning, play, work, life, and relationships.

Emotions vary in intensity

There are varying intensities for each emo­tion. For example, the less intense version of joy is serenity, and the more intense version of joy is ecstasy. Using these eight emotions (and their less and more intense versions) provides a powerful framework for helping students recognize their emo­tions and develop a vocabulary that en­ables them to artic­ulate what they feel.

Three Strategies to Help Students Recognize, Name, and Manage Emotions

  1. Teach a developmentally appropriate vocabulary for emotion recognition. Choose fewer words for younger children, such as joy, anger, sadness, and fear. Focus on intensity and words that describe the feelings. As students progress develop­mentally, introduce blends of emotions that produce more complex feelings.
  2. Help students develop emotion regula­tion strategies. Expressions of intense and uncomfortable emotions may appear to be automatic. We may feel powerless as to how to regulate our reactions. Over time and with intentional practice, we can learn to notice the feelings in our bodies and use body-calming techniques to guide our reactions and expressions. Examples of body-calming techniques include using our breathing, grounding ourselves through a body scan, and stay­ing in the moment through visualization.
  3. Use art as a coping mechanism. Art in any form—movement, words, painting, draw­ing, music—is a fantastic way to build our capacity to calm and manage our emotions. Something as simple as doodling in the moment can be a non-disruptive way of reducing stress and anxiety about what is going on around us.


  • Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., Ochsner, K. N., & Gross, J. J. (2007). The experience of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology 58, 373-403. Retrieved from https://www. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1934613/
  • DePaoli, J. L., Atwell, M. N., & Bridgeland, J. (n.d.). Ready to lead: A national principal survey on how social and emotional learning can prepare children and transform schools. Retrieved from http://www.casel.org/ wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ReadyToLead_FINAL.pdf
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