Working with Strong Emotions in the Classroom

A Guide for Teachers and Students

Compiled by Heidi Burgess, Co-Director, University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium

On occasion, teachers and students may find themselves involved in highly-emotional discussions in the classroom. Sometimes these situations are unexpected: a student will accuse the teacher or another student of a racial or discriminatory remark or action, someone will get angry about a political comment, or someone will be upset about a policy or a grade. Other times, however, strong emotional discussions are expected or even designed: for instance, students in a course on contemporary social problems may be asked to discuss highly controversial topics such as race or abortion in the classroom.

These discussions can be very beneficial to student learning if they are facilitated well; they can be very detrimental to learning and the overall classroom environment if they are not. The following resources can help both students and teachers deal with emotional classroom discussions in ways that facilitate learning and improve the classroom environment. Follow the links to learn more about any of the highlighted concepts.

For unexpected emotional situations:

Both the teacher and the students need to figure out where the emotion is "coming from" and why.

Although the "natural" reaction to anger may be to lash back with anger, that usually leads to escalation of the conflict, which is usually not helpful. Rather, it is usually better to step back (figuratively), slow down (meaning don't react by responding with anger right away) and try through de-escalating language to cool things down enough to figure out what is going on. By using "I-messages" rather than "you-messages" and active (or empathic) listening, the target of the attack, as well as bystanders, can often defuse a tense situation.

But then the underlying issue still needs to be dealt with.

Sometimes, people will feel they are under attack when others did not mean to attack them or didn't realize they were doing so. This may be due to a misunderstandingdistrust, or different cultural frames or worldviews. In such cases, it is important to figure out why each person believes what they do and to correct the misunderstanding so that both sides feel more secure. The communication tools described above, combined with an understanding of the importance of cultural differences and frames can go a long way towards correcting such unintended problems.

  • If the student feels he or she was unfairly treated, it might be useful to explore why he or she feels that way and whether you agree. If you do, what can you do to remedy the situation? An apology is usually a good start, along with action to correct the error or compensate for damage done. If you do not agree, how can you explain your assessment without creating more anger and disappointment? (Again, see de-escalating language, "I-messages," and listening.) Treating the other person with respect is important as well.
  • If the student's identity or security is attacked, they are likely to stay angry until they feel (1) as if the attacks will not continue, (2) that their identity is respected, (3) that the situation has been changed so that they are least reasonably secure, and (4) an apology is made.
  • For example, if a student believes that another student or the instructor made a racially insensitive or even derogatory comment, they may react strongly, or they may retreat into a shell, diminishing or stopping their interaction with the class. If it is obvious that the student (or students) were hurt or angered, the instructor might ask the student to explain how the comment affected them and then engage the class in a discussion about groundrules and safety and respect of difference. If the student(s) retreated or did not want to speak out, the instructor could re-iterate the groundrules and explain how racist statements are a form of personal attack. He or she could then also engage the class in discussion about respect for differences. Often, but not always, such a discussion will result in an apology for the initial statement.

For Planned Discussions of "Hot" Topics in the Classroom

Several guidelines can be useful for helping classroom discussions on hot topics to be most effective.

First, it is important to set out some groundrules. These can be imposed by the teacher, or developed collaboratively with the class, a preferable route, if there is time, because then the students are more "bought in" to the groundrules and are more likely to abide by them. Typical groundrules would be "no interrupting, no name calling, no personal attacks, no raised voices, attentive and respectful listening, etc.) More suggested groundrules can be found in the groundrules essay.

Second, it is often helpful to introduce students in conflict-limiting communication strategies before engaging in such discussions. These include active (or empathic listening) and using "I-messages" instead of "you-messages" for making points. Treating people with other views with respect, avoiding negative characterizations and stereotypes, and encouraging students to look for areas of common ground, as much as difference can also help foster a helpful learning environment.

Introducing students to the difference between dialogue and debate is also useful. Dialogue usually delves deeper into underlying beliefs and feelings than does debate, is more respectful of differing views, and is much less adversarial. Consequently, if there is time to do it properly (a key factor) it often leads to much more learning and emotional growth than debates do. Through well-facilitated dialogues, students can learn to understand and appreciate people who hold beliefs who are different from their own, hence developing a greater tolerance for diversity of people and of ideas. (Note that "tolerance" as used here goes beyond simply "putting up with something" to actually appreciating it and learning from it.)

Sometimes encouraging story-telling can be very instructive. Stories delve deeper into ideas than do simply assertions of fact, and they help people relate to each other as human beings with common emotions, rather than assuming that people who disagree with you are "evil" or "stupid" or "misinformed" or "wrong." They also are a way of investigating the complexity of many difficult issues, which are seldom illustrated with typical "'tis-t'aint" arguments.

If a conflict erupts between students, the teacher can often deflect the conflict before it escalates by reframing the attacking student's comment into a less personal statement, or by asking the speaker to reframe the statement him- or herself. For example, if a student asserts that another's statement "was racist," the instructor could say "I gather you found Steven's comment to be hurtful because it made the assumption that all African Americans were...." By taking out the word "racist" which is very accusatory and hostile, and changing the word to "hurtful," the instructor can then focus the discussion on what in the statement hurt the other and why, without accusing the first speaker of being a "racist."

Another approach is to ask the student to explain the reasoning behind his statement. When students get down to underlying reasons, they often make more sense and present compelling cases than they do if they just make assertions outright. For example, if a student asserts that "abortion is murder, and anyone who has an abortion is no better than a murderer," the teacher can note that "that is a very strong statement that some people may disagree with equally strongly. Can you explain what makes you feel this way?" Or the instructor might say "That's a very strong statement. How do you expect people on the other side to respond to that?" This can give way to a discussion of the importance of being able to defend strong assertions with facts or underlying values.

No matter what approach is taken, good facilitation of the discussions is key to keeping the atmosphere conducive to learning. Facilitators need to make sure everyone follows the agreed-upon groundrules and that everyone (who wants to) gets a turn to speak. If emotions get very "hot," the facilitator can call a timeout, asking students to quietly reflect on the discussion process for a few minutes and then start again with a discussion about how they can continue in a more constructive manner. Alternatively, students might be asked to stop and write their thoughts at various times, rather than speaking them out loud. This can give students some time to quiet down and think before the re-enter the discussion.

A debriefing after a discussion can often be useful as well, both for the teacher to figure out what was learned and what was missed, and for the students who can use the debriefing to reflect on the new ideas they might have picked up and how they felt about the process. If students felt discomfort, it is useful to determine if this discomfort is beneficial or harmful (sometimes it can be beneficial as cognitive dissonance often leads to learning).