Imagine You Don’t Get Your Way: Helping Kids Develop Emotional Resilience

This week, my second graders elected their Table Leaders for the first time. Each of the five groups in my class voted for a leader who will pass out papers, lead the group’s meetings, and have weekly Leadership Lunches with me.

In the lives of second graders, being chosen as a Table Leader is a pretty big deal. And the moment I announce Table Leaders — the moment when we do a drum roll and applaud — is exciting and emotionally charged. Many of the kids are hoping desperately to be chosen… and a few are hoping the opposite.

You can imagine how a moment like this one could go terribly wrong. Imagine the disappointment, the crying… the shouts of “why does she get to be table leader? I didn’t vote for her!” Now imagine how much harm that could do to the classroom community we’ve worked so hard to build.

Moments like this can bring out the best and the worst in children (just like in adults). If, as teachers, we want to bring out the best in our students, we have to prepare them for disappointment. We have to teach children to be emotionally resilient in the face of a difficult outcome. One way to do that is by having them imagine the outcome — and make a plan for responding — before it happens.

Imagine You Don’t Get Your Way

Before I announced any of the new Table Leaders, I asked everyone to close their eyes.

“With your eyes closed, I want you to imagine that you don’t get your way. If you’re hoping to be Table Leader, imagine that you’re not chosen. If you’re hoping not to be Table Leader, imagine your team picked you. Visualize it: make the movie in your mind.” I pause for a few moments and let kids think.

“You feel really disappointed. Now imagine, how are you going to act? What are you going to do or say?” I wait, then continue, “If you’re not sure, think about this: how do you want other people to act if they feel disappointed?” I give kids more time to think. “Ok. Open your eyes. Raise your hand to share your ideas.”

The kids shared that if people are disappointed, they shouldn’t shout, groan, or cry out. Instead, people should smile and congratulate the new Table Leaders. They should say nice things, or nothing at all. The kids were consoling: they pointed out that everyone will get a chance to be Table Leader this year. That the Table Leaders will change in a few weeks. That our most important rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated.

When I finally made the Table Leader announcements, the kids were no less excited, but they were much more prepared. As the Table Leaders were named, everyone applauded — even people who were disappointed — and I heard kids say things like, “Good job,” “You’re going to be a great table leader,” and “Congratulations.” No matter what they felt in that moment, my kids had made a plan, knew my expectations for their behavior, and chose to show their best selves.

More Opportunities for Building Emotional Resilience

Kids need this kind of coaching in other, less dramatic situations as well. One perfect opportunity is assigning teams or longterm partners. For example, when I announced reading partnerships, which last for several weeks, I had kids prepare in a similar way. First, we talked about how kids should act when they get their partners. We all agreed that kids should wave and smile at their new partner, not groan, or say “yes!” if they got one of their good friends. We talked about why: because we needed to protect each others’ feelings.

Then, with eyes closed, the kids imagined themselves responding to each situation. “Imagine that you’re assigned a partner who is not one of your best friends. Visualize how you will wave and smile anyway. Think about how you have the chance to make a new friend.

“Now imagine that your partner is one of your best friends. Visualize how you will wave and smile, and not call out yes! in a way that would hurt other people’s feelings.”

Then, one last, important note: “If you think there is a real problem with your partnership that I need to know about, please come and tell me one-on-one, not in front of your partner or the rest of the class.” Teachers make mistakes, and I want students to feel safe coming to me when there’s a problem.

As a result of this preparation, my students almost always show lovely, generous, gracious behavior when they get new partners or teams.

Another opportunity for this work — and for reinforcing the equation, “effective effort plus time equals success” — is when you pass back a graded assessment. Before I pass back a test, I have the kids imagine meeting the benchmark score (i.e. achieving success) and how they’ll react. Then I have them imagine not meeting the benchmark. We talk about how this is only one opportunity to show success, and that everyone who needs it will have another chance.

I ask them, “If you succeeded on this assessment, is it because you were lucky?” “No,” the kids all agree. “Because the test was easy?” No way! We all agree that was a hard test. “Because you were just born knowing all of this?” This time, kids shout “No!” What a crazy thing to think. “So, if you were successful, what led to your success?” “Effective effort and time!”

And then the opposite: “If you didn’t succeed on this assessment, what do you need to be successful?” We go back to our formula: you either need to put in more effective effort, or more time. But everyone will succeed.

Then I pass out the tests.

A Skill for Life

Our guidance counselor reminds me that it’s ok for kids to feel the emotions that they do. It’s ok to feel angry or disappointed or hurt. We don’t want kids to repress or deny their emotions or pretend their emotions don’t exist.

But, we do want kids to control how they choose to act. In the classroom, there are many times during the day when, if kids act on impulse, they will hurt other people. If, instead, kids make a plan in advance — and rehearse it mentally — they won’t have to act on impulse. They’ll feel the emotion and know what to do.

I give kids many opportunities to practice, because this is not easy. Instead, it becomes easier over time. My ultimate goal is to help kids grow into emotionally resilient people who can ride the waves and crests of their lives without being thrown off-course. But my short-term goal is simply for my classroom to be a place of security and safety, where no matter how we feel inside, we always look out for each other.

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One thought on “Imagine You Don’t Get Your Way: Helping Kids Develop Emotional Resilience

  1. What a wonderful commentary Abbie. This is great information to pass on to all teachers and everyone who works with children. Well done! Thank you so much for sharing!

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