“I’m Too Upset to Learn” — Handling Difficult Emotions at School

“I’m Too Upset to Learn” — Handling Difficult Emotions at School

Sometimes, our children will be faced with difficult emotions at school — and be unsure of how to handle them. Teaching them these techniques can help them feel in control.

bu Susan Kruger

One evening, several months ago, my 10-year-old son, Mark, was getting upset over simple things. After the second meltdown, I knew something was up. We went for a short walk and had a talk.

“Tell me what’s really going on.”

“I spilled my drink!”

“I know that’s upsetting. But you’re having a ‘10-mile reaction’ to a ‘two-inch problem.’ There’s more here. Are you upset about something with your friends?”


“Something with your sister?”


“Did something happen at school?”

“I dunno,” Mark murmured, shrugging his shoulders. Then, out of nowhere, he started crying. Clearly, I had found the problem. “I didn’t think about that until you just said it.”

Mark had been working hard on a project at school and was excited over his progress, when his teacher told him to redo several things. Apparently, he missed — or misunderstood — the directions. He was frustrated and discouraged, but too embarrassed to let it show in school. So he didn’t talk about it. Later, a couple of other things added to his agitation. By the time he came home, his emotions had overtaken him.

After our talk, he settled down and wandered off to play. The rest of the evening was peaceful. No more meltdowns. The trigger for his behavior wasn’t apparent on the surface, but once Mark understood the source of his pain, he was able to process his emotions and release them.

Students with ADHD (like my son) are more sensitive and prone to anxiety than others. When a child is in the throes of difficult emotions at school, he is unable to learn. Negative thinking can shut down the brain. Teaching our kids to manage their emotions is as important as teaching them math.

With Mark, I followed a simple, four-step process that you can use with your child. Better yet, work on teaching him the four steps, so he can eventually deal with emotions on his own.

1. GET CALM. The first thing I did with Mark when he was upset was to go for a walk. Why? The best way to shed anxiety, frustration, sadness, or anger is to move. Your body cannot move and be upset at the same time. If you walk down the street while talking to a friend, and the friend says something that makes you mad, what’s the first thing you do? Stop, right? Your body instinctively comes to a complete stop because it cannot “be angry” and “move feet” at the same time.

Make sure your child gets aerobic movement — even slow walking produces brain chemicals that calm negative emotions — before and after school. In school, when your child gets stressed, angry, or upset, find ways to build movement into her day. When she’s upset, have her ask the teacher if she can go and get a drink of water. Or ask your child’s teacher to let her run an errand to the nurse’s or principal’s office, or do some jumping jacks in the hall. Anything to move! If she can’t leave the classroom, she can use visualization to trick her brain into thinking that she is moving. Have her close her eyes for at least 30 seconds (a few minutes is better) and imagine that she is walking beside a gentle stream. Her brain will respond as if she were doing that. Of course, slow, deep breathing is helpful, too, but physical movement (or simulated movement) is best.

2. NAME THE FEELINGS. Once your child is calm, it’s time for her to process her feelings. Unprocessed feelings never go away, they get buried. It’s important to help her understand how she’s feeling and let her know that it’s OK to feel that way. The more specific you can get, the better. For example, she may feel embarrassed about not knowing the answer to a question from her teacher. But helping her dig deeper to recognize that she’s frustrated over the fact that she doesn’t know the answer, and also hurt that no one understands her frustration, sheds light on her upset.

3. FIND THE ROOT CAUSE. This step often requires the help of a trusted friend, adult, or a professional counselor. This process may take a while. It is helpful for students to understand that there can be (and usually is) much more to their emotions, and the situation causing them, than is on the surface. When I was a third-grade teacher, I had a student throw temper tantrums two or three times a week. After months of “cool down conversations,” he revealed that he was angry because his father didn’t spend time with him. Once we both understood the root cause of his tantrums, he never had one again, and we had a productive relationship in class.

4. RELEASE THE EMOTIONS. This can happen at home or at school, wherever the student has space to vent with a trusted friend or adult. It often involves tears, but journaling, praying, or deciding that it’s OK to let go of the emotion is also helpful and effective. Another option that is gaining popularity is called the emotional freedom technique (EFT). This technique helps in releasing negative emotions by tapping specific meridian points on the body. Several how-to videos are available online. For starters, go to More serious situations and challenges may require the assistance of a trained counselor or therapist.

I never thought to teach this process to Mark until that evening. Later, we talked about how it helped him feel better. The next time he faces tough emotions at school, he may not remember all of the steps, but he will know that there is a way to feel better. Knowing how to handle challenging emotions prevents the most negative and dangerous feeling of all…hopelessness.


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