10 Tips to Kindle Learning Using Positive Emotions

By Stephanie Farley

I find research that confirms my already deeply held beliefs to be delightful. One of my long-held beliefs has been that when I coax my students into a good frame of mind – happy, relaxed, confident – they learn more.

Then about 5 years ago I took a class in positive psychology in which I stumbled across research that confirmed my belief. In a few studies published in 2007, researchers found that people are able to “restore” their ability for self-regulation by experiencing positive emotions (Tice et al.; Baumeister et al.).

The way this idea was explained in the articles is that tasks that require you to suppress impulses, maintain attention, or manage emotions deplete your reserves of “energy.” However, the researchers asserted, the draining effects of such activities can be countered by positive emotions, like humor, happiness, gratitude, optimism, and enthusiasm

After I gleefully highlighted the findings, feeling like an explorer who found gold, I considered my students. It made perfect sense that paying attention has an energy cost…that’s why it’s called “paying” attention! Similarly, it made sense that positive emotions would have a restorative effect.

This was what I saw in my classroom every day. When I used the first 10 minutes of class to kindle some positive emotions, my students were able to settle into their tasks more quickly and with less drama than when I skipped the positive vibes time.

This was especially true of afternoon classes. When kids are spent from 4 hours of trying to focus while also repressing the impulse to kick Hector’s chair – who’s been walking by and tapping the back of their head – of course they don’t have much bandwidth left to quietly write a story with an unreliable narrator.

This was definitely a case of research confirming what I already believed to be true. Thus, bolstered by science, I resolved to find ways to deliberately create positive emotions in the beginning of class.

My Top Ten Methods

1. Build something…creativity makes us feel good. I love to give students typical craft supplies plus bonus items I find lying about – leaves, broken toys, old peppermint candies – and ask them to build an object with these materials.

2. Everyone says something positive about what was created…this makes us feel good, too. Each time students make or write something, we share. The other students and I praise whatever is good about the work.

3. A little physical exercise…exercise makes us feel calmer. This can be as simple as a walk outside or as complicated as a jumping jack/toe touch/floor touch routine that one of my students introduced to the class. We did her routine for weeks!

4. Check in…check ins help us understand each other’s emotional state as class begins (credit to the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning). Students express how they’re feeling that day on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being absolutely crummy and 10 being amazing. They also give a short explanation of why. Here’s an example of a visual check-in I’ve used with my students:

5. Go take a picture of something you like and share…capturing a moment helps us savor that which is good (and savoring is a strategy to foster positive emotions). I’ll ask students to go outside of the classroom for five minutes to take a picture of something that strikes them as beautiful or interesting. They share it with their peers. Then they put their phones away for the rest of class!

6. Play a game…play makes us feel alert and happy. Often I have the kids make up or adapt a game that we’ll play all year long, like an English-class version of The Quiet Year or a take on charades I call “You Tube AutoPlay” (kids have to act out the video that autoplays after a video name I give them, like “30 minute lower body HIIT workout”).

7. 3 good things…this is an exercise in which students write down/draw three good things that have happened to them that day. We share afterward.

8. The best part of today was…this is a quicker version of “3 good things” in which everyone expresses what was the best part of the day so far.

9. Toys or puzzles…toys can make us feel cozy/safe or awake/engaged. For example, I give the students a heap of plush toys, then have them pick one and play with it for a few minutes. They use the toy as part of their writing work for the day.

10. What’s your ideal class…this is a way for me to find out the components of the best version of English class. I then incorporate these components into later lessons. Sometimes, I even ask “what’s the ideal science class?” or “what’s the ideal Japanese class?” so I can figure out opportunities for interdisciplinary work. And, of course, it’s great intel for the other teachers!

Building community among students

The commonality of these activities is that they are about sharing and community. While it’s really important for me to have a positive relationship with the students, I’m just one lady in a group of 18-20 kids, so it’s even more important for them to have positive relationships with one another. They can help each other restore energy and feel good about class.

Further, I sneakily match the opening activity to the lesson so that it serves as a framing activity. For example, we do a check-in when it’s also time to talk about characters in books…thinking about how you and your classmates are feeling sets you up for considering that characters in books experience a range of emotions, too.

Or when we build something, the prompt will often be about an abstract concept from what the students are reading and writing, like “build a representation of the theme ‘connection.’” In this way we’re generating positive emotions through creativity and laying the foundation for the upcoming learning.

For ELA and Beyond

For more ideas consider how to take all that SEL training you’ve had and adapt it for your subject. An SEL game I learned called “this or that” is perfect in a science or math context: you hold up an object, like a pipette, and say “This is not a pipette. It’s a device to store atoms.” You pass the pipette to a student next to you, and that student holds up the pipette and says, “This is not a device to store atoms. It’s a home for bacteria.” And so on. The stories grow increasingly silly and the kids feel great. What a fabulous way to introduce measurement!

When you consistently offer up these positive emotional experiences in the first 10 minutes, you’ll see that your students are more willing to relax into the work of the class. Call to mind the antsiest students on your class list: they too will greatly benefit from this practice, as they are able to “reset.”

I’ve seen these ideas work over and over again. Obviously, there will be days when all doesn’t go well, but taking the time for positivity helps to mitigate the “I-can’t-focus-on-anything-right-now” effect.

Confirmation bias can be a beautiful thing!

Works Cited

Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Tice DM. “The Strength Model of Self-Control.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2007;16(6):351-355.

Tice Dianne M., Baumeister Roy F., Shmueli Dikla, Muraven Mark. “Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, Issue 3, 2007:379-384, ISSN 0022-1031.

Stephanie Farley has been an English teacher and independent school administrator for 27 years. Interested in instructional design, assessment, feedback, and grading, Stephanie has served as a Mastery Transcript Consortium Site Director and has been on a number of California Association of Independent Schools accreditation committees. She has created professional development for schools around reading and curriculum and coaches teachers in instruction, lesson planning, feedback, and assessment. Visit her website Joyful Learning and find her MiddleWeb articles here.


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1 Response

  1. Naneese says:

    More than beautiful 😍

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