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When students (or anyone!) experience emotions, our bodies are physiologically changing. Learning to identify the physiological body sensations and thinking associated with different emotions can help students identify their emotions, communicate about their emotions and regulate their emotions. Teachers can assist students, to identify their body clues and emotions even when students are not yet aware of their body clues that tell them they have changing emotion.
When students and their teachers are able to identify a student’s body clues that are early warning signs of difficult emotions or emotions that interfere with learning, they can then use a range of techniques to assist students to feel happier, calmer and braver while in the classroom or playground.
This practice is informed by the Secret Agent Society suite of programs to provide information, ideas and resources to assist teachers to discuss the body clues associated with emotion and to support children to learn to identify their body clues and emotions.
The Secret Agent Society (SAS) Small Group Program is used by clinicians to prepare children aged 8 to 12 to build their emotional-social resilience. With over 17 publications supporting the evidence-based approach, SAS provides a digitally enabled wrap-around approach for schools and clinics looking to revolutionise their social-emotional curriculum delivery with a small group program that also builds capacity in parents and school staff.
SAS was initially conceived in a university environment through the PhD project of Clinical Psychologist Dr Renae Beaumont, underpinned by a number of different theories of child development, psychopathology, therapy, and behaviour change, and based on best-practice evidence for learning styles and cognitive profiles of neurodivergent children.
Watch this video to learn more about this practice.
The brain and emotions
When the human brain registers threat or danger (perceived or real), it prepares the body to fight, flight or freeze to protect itself. Chemical reactions in our brain cause physiological changes in our body and thoughts. We describe these experiences as ‘emotions’, for example, feeling faint or nauseous as anxious.
We all experience emotions and the associated physiological body changes at varying degrees in varying situations. Sometimes it is helpful to feel scared and run away from danger, sometimes, it is not. For example for our students, it is usually not helpful to run away during a class exam or social game that we want them to participate in.
We are all different in how we experience these clues and we are all different in our ability to recognise the body clues. When teachers and/or students can recognise body clues for emotions early, they can ask for help or use strategies to regulate their emotions for peak performance and prevent escalation of emotions in order to achieve our goals.
Recognition of body clues is helpful
Recognising the body clues that precede the build-up of emotion enables us to take action and manage our reactions. When we recognise, for example, our own anxiety levels rising, we may choose to action strategies we know helps us stay calm. Such preventative steps can be deep breathing, removing yourself from the situation (or person) or engaging in a calming activity.
In addition to responding to changing body clues, we may learn common patterns to our body clues and take preventative actions ahead of certain situations that commonly lead to our rising anxiety. For example, as an adult, ahead of a job interview or public speaking in front of peers we might give ourselves extra preparation time, take slow breaths and think positive encouraging thoughts before entering the situation.
In this video Kathleen discusses body clues and why it is important to recognise them early.
Early warning signs
Anger and anxiety are common emotions at school that prevent students from achieving their learning and social goals. To help prevent your student’s anxiety or anger levels escalating at school, try to be aware of early warning signs that their anxiety or anger levels are starting to rise and, if relevant, the situation where this is occurring.
Students beneﬁt from learning to self-recognise their body clues and to become more aware of them at earlier stages of emotion. Consider encouraging students to be aware of, or identify, their body’s physiological change associated with emotions.
For some students, recognising body clues and their escalation is not easy and therefore acting on something to regulate their emotions is something they may need assistance with.
Some students notice body clues but do not associate them with an emotional change, and others are not yet able to notice the physiological change. Sometimes students firstly benefit from learning to recognise changes in their body and mind separate to emotions, for example, increased heart rate through exercising or decreased heart rate through slow breathing.
Learning to identify students who are aware of their body clues or not can assist teachers to implement a tailored approach to prompting the prevention or regulation of challenging emotions.
Kathleen discusses 4 key considerations in recognising emotion.
Situational or environmental triggers
When teachers notice patterns in student body clues, they can start to identify situational and environmental factors that can predict emotion change. For example, a student may repeatedly struggle to focus during exams due to the high levels of anxiety. Being on ‘high alert’ for changes in body clues ahead of exams can help the student to calm their anxiety prior to, and during, the exam.
Noticing patterns of body clues may also identify triggers of sensory overload or high distress for a student. Consider Try to identify triggers of distress for the student and modifying or removing uncomfortable sensory input e these where possible and appropriate. For example, seating a particular the student at the front in a quite area of the classroom in a quiet area that is free from visual distractions may help to prevent a sensory overload and or improve focus.
Recognising the early signs of stress and anxiety enables the teacher to support the student. The teacher has recognised that the student is struggling during the exam. The student looked like he was distressed - the teacher noticed he was blinking rapidly, his eyes were darting around, his lips pursed and his jaw tightened and he looks like he is having trouble focussing on the paper.
The child may have been feeling tight muscles, racing thoughts - things the teacher can't see, but that we can teach the students to recognise.
Questions for consideration:
- What information do you already know about a student’s early warning signs, situational triggers, or awareness of emotions and body clues?
- Can you gather information from parents and/or colleagues to learn about the body clues or triggers for a particular student’s emotions?
- Which students likely need assistance or time to identify their body clues and emotions before expecting the use of an emotion regulation strategy?
- How can I use inclusive practices to assist all students to identify their emotion body clues while keeping in mind that different students have different abilities in this area?
In this example, Kathleen gives an example of how being aware of and recognising emotions can help both you and your students.
Supporting students to understand and identify their own emotional body clues can be done in whole class, small group, or individual approaches or through direct teaching activities.
In this video, the teacher leads the class through a discussion to help them identify their body clues.
Body clues discussion
You may like to start by leading a discussion on how the human body is designed to give us clues that signal how we are feeling. Remind students that everyone is different. Therefore, different class members may experience different body clues when they feel the same emotion or experience different emotions in the same situation. However, because of how the human body is wired, there are some body clues that are common signs of certain emotions.
- Draw and write on a body outline to brainstorm how and where the human body gives clues that signal when we feel. . Alternatively, ask the students to lie down and draw around the outline of their body on a large sheet of paper. Ask them to draw the body clues and thoughts they experience when they feel a target emotion on the body poster. In the resource section an individual student drawing worksheet is provided as an alternative to a teacher-led large drawing
- When specifically discussing body clues that student’s may feel, begin with less potentially controversial emotions such as happiness.
- Ask questions that encourage students to explore body clues:
- What does your face look like when you feel happy?
- How well does your brain think when you feel happy?
- Does your body have lots of energy, or do you feel tired and sleepy?
- How does your body move when you are happy?
- Include sharing your own body clues for a range of emotions – even adults have emotions and body clues!
- Consider using examples where emotions are necessary to keep us safe (for example, to quickly jump out of the way of physical danger) as well as when our brains have similar reactions to uncomfortable situations that are not physically dangerous (for example, a test when we are scared to get an answer wrong).
- Explore identifying a range of situations in which students may notice different emotion body clues for emotion changes (positive, neutral and challenging changes). Consider highlighting how we all have similarities and differences and when we become aware of our body clues, we can learn to regulate our emotions to achieve our goals in a variety of situations.
- Remind children that being able to detect and manage their own feelings will help them to achieve the goals that they set for themselves.
- Incorporate mention or discussion about body clues in any lesson activity.
- Consider your use of language compared to the student’s. For example, check whether the child uses words other than ‘angry’ versus ‘grumpy’ or anxious’ versus ‘wobbly’ to describe these emotions. You may need to use diﬀerent emotion language for some students or incorporate teaching a range of emotion words that are used to describe a set of body clues.
Body clues freeze game - worksheet
Play the Body Clues Freeze Game as a fun way to learn and explore different emotion body clues.
Look for opportunities to replay the Body Clues Freeze Game as a reminder of their emotion body clues or as preparation for being on ‘high alert’ for body clues in an upcoming task.
The Body Clues Freeze Game worksheet is available in the resources tab.
Be on the look out for student’s emotion body clues or trigger situations to provide opportunities for incidental teaching and prompting to conduct a ‘body scan’ for emotion body clues. Praise and reward children for detecting their own emotions from body and thought clues during class activities (with or without teacher prompting).
Visual reminders - Body clues diagram
- Display a poster illustrating anxious and angry body clues in your classroom as a visual reminder for students to be on high alert for these clues.
- Ask children to complete their own body clues visual and keep it on or near their work area as a visual reminder to when conducting a ‘body scan’ for body clues.
- The worksheet is available in the resource tab.
Body scan mission - worksheet and homework task
Either as a whole class or individual students, set a homework task (Body Scan Mission) that asks children to be on ‘high alert’ for body clues that signal how they are feeling during the week (particularly before entering situations that make them feel anxious or angry).
- Encourage students to do this task with the help of other family members, classmates and/or school staff.
- Praise and encourage children for answering the Body Scan Mission questions for homework.
- An activity sheet is available in the resource tab (Body Scan Mission).
Supporting students who rapidly escalate to high level anger or anxiety.
Try to be aware of early warnings that signal when your student’s anxiety or anger levels are rising, and the situations where this is likely to occur. If early warning signs are noticed, discretely prompt the use of calming strategies. If possible, do this prior to the students entering a known trigger situation.
If you notice a student in the early stages of becoming angry or anxious, you can try a universal prompt to the whole class. For example, ask the class to stop and suggest that you all take a slow, deep breath. Model this for them. Avoid making speciﬁc reference to the student that you have noticed. Be aware of what happens immediately after the student becomes distressed, as they may be accidentally rewarded for undesired behaviour. For example, if a child yells and runs away during a diﬃcult activity, they may be accidentally rewarded by not having to participate in the class.
Often one of the most eﬀective strategies for reducing an undesirable behaviour is teaching students alternative ways to communicate what they want, and how to recognise and manage their emotions. For example, to ask for help when experiencing a difficult task.
When the student is calm, ask them to describe, draw, or circle from a selection, what they are noticing in their body. Encourage any eﬀorts that are made.
Try to identify likely distress triggers (situations or environments) for your student and consider:
- Implementing preparation strategies to prevent the intensity of the emotion escalation. For example, writing a short story (i.e. a 'Social Story') describing a new activity and explicitly stating the rules to be followed or create a daily schedule that reminds them about upcoming transitions to reduce anxiety about the unknown and unpredictable.
- Practice signaling rising emotions and use of calming strategies when calm and away from triggers – For example, practice using slow breathing at the desk in the exam room when there is no exam, or stepping calmly through a fire drill process with no other students or sirens.
- Modify or remove triggers where possible and appropriate – For example, seating the child at the front of the classroom in a quiet area that is free from visual distractions may help to prevent sensory overload and improve their focus
- Consider the student’s sensory processing and how this may influence their reporting or experiencing of body clues.
- Encourage students to be on ‘high alert’ for body clues that you have discussed as a class. Check in with students throughout the lesson or across the week to see if they have recognised any new clues.
- When within a group or whole class situations, try to be sensitive to including a number of students (or the whole class) in body clues identification discussions to prevent sensitivities or embarrassment.
If you have students who would benefit from further social-emotional support, make an appropriate referral to an internal or external professional e.g., psychologist, guidance officer, occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist, or behaviour specialist.
It is important to liaise with the school GO/school or student’s psychologist, their parents, the student themselves and possibly other professionals to further understand and identify an appropriately suited strategy to assist them to recognise and manage their emotions and feelings.
You can also find resources to support your students’ learning about body clues in the Resources section below.
Practice implementation planner template
We know that it is not always easy to keep track of what is working and what is not. So, we have created this template for you to record and reflect on what you are doing to help you create a more inclusive classroom. The implementation planner contains:
- Guidance around goal setting
- Reflection section (What worked, didn’t work and what to change and next steps.)
- Prompting questions
Set your professional learning goal for:
Supporting students to detect their own emotions from body clues
Benefits of goal settingSetting, working towards, and reflecting on goals helps you grow professionally and improve your practice. You can access AITSL learning resources for teachers to learn more about:
How to set goalsThe Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership recommends using the SMART matrix to frame your goal setting.
SMART goals refers to goals that are: