Students with disabilities have a lot of trouble managing their feelings, especially "bad" feelings that they don't understand. Students on the autism spectrum definitely have difficulty with difficult feelings. They may be anxious or upset, but don't know how to deal with those emotions appropriately.
Emotional literacy is without a doubt a foundational set of skills, at least understanding what they are and when we feel them. Too often students with disabilities may deal with feeling bad by being bad: they may tantrum, hit, scream, cry, or throw themselves on the floor. None of these are particularly helpful ways to get over the feeling or resolving the situation that may cause them.
A valuable replacement behavior is to name the feeling and then ask a parent, a friend or the person responsible to help deal with the behavior. Blaming, violent screaming, and craziness are all inefficient ways to deal with disappointment, sadness, or anger. When our students can name their feeling and why they feel that way, they are well on their way to learning how to manage strong or overwhelming feelings. You can teach your students to use "I statements" to successfully deal with strong feelings.
Name the Emotion
Students with disabilities, especially emotional disturbances and autism spectrum disorders, have difficulty identifying feelings, especially the ones that feel bad and make them "crazy." Often these feelings are the one that act as antecedents for the most difficult and challenging behaviors. Learning to name those feelings will help them find more productive ways to deal with them.
Anger is one of the feelings that children feel that gets expressed in the most negative ways. One of the most important things I ever learned about emotions in my work as a protestant pastor and as a teacher I learned from Parent Effectiveness Training (Dr. Thomas Gordon) was that statement that "anger is a secondary emotion." In other words, we use anger to avoid or protect ourselves from the feelings we fear. That might be the feeling of powerlessness, or fear, or shame. Especially among children identified as having "emotional disturbances," which may be the result of abuse or abandonment, anger has been the one thing that has protected them from depression or emotional collapse.
Learning to identify the "bad feelings" and what causes them will empower children to deal more effectively with those feelings. In the case of children who continue to live in homes where they are still subjected to abuse, identifying the causes and empowering the children to do something may be the only thing to save them.
What are the bad feelings? "Bad feelings" are not feelings that are in and of themselves bad, nor do they make you bad. Instead, they are feelings that make you feel bad. Helping children identify not only the "feelings" but how they feel, is important. Do you feel tightness in the chest? Does your heart race? Do you feel like crying? Does your face feel hot? Those "bad" feelings usually have physiological symptoms that we can identify.
- Anxiety (often difficult for children to identify, but a driving forced, especially for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.)
In an "I statement" your student names their feeling and tell the person who they speak to, what causes them to make the statement.
To a sister: "I feel angry (FEELING) when you take my stuff without asking (CAUSE.)"
To a parent: "I am really disappointed (FEELING) when you tell me we will go to the store and you forget (CAUSE.)
It is important that you suggest some times that your students feel anger, disappointment, jealousy or envy. Using pictures identified in through learning emotional literacy can help your students think about the source of their anger. This is a foundation of both making an " I statement" and creating positive strategies to deal with those feelings.
After debriefing pictures, the next step is to model the eye statements: Name some situations that would make you feel angry, and then model making the "I statement." If you have an aide or some typical peers who help you during social living classes, role play the "I Statements."
Create Comic Strip Interactions for "I Statements."
The models I have create can be used to first model and then teach students to create "I statements."
- Anger: This feeling creates a lot of trouble for our students. Helping them identify what makes them angry and sharing that in a non-threatening, or non-judgemental way will go a long way to success in social situations.
- Disappointment: All children have difficulty dealing with disappointment, when Mom or Dad have "promised" that they would go to Chuckie Cheese or to a favorite movie. Learning to deal with disappointment as well as "speaking for themselves" are important skills.
- Sadness: We sometimes believe we need to protect our children from sadness, but there is no way they can go through life without having to deal with it.