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An Attempt to Teach Students How to Begin to Recognize Emotions

In my time working with students on the autism spectrum, I’ve witnessed them struggle to recognize emotions and acknowledge non-verbal cues from others.

Throughout their schooling, my high school students have heard that this is one of their social challenges, but rarely do they know why this is the case. One student told me that one of her teachers told her “don’t worry, the other students know you have autism so they’ll try to explain what they’re feeling.” At 17, she was nervous that when she went off to college she would have to explain her diagnosis to everyone so they could understand her. Why should she have to disclose that information instead of trying to learn how to understand both herself and those around her?

Finding Social Emotional Teaching Resources

I struggled to find ways to teach students with a range of cognitive abilities how and why they need to recognize emotions of themselves and others in a concrete way. There were lots of complicated scientific studies explaining why individuals on the spectrum have trouble recognizing emotions, but most of my students aren’t able to grasp that information. So I simply typed “emotions” as a search term in Kiddom’s K12 library of teaching resources to see if any of the results would work for my students.

Using Kiddom’s free library to search for content.

The first search result turned out to be the perfect assignment: “Are Emotions Contagious?” This video explained the science of mirror neurons in an understandable way for middle and high schoolers and allowed them to better see how important it is to recognize emotions and what the impact of mirroring emotions can be.

From my experience, students are able to more easily recognize times when someone else impacted their lives than they are able to recognize how they impact everyone else. This assignment challenged them to identify how the emotions of their peers have affected them as well as how their emotions can have an effect on their peers. I selected the video and assigned it to my students as homework via Kiddom, along with a reflection piece about how the video connects to their lives.

The assignment was challenging for many of my students. They found the video interesting, but struggled to connect it to their own lives. I got responses like “I am an independent person so no one can change my emotions but me” and “some people will see a friend looking sad so they start to feel sad, but I am never sad, so I just cheer friends up.”

I was heartbroken. These responses illustrated that my students couldn’t acknowledge how emotions were a part of their experiences, or even what emotions they were displaying to the world. As I kept reading through the responses, some breakthroughs trickled through, “Once, I was having a very hard day. My friend told a horrible joke, but when she started laughing, I couldn’t help but start laughing too.” “One day I was having a bad day. I think I made my friends have a bad day. I spread my negativity.”

These responses gave me hope that I can eventually help my students get to a place where they can better recognize not only the emotions of someone they are talking to, but also an awareness of their own emotions and how they can impact those around them.

We still have a ways to go, but maybe if I display happiness and other positive emotions, I can help my students get there. One thing is for sure, the proliferation of social emotional learning resources is wonderful.

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