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Brain Based Teaching 

Discover the Hidden “Map” of Your Emotions

You may not know this man’s name, yet you see the results of his work all the time. His work shows up when you go through a TSA security line at the airport. His work shows up in the movie you loved watching (“Inside Out” by Disney/Pixar) and his work shows up in the classroom where you can get an insight into student behaviors. He has influenced the Dali Lama and met with him many times.

The one researcher you should know about is…

The Research

The one researcher you should know about is Dr. Paul Ekman. Why?

In the classroom, teachers often get upset with a student’s behavior. Inappropriate behaviors will likely puzzle, frustrate, or irritate teachers who have less experience teaching students raised differently than themselves. Still, it’s important to avoid labeling, demeaning, or blaming students. Truth is, many students simply do NOT know HOW to behave.


No one taught them at home. Ekman showed that there are only 5 “hard-wired” emotions and the rest of the emotions have to be taught to the child. I wasn’t taught the key social-emotional skills. In retrospect, I felt like I was raised by thoroughly random influences (peers, aunts and uncles) but no one was a steady, positive emotional influence on me.

My school behaviors were terrible. Ekman showed that every emotion you’d like to see in class (besides the hard-wired ones of joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear) must be taught. Ekman showed us why many behaviors that we discipline a student for, send them to the office or suspend them, are absolutely the “best” a student has (at the moment).

If you, as a student, are being criticized in the classroom by an unknowing teacher and told to “shape up”, one possible response is disgust. Many teachers treat that as an attitude; but it is not! It is all the student knows when he / she comes from a family where positive behaviors are not taught.

Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UCSF, is the researcher and author best known for furthering our understanding of emotions and nonverbal behavior. He is also a pre-eminent psychologist, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.

He has authored more than 100 published articles and in 2014, Dr. Ekman was ranked 15th among the most influential psychologists of the 21st century by Archives of Scientific Psychology.

Dr. Ekman was also the primary consultant on the Disney/Pixar movie “Inside Out” which featured five core emotions as characters. In addition, Ekman was the guy who has consulted with the TSA to help find ways to streamline security lines by using emotional responses to detect outliers (potential troublemakers).

Ekman was the one who asked a “teacher” question: “Are emotions hard wired in our DNA or do we learn them all in life?” By the way, Ekman’s latest study suggests that the core emotions we are born with are joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear (Ekman, 2016).

Getting Started and Taking Action

Since it may not happen at home, this means you will want to role model and teach each of the additional emotions at school. This year, be a beacon for teaching humility, empathy, optimism, forgiveness, gratitude and sympathy. You will have more fun and your students will, as well.

How to Teach The Key Emotions

First, get yourself up to speed on what the emotions of humility, empathy, optimism, forgiveness, gratitude and sympathy look like. I mentioned earlier the dialogues that Dr. Ekman has had over the years with the Dali Lama. The conversations about emotions led Dr. Ekman to map out human emotions. This project must have been simply mind boggling in its depth and breadth. But Ekman and his daughter, Dr. Eve Ekman were both up to the task. They mapped them all out into an amazing site:

Focus on just one or two per month.

I will get you started with the emotion of Gratitude. Gratitude is just one of many positive emotions you can successfully teach your students this year.

As the teacher, display and encourage gratitude.

Gratitude tips. An expert in Gratitude at the UC Davis campus shared these research-based tips for your gratitude process (Froh, Sefick & Emmons, 2008).

When writing a gratitude journal, keep it personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful. Start with a goal. Motivation to become more satisfied and joyful helps add value of the journaling. Favor depth over breadth. To elaborate in detail about just one particular thing is better than a couple of words about many things. Focus on what is surprising and meaningful about the person or item of gratitude.

Use a “take-away the goodness” strategy. Reflect on what your life would be like without a certain positive event (versus all the positives).

Weekly journaling is good. Writing once a week will get greater boosts in happiness than writing three times per week. Really? Yes, your brain adapts and any good thing can become expected everyday and lose the impact.

In the classroom, keep the gratitude process fresh. Once students have learned to share daily gratitudes, mix up the process. How? Use these six strategies: 1) Start Small. Ask your students to share JUST ONE small THING that they are grateful for with a peer. 2) With a buddy. Students share with just one partner. 3) Privately, students write their gratitudes in a journal. 4) In a circle. Students share in a small circle, which affirms the value of gratitude. 5) Practice fast. Take a moment now and then and allow them to write for 60” about one thing they are grateful for that week (even if things are going badly, at least they made it to school and have a caring teacher). 6) Make a poster. Students create a poster that can be added to over time. Students sign it, see it and feel pride in it.

In the Classroom, show the emotional response in context. Every proper response that you don’t see at your school is one that you need to be teaching. Rather than telling kids to “be respectful”, demonstrate appropriate emotional responses and the circumstances in which to use them, and allow students to practice applying them. To shift your own responses to inappropriate behavior,reframe your thinking: expect students NOT to know the right responses.

Show YouTube clips of student idols using the emotions in appropriate ways. Help teach them stronger social and emotional skills until the social conditions at your school make it attractive not to do those things. How? Use interdependency, so that each student’s behavior affects his or her peers (positively or negatively).

Reinforce the appropriate behaviors with private comments, head nodding or a smile. How else? Hook up the behaviors to class rewards like getting to hear a great story that you just read a few paragraphs of each week.

Remember: every emotional response other than the hardwired emotions of joy, anger, disgust, sadness, and fear must be taught. Cooperation, patience, embarrassment, empathy, gratitude, and forgiveness are crucial to a smoothly running complex social environment (like a classroom).

When students lack these learned responses, teachers who expect humility or penitence may get a smirk instead, a response that may lead teachers to believe the student has an “attitude”. It’s the primary caregiver’s job to teach the child when and how to display these emotional responses, but when students do not bring these necessary behaviors to school, your school must teach them.

One last thing; if you mess up and don’t have a great day, DO NOT beat yourself up over it. Do not make up an excuse as to why you are unable to “do” a certain item or process on any given day. Guilt is a terribly unproductive emotion. Forgive yourself and recommit to the next day. Do not expect perfection of yourself; expect constant effort.

Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward.

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.”

You can’t get any more profound (or useful) than that. So… you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!

Congratulations! You’re on the way to a great day!

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

Ekman, P (2016). What 149 Scientists Who Study Emotion Agree About. Perspectives on Psychological Science 11, 31-34.

Froh JJ, Sefick WJ & Emmons RA. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: an experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. J Sch Psychol.46, 213-33.

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