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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Portraits in Emotional Awareness

A three-step process helps students assess their emotional skills in the classroom to determine what kind of learners they are and how they can become more effective.

While observing a 7th grade science class, I immediately noticed three students.
Jerry fidgeted with his hands and passed notes under the table to other students. Although he occasionally raised his hand and asked questions, he frequently seemed distracted.
Jill was a big contributor to class discussions—in fact, too big a contributor. She couldn't stop turning to talk to her girlfriends between her comments to the class.
John looked as if he were in another world. Although he never interrupted the class, he never engaged—he just sat and stared into space.
The teacher was making an interesting point, and the other students in the class seemed fascinated. What was it about these three students that explained their lack of focus? And more important, how could we help them become more fully part of the class?

Contracting for Learning Success

In working with adolescents to help them understand what makes them unique both as learners and as people, I have found a strong relationship between patterns of natural learning dynamics and related patterns of emotional skills (Shelton, 1999). If we can help students become more aware of their own dynamic of learning, we can often help them increase their emotional competency to support their learning needs.
  1. Using the Human Dynamics model for understanding learning differences (Seagal & Horne, 1997), students self-assess their learning dynamics with an emphasis on recognizing emotional competencies.
  2. The teacher and student collaborate on the student-identified learning dynamic and identify emotional competencies necessary for more effective learning.
  3. The student completes a contract that identifies the specific emotional competencies that he or she would like to develop to strengthen classroom learning performance.

Building Emotional Competencies

Daniel Goleman (1995) and Maurice Elias and his coauthors (1999) have written extensively about emotional intelligence and its relationship to both academic performance and life success. They have identified five areas of core emotional and social competencies that children need to succeed in life: self-awareness and impulse control, persistence, zeal, self-motivation, and empathy and social skills. Many of these emotional skills are crucial for effective classroom learning.
  • self-awareness—recognizing one's feelings, temperament, and style
  • self-management—impulse control, organization, and outlook
  • relationships—social skills and team mindedness.
Often, one or two of these skill areas come more easily than the others. Let's consider the relative emotional competencies of our students Jerry, Jane, and John.
Jerry, the distracted child who passed notes under the table, exhibited a pattern of low self-management, but he was skilled at relating to other students in the class. Jill, the frequent contributor to class who couldn't stop talking to her friends, also exhibited low competency in self-management, but she was aware of her emotional needs and of the needs of her classmates and loved to interact. John, who sat and stared into space, had good self-management skills and was self-aware, but he was uncomfortable socializing with other students in the class.
These were our starting observations. Our next step was to observe how accurately students could assess their own emotional skill competencies. I also wanted to know whether each student's self-assessment was consistent with my own observations.

Human Learning Differences

We used the Human Dynamics model to help the students self-assess both their learning dynamics and their relative areas of emotional competency. Human Dynamics, developed by Sandra Seagal and David Horne (1997), is a system for understanding individual learning differences. The system, based on investigations of more than 40,000 people representing 25 cultures, identifies three universal organizing principles that underlie the different approaches to learning: physically centered, emotionally centered, and mentally centered.
  • The class is practical and the teacher illustrates abstract concepts with concrete examples.
  • Students receive a sensory, tactile experience with their learning.
  • The teacher defines context and content of the material clearly so that the student is able to see the interconnections of the lesson.
  • Teachers provide sufficient time for students to integrate the material.
  • The teacher establishes a personal connection with each student.
  • The classroom ambiance evokes mutual support and respect.
  • Lessons and presentations have color and dramatization and evoke creativity.
  • The classroom organization creates comfortable and harmonious relationships.
  • Each class begins with an overview of the topics to be covered.
  • The teacher makes a clear statement of the value and purpose of the lesson.
  • The learning process is structured and logical.


Our three students, Jerry, Jill, and John, had an opportunity to self-assess their human dynamics in their human growth and development class. They viewed a video, Children's Park Design, which showed 3-minute clips of children ages 9 and 10 exhibiting different learning dynamics in designing a park. After the 15-minute video, the class observed the differences among each group of learners.
Jerry, Jill, and John clearly identified their human dynamics for learning. They also simultaneously recognized which of the emotional competencies were relative strengths and weaknesses for them. They discussed their self-observations individually with me and drew up a list of skills that they wanted to work on to improve their classroom learning effectiveness. This list ultimately led to a contract between the teacher and the student.
Physically centered Jerry. Jerry recognized himself as a physically-centered learner who tends to learn most effectively through sensory experience—participating through doing, making, and actualizing his classroom experiences. He recognized that he is practical and kinesthetic in his orientation.
He also told us that he is aware of the emotional dynamics of the classroom. In fact, he is in touch with so much of what happens to everyone in class that he often gets confused about what to talk about first. "I get impressions about everybody and everything we are doing. Sometimes I just get information overload and don't know where to begin, so I just tune out."
Jerry described how he passed notes just to have something to do with his hands in class when he gets fidgety. Jerry needs more physical engagement and activity to keep learning effectively. Unfortunately, as 7th grade classes become more abstract and discussion-oriented, he has less opportunity for physical engagement.
Jerry thought that his greatest emotional competency was his self-awareness. "I know what is happening to me and to others around me. I just sometimes can't get the words fast enough." He decided to focus his contract on building self-management skills, particularly using his laptop and sketching pad to capture more effectively his impressions of what is going on in class so that he can share them in an orderly way. He also agreed to articulate what he experiences in a project with Jill, who was delighted that someone appreciated her lively social skills.
Emotionally centered Jill. Jill identified herself as an emotionally centered learner. She described herself as someone who learns by communicating with others. Feelings and subjective evaluation of information are important to Jill. In addition, she recognized her need to use her imagination.
When I asked Jill about her constant chattering with friends in class, she immediately recognized her problem. "It's just that I get bored doing the same thing for too long, and each point brought up in class makes me think of something I need to share with Sandy."
Jill also recognized that her skills in self-management were not developed, and she agreed that she should work on those skills in her contract. She had received feedback from many of her teachers about her disruptions in class and was often chided for talking to her friends. However, no one had pointed out that this was an impulse-control problem. Jill appeared more concerned when she viewed her behavior from this perspective.
In her contract, Jill identified a desire to work with John on her next project assignment. She could observe and discuss his approach to self-management. She also agreed to develop a report on how she could incorporate greater self-management skills into her own way of doing things.
Mentally centered John. John described himself as a mentally centered learner. He is a sequential thinker who observes the world with objectivity and vision. He likes to work alone, has an intense need for privacy, and is organized and structured in his thinking. When I asked why he seemed to sit and stare into space in his science class, John clarified that he simply did not need to interact. He was comfortable absorbing the material in his own way and in his own space. He further noted that he always turned in his lessons, his plan book was organized, and his academic performance was high.
Yet as we talked further, I discussed with John how his desire to work alone might limit his flexibility in group-project work, where he would be working with others who have a high need for feedback and interaction. John agreed that developing his relationship skills was important.
In John's contract for emotional skill development, he identified a desire to work with a group of emotional learners who had a high need for interaction. In fact, he stated that he would like to lead the group. John had specific goals in mind for developing a skill set that would strengthen an area that was not his natural emotional skill preference.

Evaluating the Process

The most important part of the contract discussion that the students and I learned was understanding how we communicate with one another. I was surprised in many cases to learn about the student's perspective on learning needs. After our contract-setting discussion, the students were more absorbed in class and more attentive to their own emotional behavior. They knew that the little things they did were being noticed. Although this was only a first step in focusing on emotional competencies that related to learning, it was a valuable way to encourage students to take responsibility for the learning process.

Elias, M., Tobias, S., & Friedlander, B. (1999). Emotionally intelligent parenting. New York: Harmony Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Seagal, S., & Horne, D. (1997).Human dynamics: A new framework for understanding people and realizing potential in our organizations. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communication.

Shelton, C. M. (1999, September). How inner sense builds commonsense. Educational Leadership, 57, 61–64.

Claudia Marshall Shelton has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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