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Learning to manage emotions as they learn about their projects

Kate-Walker.jpgEmotions often arise in youth programs as young people work towards goals. Encountering obstacles can trigger negative emotions, such as frustration and anger; achieving success can trigger positive emotions, such as pride and excitement. This makes youth programs a rich context for emotional learning and development.

A recent article from a research study I am part of suggests that young people learn strategies for handling emotions that arise in their work on projects. The article examines how adult program leaders facilitate learning. This builds on previous research indicating that after-school programs are valuable contexts for youth to develop social-emotional skills.

How do young people learn to manage emotions in youth programs and projects?

group-of-five-kids.jpgYouth learn about emotions through active, conscious processes of observing and analyzing their experiences; and they learn not only to regulate frustration, anger, and worry, but also to use the functional aspects of these emotions in constructive ways.
  • Learning to regulate emotions - Youth reported learning to regulate emotions through repeated experiences of trial, error, and reflection. They are active in deliberately experimenting with different strategies. One young person said, '"I was about to yell some things, so I had to keep in mind where I was, who I was around, and who my peers were. So then I'm like, 'Okay, what if we do this?' So I bring up ideas and try to get everybody back on task."

  • Learning to use emotions - Youth reported learning to harness emotions in constructive ways. Emotions have functional value and, if managed effectively, can inform and motivate progress towards goals. In the words of another youth,"Sometimes when you're heated, at your hottest moment or your most mad moments you come up with some stuff you wouldn't have thought of if you were just calm and mellow. Because when you get mad you see things that you didn't see, certain different things come to your mind and you look at things differently."

What role can adults play in supporting learning from emotional experiences?

Program leaders have the unique opportunity to be present as youth encounter the frustration, excitement, and boredom that arise in their projects. They can facilitate learning through emotion coaching -- helping youth reflect on unfolding emotional episodes, consider alternative strategies, and persist in problem solving.
  • Fostering awareness and reflection - Leaders monitor young people's emotions and call attention to them before problems erupt. They help youth use their developing capacity for reflection to notice how emotions influence their thoughts and behavior. According to one leader, "I ask them 'Well, what happened? You're usually this way in this situation, and [today] you was down low. Talk to me. What's going on? Because I've seen that you just wasn't in it today."

  • Suggesting strategies - Leaders encourage youth to consider alternative strategies. Another program leader explained how she attends to youth's level of frustration and then provides various alternative strategies: "Any time they are feeling frustrated I try to keep tabs on that and keep track of what level of frustration they are at. I mean, if they are hugely frustrated, I will tell them to go take a break or start doing something else for a little while. Or I'll sit with them and try to work through it, or pair them up with a mentor, someone who is more experienced who can help them work through it."

  • Encouraging problem solving - Leaders encourage youth to problem solve difficult situations, and to view emotions in relation to the future horizon of their work. One youth described her leader's help this way: When [the leader] told us that we're gonna do a magazine - I hate writing, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it - and I'm like, "Oh I don't think I'm gonna be able to do the program. Because you know I've just never been good at writing and I don't think I'll make a good enough article for this." And she's like, "No, you could try, you could try."... She told me, "You just need to get away from your fear. Maybe you're not afraid of writing, but you're just stuck on the fact, 'Oh no, I suck at writing, I suck at writing,' so that's why you're scared of doing the project." That's what kind of got me excited. And then once I started working on it and looking into the topic and interviewing people, that's when I got more excited and I want to finish and everything.
Have you seen this? In your experience, how do young people learn to manage emotion in youth programs and projects? What do adult program leaders need to know to effectively coach youth through emotionally challenging situations?

-- Kate Walker, assistant Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

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