Can Managing Student Moods Create a Positive Learning Environment?

George Ganzenmuller - Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Edwards Middle School Charlestown, MA

In my second year as a teaching fellow in a special education classroom, I’ve learned a few things about behavior management. One particularly effective strategy I've learned is what I call ‘mood management’. If I can keep the general mood of the classroom positive and focused, then we can have a great day of learning. However, if the class mood slips out of my control into the realms of anger, gloom or (hopefully never) anarchy, then we might as well forget about whatever learning objectives were on the plate for that day. Mood management is a subtle art and, as I’m a self-taught, second-year mood management scholar, I’m not quite at the black-belt level yet.

My class consists of 8 students. All of them are wonderful individuals in their own ways, who have so much to contribute to our classroom. However, there is a level of volatility in our ranks that is unmatched in the rest of the school. What seems like a peaceful, engaging group activity can quickly devolve into a pencil thrown across the room in frustration.

One thing that I try to teach my students, in addition to Math, English, College ReadinessApprenticeships and Teamwork, is how to control their emotions, rather than letting their emotions control them. There is no set curriculum for this concept, no statewide assessment, and, quite honestly, no reliable way to measure results. But, I’m convinced that is an absolutely pivotal skill, one that my students need to succeed in their lives. No business is going to hire an employee who throws their chair on the ground when a decision doesn’t go their way.

Truth is, I have no idea what it’s like to be my students. I didn't grow up with a learning disability or with the hardships of poverty. I’m fully aware that their lives are going to be exponentially more difficult than mine has been. But, I believe that if I can help them to focus on the positive and find ways to channel their frustrations, they’ll be better equipped to deal with the unquestionable challenges that will come their way.

One strategy I’ve started using comes from Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on Positive Psychology. In helping my students cultivate positive mindsets, I’ve saved a chunk of time at the end of each class for them to write down on a sheet of paper one thing that ‘went well’ for them that day. It could be that they got a good grade on a quiz, that the boy they like smiled at them, that they scored a goal in gym class, anything. They don’t have to show me what they wrote. They don’t even have to keep it. As long as they find something that went well.

This past week, one of my students, we’ll call him Johnny, was in a particularly aggravated mood and was passionately telling me how he hated school, hated the teachers and hated my class. I took him aside and we had an emotional chat. We talked about positive thinking, controlling our emotions and most of all dealing with our frustration in an appropriate way. He didn’t calm down right away and in fact when he took his seat a few tears rolled down his cheek. We continued class and little by little I saw him come back to life. Johnny began talking more and more and eventually was energetically leading class discussions and rousing his teammates to participate.

At the end of the day, I had them write the ‘What Went Well’ sheets. After writing, most of the students put them in their notebooks, some threw them away. But, Johnny, on his way out the door, handed me his ‘What Went Well’ sheet and said, ‘look at it’.  As Johnny left, I read his sheet. It said “What went well for me today: I was in a bad mood, but Mr. G talked to me and I changed”.

It was a little gesture, but the fact that he wanted me to know that I had helped him meant a lot. I know there will be days when he and other students are frustrated (they’ll be vocal about it), but at least they know that, ultimately, we’re on the same side – I’m here for them and together we’ll progress.

I think you know what my ‘What Went Well’ was for that day.

What role do you think teachers play in students' moods? Share your thoughts in the comments section!