SALT LAKE CITY — At the start of the school year, fourth-grader Erick Morales and his brother, Alan, a first-grader, often let their emotions get the better of them.
“I used to hit people, didn’t listen to the teachers, never did my homework,” Erick said.
“Yeah, when I get angry, I get in trouble," Alan said.
Then their school, Rose Park Elementary, began an experiment to try to instill more emotional awareness in the boys and their classmates.
They did this using the Grumpmeter, a color scale of emotion, a simple, common language kids and adults can use to talk about their feelings. The scale ranges from blue (calm) to red (exploding, out-of-control feelings).
“When we can put words to what’s happening inside of us then we can move forward," said school counselor Robin Raine.
The tool was developed by Lynn Kaufman, a Kansas social worker. Her daughter, Janet Kaufman, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah, has been conducting a study at the Title I school to see if using the Grumpmeter improves students’ test scores and behavior.
Students get Grumpmeter lessons, keep journals of how they’re feeling throughout the school day and learn strategies to regulate their emotions when things start heading into the red.
Erick said when he starts getting upset he takes deep breaths, while Alan said he takes four deep breaths and draws ninjas.
Trying to foster emotional intelligence in children is nothing new, but Kaufman said what’s called “social emotional learning” has been getting new attention around the country: “There has been a real concerted effort to formalize this and to make it a vocabulary in schools," she said.
Studies show emotions affect attention and memory and impact how well kids learn: “Teachers know, they always know that kids do better when they are in control of themselves and when they get along with each other,” she said.
Kaufman tries to integrate the tool into the school community by meeting regularly with parents and teachers.
When that emotional-social development piece isn't there, it really makes it difficult. It's something as teachers we need to have and when you come in unprepared it kind of blindsides you a little bit.
–Caroline Grist, kindergarten teacher
At an after-school gathering of teachers, kindergarten teacher Caroline Grist laments the fact that during college she was taught how to manage a classroom, but not how to teach these social-emotional skills.
"When that emotional-social development piece isn’t there, it really makes it difficult," she said. "It’s something as teachers we need to have and when you come in unprepared it kind of blindsides you a little bit.”
Alan and Erick’s dad, Gabriel Morales, a single dad, participates in the discussions and said the instruction have helped his sons and himself.
“Yes, their behavior has changed tremendously,” he said through an interpreter. “They come from a lot of family problems and they’ve had a hard time. It was difficult for me because I didn’t know how to control my emotions and my sons’ emotions, but now I know how to analyze the situation and get to cool.”
First-grade teacher Kieley Dewey said Alan has become less aggressive and more productive. She said it’s because he’s now more aware of his emotions.
“He’s solidified all his alphabet sounds, he’s solidified all his numbers and now he’s reading CVC (consonant-vowel- consonant) words like ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ and he’s also writing those words which is huge for him,” she said.
“We all get angry and to get angry is normal but it happens to everyone," Gabriel Morales said. “But the way you handle the situation makes the difference of whether something can be good or lead to a bigger problem.”