Have you ever sat down at the end of a long and trying school day and thought, “I knew today was going to be crazy” or “I had a feeling they were going to be off the wall today”? Odds are the answer is yes. At times, we seem to be able to sense a bad behavioral day coming; our own emotional sensors kick in, presaging a day full of raised voices and “bad choices.”
Are teachers psychics? Do we have a special “spider sense” for those behaviorally challenging days?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think the explanation is almost the complete opposite.
Think back to that time when you “knew” it was going to be challenging behavioral day. Most likely, you felt some combination of anxiety, exhaustion, anger, stress, or resentment that you interpreted as a sense of foreboding for the day to come. Maybe it was a Tuesday, and you hate Tuesdays because you teach four classes in a row in the afternoon plus after-school extra help. Maybe you were dreading the day to come because you knew an assembly was going to rejigger your entire schedule and you hate those kinds of disruptions.
But what if, by interpreting those internal emotional signals as harbingers of a chaotic day to come, you actually willed into existence the very behavior you were dreading?
“Emotional contagion” is the concept wherein certain emotions can silently “spread” from one person to another, or from one person to a group.
It’s something psychologists call emotional contagion, the idea that we really can and do “catch” emotions from the people around us. A 2008 study, for example, showed that happiness spreads throughout a social network sort of like an infection; when a nearby friend of yours becomes happy, it increases your own chance of happiness by 25 percent, foundJames H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. Mostly, the research has focused on the cheerier, pro-social consequences of emotional contagion, because feeling what the people around us feel seems to increase empathyand understanding, thereby improving communication, according to work by the University of Hawaii’s Elaine Hatfield, considered one of the leaders in this field.
But the contagion effect isn’t always a positive thing, particularly when the emotions you’re catching are negative. Some research has touched on this, too, suggesting that college students whose roommates are depressed are more likely to become depressed themselves, for instance. (New York magazine, April 2015)
Emotional contagion in the workplace has been covered heavily, but rarely has the effect been studied in schools. That’s unfortunate, because the teacher of a class is, for better or worse, more likely than anyone to be able to spread emotional contagion. A teacher commands near constant visual and physical attention, unlike a co-worker or supervisor who may only intermittently be in direct contact with an office worker.
When our students arrive and find us anxious, agitated, angry, stressed, or even depressed, those emotions silently spread. Now, many if not most teachers I know are a little anxious all the time; it seems to come with the territory. I think our low-level anxieties may translate to low-level anxiety for our students, and that’s not good, but it also won’t sabotage your class entirely.
But what about those days when your own negative emotions are firing fast and furious? Because the intensity of the contagion is equal to the intensity of the source, your students may then mirror your frustration, anger, and anxiety. These “big” and powerful emotions are processed by the right side of the brain, and when the right side of the brain is having an “all hands on deck” moment, the left side (tasked with logic and reasoning) is essentially out of commission. In short, students’ ability to self-regulate goes out the window, and that’s when we start to see the maladaptive behaviors we so dreaded on the way in to school that morning.
Now, let’s be real–emotional contagion is not responsible for all transgressive behaviors. Student behavior is a complex cocktail. But the more attuned we become to our own emotions, the more able we’ll become to take a step back and recognize when our own negative thoughts and feelings are driving the negativity in the classroom.
Understanding the concept is a crucial first step, and will take you a long way. Catching yourself before you respond angrily to a student and recognizing the need to calm and redirect your own emotions can help you avoid a messy blowup.
But how do you actually combat this? Teaching is an incredibly stressful, anxiety-inducing, emotionally draining, and unpredictable endeavor. We’d all love to be 20 percent happier at work, especially if we knew that those positive emotions could be “contagious” to our class, resulting in better behavior.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do have some suggestions for reducing our own anxiety in the hopes that our own more positive state can “spread” and lift student behavior. More on that in my next post.