Using Emotions to Influence Change

Emotions drive people. When we are able to navigate them, they become the fuel for our ability to make change.

Thinking back to 1996, my high school graduation, I vividly remember the emotions that were going through my mind. I was excited and full of joy as I marched across that stage. I knew that in a few months, I would be going off to college. At the time, I didn’t anticipate the struggles and challenges I would have. I realized, very quickly, that I missed home, and I didn’t feel as though I fit in. I remember sitting on my bed and sobbing, wishing I could just quit and go home. I was close to throwing in the towel. I didn’t. Four years later, I had a college diploma and I was applying to graduate schools. I was able to manage my emotions to make choices that supported my goals in life. Where did I learn to do that?

Looking forward, in 2005, as a fifth grade teacher, I was challenged everyday by Jeremy. Jeremy was a Hispanic male from a low-income household. His father was in and out of jail and his mother was uninvolved. Jeremy didn’t like school. He never turned in his homework and he was often off task. Other kids didn’t like him due to his bullying tactics, mean mannerisms and his resentment towards life. Today, Jeremy is in jail for participating in a home invasion.

What happened? It saddens me to think about what I could’ve done differently to increase Jeremy’s chances of being successful. At the time, I did everything I thought I was suppose to…I taught him how to read, compute math equations, memorize the location of the fifty states, and various science concepts. Now, none of that really matters. His anger and bitterness ended up determining his life path. How does one harness their emotions so that they are used to make strategic and informative choices in life? When I think about Jeremy, why didn’t he use his anger about his father to fuel his desire to reach his own goals? I never taught him the skills to do this. Was that my job? If so, I didn’t know nor did I know how.

Many researchers would argue that teaching students social and emotional skills is a missing link in our schools. According to Bridgeland, Bruce, M., and Hariharan, (2013), social and emotional learning (SEL) “involves the processes of developing competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making” (p. 1). Studies have shown that SEL can have many positive effects on students including boosting academic performance, increasing student interest in learning, improving student behavior, reducing bullying and improving a school climate.

I think it is really telling that the authors of “Humanizing Research” emphasize the power of emotions.   From a researcher’s standpoint, we need to use our emotions to fuel our ability to inform change. The notion that “feelings circulate and shape our work” (Paris and Winn 2014, p. 10) illustrates the role that feelings play in influencing our actions and decisions. When we are faced with ideas and policies that challenge us, emotions motivate us to see and challenge norms (p.10).

It’s not always easy. When I think about all of the “Jeremys” out there, I want to respond with a sense of urgency to fix this problem. It upsets me and I have often let my feelings of hopelessness stifle my desire to move forward with finding solutions. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yangidentify with these struggles as they shared their experiences with immigration policy. They talked about how they maintained hope and perseverance despite the continuous political challenges that they faced. They shared, “throughout our four years of work we have not paid significant attention to these feelings, yet they persist and continue to shape our work” (Paris and Winn 2014, p. 5). Despite the long battle, they allowed their feelings and emotions to continue to fuel them.   Knowing that our emotions are powerful in influencing our decisions, I am motivated to act upon my convictions. The need for students to be taught social emotional skills is dire and without it, students, like Jeremy, forfeit their chances to live successful, impactful lives.



Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, (2013). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Chicago: Author

Paris, D. & Winn, MT. (Eds.). (2014). Humanizing Research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications



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