Meeting Students’ Needs for Emotional Support

According to Edutopia- George Lucas Educational Foundation, Only 55 percent of elementary school students (grades three through five), 42 percent of middle school students, and 40 percent of high school students in the United States have an adult at school they can talk to when they feel upset or stressed, according to a survey of more than 200,000 students across 20 different states. At every age, students benefit from a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.

Emotional support seeking is a call for help with regulating one’s emotions. Think about 9-year-old Elena, who asks for a hug to feel less sad after falling down during recess. Or 15-year-old Erik, who emails his teacher about his anxiety before a test. Emotional support seeking is helpful when sources of support are reliable and useful. It provides care, encouragement, reassurance, companionship, and information.

Emotional support seeking can be unhelpful, however, when others are unwilling, unavailable, or not skilled enough to support. Imagine Elena, who does not receive a hug because her teacher is busy managing her class. Or Erik, who does not receive any reply or, worse, receives a response that says, “Just get over it.” As an educator, what can you do when your students seek emotional support? 


Research on emotional support recommends listening to your students without judgment and acknowledging their emotions (“This is tough. It makes total sense that you feel hurt and upset”). By not ignoring (“You’ll feel better tomorrow”), dismissing (“It’s not a big deal”), or criticizing (“You’re overreacting”) students, you validate and normalize their experiences and emotions, which in turn builds empathy and rapport.

Research on empathy shows that telling your students that you know exactly what they are going through frequently backfires. This is because walking a mile in the shoes of another is just not possible, and it shifts the focus from the student to yourself. It’s more helpful to say, “It is hard for me to totally understand what you are going through, but I can see that it’s upsetting you.”

Click here to read the entire Edutopia Article.