EQ: Expanding the Power of Noticing in a Pandemic

Spring 2021

By Rachel Donnelley Smith and Jodie Jones

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of emotional intelligence, not only in working with students but in maintaining the well-being of educators. Amid unprecedented collective trauma, the skills for connecting with our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences while interpreting the behaviors of others are even more important. A long-used classroom techniquenoticing—has become essential as students and teachers continue learning in ever-changing environments.

The practice of noticing is deeply embedded in our daily work as educators. We notice students’ demeanor as they arrive in classrooms, how quickly they respond to prompts, where their attention is focused, how they are progressing with each academic skill, and how they interact with others. This fine-tuned observation is key to supporting students in their learning. It can also be used as a tool to support our own emotional health as well as that of our students and the school community.

Noticing enables us to connect more deeply with our own thoughts, emotions, and actions. It helps us grow more knowledgeable about evolving strengths and struggles (self-awareness); make choices about how we respond to what we discover (emotional regulation); discover what helps us become deeply connected to others and our work (motivation); consider how to engage others with a desire to understand their ideas, feelings, and needs (empathy); and determine how we want to collaboratively inspire action (social skills).

Developing a practice of noticing to build your emotional intelligence is within reach. Take a moment. Breathe. Notice your feet on the floor. Breathe. Wiggle your toes, and then let them sink into your socks or shoes. Breathe. Settle into your seat. Notice how the chair feels against your legs supporting you. Breathe. Allow your spine to straighten like the bud of a flower opening to the sun. Breathe. Gently roll your shoulders and allow any tension to flow free. Breathe. Allow your physical self to just be. What emotions are you feeling? Breathe. Welcome whatever feelings you are having; all feelings have value. Breathe. Take this moment to identify something that went well today. Breathe. Decide what you need as you move into your next step. Breathe. Take that step.

As you reflect on that experience, perhaps you became aware of ease (or tension) in your body; of emotions that have been hiding out or an accomplishment that you want to celebrate. Embedding a few short moments of noticing throughout our day is a way to understand ourselves, identify what we need, and set the stage for our next action. Whether we are approaching our students, their families, or our colleagues, noticing helps us do so with empathy, curiosity, and intention. A moment of noticing helps us choose actions that support who we want to be in and beyond our schools.

There are profound benefits to explicitly teaching these skills and unleashing the power of this practice in your classrooms and your broader school community. Here are some ways that we have woven this practice of noticing into the life of our school, St. Thomas School in Medina, Washington.

Professional Development for Educators

Educators benefit from learning about and engaging in practices that enhance their own social and emotional well-being. Staff meetings or team meetings provide an existing launching point for practicing noticing skills. Consider carving out five to 10 minutes at the start of standing faculty or grade-level team meetings to provide “primers”—short opportunities to engage in intentional noticing activities that can later be shared with students. This year our primers included pausing and reflecting on one’s personal strengths or an instructional success or challenge; writing a note of appreciation to a colleague; using each of one’s five senses to get grounded and transition from teaching into learning; setting intentions; or practicing self-compassion by noticing and softening critical self-talk.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Lessons

Include planned time to teach students the core principles of social-emotional learning and to notice the use of these skills throughout the school day/week. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework includes five key aspects of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Sharing common language among all educators and students will support the importance of ongoing use of SEL skills.

Class Meetings

Class meetings can provide a recurring structure to support students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. At the start of the school year, class meeting activities can focus on students’ engaging their skills of observation to share and learn about themselves and others. These meetings support friendship-building as well as key executive functioning skills, including emotional regulation, focusing attention, planning, and time management. As the school year progresses, class meetings can evolve to include opportunities to discuss emerging challenges and practice authentic problem-solving. This year, class meetings were instrumental in highlighting the common emotional struggles of learning remotely, navigating technology challenges, and finding ways to connect with friends while being physically distant. Students expressed comfort in knowing that others were having similar feelings; they grew stronger as a community as they demonstrated compassion through helping each other through the tough times and in sharing ideas for self-talk.

Students’ Self-Assessment

Even young students can be encouraged to grow their ability to notice through recurrent opportunities to pause, reflect, and assess. Students may start the day with informal opportunities to pay attention to and name their feelings; to review classroom expectations and to determine what skills they are using effectively; and to set goals for skills they want to grow. Older students may be assigned a three-question survey task to complete at the beginning or end of class or brief weekly surveys to (1) pause, (2) assess their feelings and the tasks to come, and (3) plan for their own needs by identifying a learning or coping skill for that moment. Modeling, and offering practice in intentional noticing with curiosity, reinforces the importance of emotional intelligence and provides students with repeated opportunities to build self- and social awareness and to practice responsible decision-making as they take action to support their learning and their role in the community.

Family/School Collaboration

Ongoing gatherings or discussion groups provide a platform for families to learn together, foster relationships, and deepen the school-to-home collaboration. Using a virtual meeting space provides flexibility for attendance and gives individuals the ability to be seen, heard, and supported in ways that work best for them. With a facilitator, perhaps a school counselor or administrator, this is an ideal venue for discussions focusing on emotional intelligence, both as adults and with children. This year, meeting topics included learning about co-regulation (the responsive relationship between caregivers and children that creates a sense of safety and fosters children’s ability to learn to regulate their own emotions), encouraging flexible thinking, building resilience, developing emotional regulation strategies, and more. Incorporating noticing techniques into these meetings builds the emotional intelligence of the whole community.

These are some of the many ways to build a culture of noticing into your school community with small actions taken consistently. The practice of taking an intentional pause can happen anywhere at any time. Our educators have shared that the primers before meetings have been “positive and inspirational”; they have “totally filled my pot” and been “a great virtual activity I can use with my students too.” In daily community gatherings, students start each morning viewing the same visual of a painted open window and noticing different aspects of the art to establish a common starting point in the day. Upon reflection after a 30-second focused breathing activity, first- through fourth-grade students were able to notice feeling calm, being more attentive and quiet. When completing end-of-week surveys, third-grade students shared appreciation for the opportunity to remind themselves of learning and digital citizenship skills. They were also able to identify the skills they wanted to use more of in the following week. Grade-level gatherings for families have provided a much-needed sense of connectedness and camaraderie in this time of physical distancing among the adult community. Many parents have expressed appreciation for the techniques learned in the gatherings and shared stories of using them within their own family.

When noticing becomes a habit, it becomes a tool that is easier to access in high stress moments. Practice strengthens neurological pathways, and practice makes progress in our learning journey. so practicing noticing, while perhaps strange at first, quickly becomes a habit of thinking. With a strong network of these habits, as individuals and as a community, overall emotional intelligence grows.
Rachel Donnelley Smith

Rachel Donnelley Smith ([email protected]) is the Director of the Elementary Division at St. Thomas School in Medina, WA. She is a former independent school teacher of early childhood through eighth-grade students.

Jodie Jones

Jodie Jones ([email protected]) is a school counselor at St. Thomas School. She is a nationally certified school psychologist and a mental health provider with a private practice in Seattle, WA.