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What to do when kids feel sad

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Kids can feel sad over the smallest of things that can spin them into deep despair, like not getting the chair they wanted, or misplacing something that they wanted to show their friends. Other times students can be very good at masking real grief over things like the loss of a pet, schoolyard bullying or falling short of adult expectations. At times it can be hard to tell what is really going on for them. Either way, the sadness they feel is real and shouldn’t be minimised by simply telling them to get over it or attempting to cheer them up. Sadness has an important biological and psychological function and giving it the time and space to do its work can be important. Often the trick is simply lowering their immediate level of felt grief to a level of disappointment, so they can shift their energy and focus to the task at hand rather than the sadness trigger. This is what many of the switches in the Switch4Schools app are designed to do.

The underlying mechanism behind many of the switches mapped to the sadness emotion is that of focus shifting - helping people shift their focus from internal to external, from self to others, from present circumstance to a more hopeful future state. However, before you can help someone redirect focus, people first need to feel like they have been heard. For some, simply identifying their emotions to you through the check-in process is enough for them to be ready to reset their mindset, but for others you may need to take a moment to empathise with them. Whether you feel their grief is warranted or not is of little importance. What is important is to show them you also feel sad about the thing that is upsetting them, which is often as simple as showing disappointment over the thing that they are sad about. This may only take a couple of seconds, but it is essential. Once they feel you understand them then you can better redirect their focus.

This redirection process often works best if you ask a question. If they are sad about not getting something they wanted, you may ask them why it was important to them, and if there was something else that we might be able to get or do that would serve the same purpose. Or it could be asking them if they feel better if they were able to get it at a future point. If they are grieving the loss of something important to them, asking them what good memories they have of them, what they (or it) would want them to feel if they were here right now, and what you can do to help them today can be a good start. Asking questions rather than simply pointing out answers or giving advice is more effective for two reasons. It makes people think and reflect which employs their conscious attention rather than their emotional reactivity, and gives you the chance to learn why it is upsetting them so much and therefore you will be better placed to deal with the situation. 

Most people that are upset will need a few minutes to work on dialling down the intensity of emotion, and the switch activities in the Switch4Schools app are purpose built for this. I particularly like the Music or Future Letter activities, but it’s good to try a few and see what best fits the situation.

Once you have redirected their energy away from the object of their sadness, the final thing to do is focus their attention on the task at hand. For many people using ‘we’ or ‘us’ language is a good way of doing this as it implicitly says “you’re not alone”, which can be particularly helpful with sadness. This can be, “Let’s just focus on one of the math tasks and see where we go from there.” or, “Why don’t we join the class now and see how we feel before we go on a break”. 

This process of validating feelings, redirecting energy with a switch to dial down the intensity of the emotion, and then supporting the student to reengage with the class is a recommended approach for dealing with any emotion, but is particularly effective for sadness.

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