What Are Emotions?

Emotions are a response to an event–either internal (a memory or thought) or external (a conversation, a conflict with another person, or an upcoming task)—that integrates physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and expressive processes and that may shape our reaction to that event.

A new teacher on his first day in his classroom may feel his heart beat faster and his stomach clench (physiological). He may worry about making a first good impression on students (cognitive), and so decides to tell a joke at the start of class (behavioral). His colleague in the classroom next door notices that the teacher’s facial expression appears tense or anxious and that he is biting his nails (expressive).

Researchers have identified at least six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust, with many variations of each; however, recent research suggests that there are at least 27 distinct emotions that are intimately connected with each other.

On the last day of the school year as she is saying “good-bye” to students, a principal feels nostalgic, sad, elated, and relieved–all at the same time.

We express our emotions through our facial expressions, voice, and touch.

Positive touch signals safety and trust. One study found that when teachers pat students in a friendly and appropriate way, those students were three times as likely to speak up in class. Another study discovered that when librarians patted the hand of a student checking out a book, that student said they liked the library more–and were more likely to return.

Emotions last from several seconds to several hours, or longer, depending on things such as the importance of the event or how long someone thinks about an event.

A teacher who learns that he has to teach a whole new grade at a different school in the district feels both surprise and fear for a brief moment.

A staff member whose dog died feels sad for a few weeks.

Why Are They Important?

Emotions provide information about ourselves and they shape our relationships with others, in groups, and in society, and can be determined by cultural beliefs and norms.

Here are a few examples:


Emotions and Ourselves

Emotions tell us whether we want to approach or avoid a situation.

Should a teacher approach a colleague who is happy about her students doing well in a robotics competition?

Should an assistant principal avoid eating a leftover croissant in the staff room from last week’s staff meeting?

Emotions let us know whether an event is relevant to our lives.

A principal learns that one of his best teachers is moving to another city.

A teacher just learned that the mother of one of her students was diagnosed with cancer.

Emotions help us decide what action to take—but they don’t require us to carry out the action.

A high school teacher learns that two of his students cheated on a final exam. He thinks about failing the students for the semester, but instead discusses with both them and their parents the reasons, impact, and consequences of their actions.


Emotions and Others

Emotions help us understand others’ emotions, beliefs, and intentions.

During a staff meeting discussion on a thorny political issue, staff members express a range of emotions, including anger, curiosity, indifference, joy, or confusion, revealing some of their possible beliefs about the issue.

Emotions can motivate or prevent others’ behavior.

With the basketball team losing at half-time, the basketball coach gives the players an inspiring pep-talk to motivate them to win.

A teacher gives a stern look to two students who are talking during class, making them stop their conversation.


Emotions and Groups

Emotions help define group boundaries.

In history class, a teacher discusses with students how the Nazis used fear and hatred to ostracize and persecute Jewish people.

Emotions motivate us to avoid certain behaviors.

After a long day, a teacher is tempted to leave the grading of her students’ projects for the weekend, but the guilt she feels, knowing that she promised them their results tomorrow, motivates her to complete the grading that evening.


Emotions and Society

Emotions help children learn the norms and values of their culture

A school staff discusses how the methods for managing emotions taught in a social-emotional learning curriculum perpetuate the dominant cultural norms, potentially causing harm to students not from this same culture.

Emotions help shape cultural identity.

Assertiveness, a skill valued in the West, but not necessarily in other parts of the world, is taught in many social-emotional curricula.

Emotions can perpetuate cultural ideologies and power structures.

During a workshop on social-emotional skills, teachers discuss the effects of societal gender stereotypes and beliefs around emotions. For example, women are too emotional, but not allowed to show anger, or the only emotion men are allowed to show is anger.



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“Our feelings are our most genuine path to knowledge.”
–Audre Lorde
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