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Let's Talk About Feelings

After the first week back to work, I am exhausted! I don’t know about you, but I always have mixed feelings when starting a new school year. On one hand, I am sad to see summer come to an end. On the other hand, I am excited to see my students again. Every year, I feel a little bit nervous coming back to work after a relaxing summer break.

This year, on top of all these feelings, I am also dealing with a cold (*ugh*). It is one of those head-pounding, can’t smell, can’t taste, can’t breathe, constant coughing type of situations. It isn’t pleasant! And frankly, feeling ill really puts a damper on my mood and demeanor.

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about what kind of back-to-school blog post I would write. I planned on sharing tips for how I introduce myself to and keep in touch with parents/caregivers. However, after spending this week in professional development trainings while being sick and irritable, I have decided to dedicate this post to a different, very important topic.

The topic I want to talk about is being able to communicate how we feel both emotionally and physically. While I was sick this week, I started to think about what it might be like for an individual with complex communication needs when he or she feels sick or upset and has no way to tell someone. I thought about how many times I vented to my coworkers about my physical discomfort and limited patience. Having my coworkers’ support and empathy made me feel a little bit more comfortable.

During our training today, I had to ask a coworker for a box of tissues. I had to stop the trainer at one point to ask if I could pull the trash can close to my seat so I could easily throw away said tissues. I also asked for a drink of water. Several times, when I was busy blowing my nose, I had to ask another coworker if I could copy notes that I missed. Because I was able to express myself, I was able to have my needs met easily. I did not have to suffer in silence, hoping that someone would guess that I wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t have to wait for someone to give me a tissue. I was able to advocate for myself and make my day a little bit more tolerable.

All of these situations caused me to think about my students, and all students with complex communication needs, and what they might experience if they were in my shoes. Would they be able to advocate for themselves and ask for what they need? Do they have access to the words they would need to share their experience with the people around them? Would they be able to report to me or another staff member that they weren’t feeling well?

A major concern that many, if not most, parents and caregivers of students with complex communication needs have expressed to me, is whether their child will be able to report if something is wrong. This is such a valid concern which can cause a great deal of stress, especially as parents and caregivers send their child off to school.

I feel that it is my responsibility to be conscious of how my students’ behavior can be affected by their feelings and physical states. I know that when I am sick or tired, I tend to be grumpy, lethargic, impatient, and uninterested in doing things. For a child with communication difficulties, it might be easier to express discomfort with behavior. I know that if a child’s basic needs are not being met and he or she is unhappy or feeling sick, tired, or hurt, all other areas of his or her day will be impacted.

Being able to describe and report feelings and physical states is crucial for communication not only at school, but also at home and in the community. I think it is necessary for me as an SLP to be a good role model to other professionals, by being sensitive to a child’s feelings and physical states without ever dismissing them. I cringe as I wonder how many children have been labeled as “difficult” when in reality, they are just so hungry or uncomfortable that they truly can’t attend to anything else at the moment.

So, how can we get started with this? For an individual who is just starting to learn about describing feelings, I like to start at a very basic, functional level, with the following: hungry, thirsty, hurt, sick, tired, and needing to go to the bathroom.

I like to start by reading my adapted “functional feelings” story that has simple sentences about feelings/physical states and corresponding pictures. I like to read this story with my students on a regular basis to familiarize them with the vocabulary. Depending on the student, I might spend a few sessions on each feeling word in order to provide consistent modeling. Some other activities that lend themselves to these concepts include Howie’s Owie and Hungry Hippos (Linked below). Hunger and thirst can be introduced during snack and mealtime. Bathroom can be added to a visual schedule for access throughout the day. Body parts can be taught both with picture supports as well as with engaging, movement-based activities such as yoga.

When possible, I like to teach these concepts in real-time. For example, if my student is asking for a food or drink, I would model “hungry” or “thirsty.” By introducing the words in context, we are able to help our students establish meaning. So, maybe in addition to asking for a specific food or drink, the child can also start to indicate that he or she is “hungry” or “thirsty.”

Sick and hurt can be difficult to teach in real-time because they are so subjective. I like to teach these words when I am personally not feeling well or when I am injured. So, if I have a cut on my finger, I might use that as an opportunity to model “hurt” or “pain.” I might use it as an opportunity to model asking for a band aid or to go to the nurse. If a child is visibly ill (e.g. if they are vomiting or have a fever), I would model “sick” and encourage the child to communicate to the school nurse that they are sick. If the child is falling asleep, I would model “tired.”

Let’s face it- talking about feelings and physical states is difficult. It is hard for most of us to accurately express how we’re feeling. We don’t typically spend much time trying to tease out what exact emotion we’re feeling when we feel it. For example, how often do we say we're angry when we're actually hurt or embarrassed. Feelings are messy! Just because a person has complex communication needs does not mean that he or she doesn’t experience the same range of emotions as a verbal communicator. Being able to express feelings and physical states builds empathy, relationships, and trust. Just because they are hard to explain and express does not give us permission to exclude feelings and physical states from an individual’s communication system and instruction.

For so many individuals with complex communication needs, feelings and physical states can be slow-triggers that might contribute to challenging behavioral issues. I think that it is so important to keep this in mind as we start a new school year!

Please take a look at the following video to see how I use my simple feelings book (made with Boardmaker and Google images). Also, below you will find links to the games mentioned in this post. Good luck to everyone experiencing those back-to-school jitters!

Check out this video for more information on how I use my "how do I feel" book to introduce or reinforce feelings/physical state concepts:

Toys for teaching feelings:

Howie’s Owie:

Hungry Hippos: