Assisting Students with Understanding Their Emotions

“How do you make your brain do what it is supposed to do?” asks Rachel Dorsa, a behavioral counselor with Baton Rouge General Medical Center. A classroom full of fourth graders stare back, stumped by the difficult question. “How many of you have ever been angry?” she asks. “Sad? Happy? Why do you think we get those feelings?” “Our brains make us sad,” a little girl responds. Dorsa nods her head in approval as she gets down on one knee in order to be at eye level with the children, a technique her mother, a school teacher, taught her. “It’s your brain telling you something is wrong,” she says. “When a baby cries, it needs something. What did your brain tell you that you need today?” Although her presence is similar to that of a teacher, Dorsa began visiting classes in the library of Audubon Elementary for one reason, to help children understand mental health. She admitted that she has never previously spoken to students who are so young and understood that the experience would challenge her as a counselor. Dorsa expressed that it can be a challenge because children of that age do not understand brain chemistry and emotions; they want everything to be black or white. “I think this is pretty hard,” Dorsa says. “Grown adults with multiple degrees don’t know how the brain works entirely, so having to explain it to such an age that wants facts and right or wrong, yes or no answers is a challenge.” Dorsa stated that she believed that this generation might have an advantage when it comes to understanding emotions. The week prior, the class watched the Pixar movie “Inside Out” that personified the emotions. She made sure to watch the movie again before speaking to the children. “It’s a very easy way for an age group like this that wants those yes or no, right or wrong answers to picture the very complex thing that is going on in our heads,” she says. Dorsa expressed to the children that our brains are telling us something is wrong when we are sad or angry and that it is important to talk about what you are feeling. “I keep it in and explode,” one girl says. “I don’t want people to know about it,” another girl says. Dorsa wasn’t pleased with these answers, though. She strongly believes that talking through personal issues is as important for a child as it is for an adult. “It does worry me,” she says. “A lot of those trust issues and communication issues start here early in development and will only get worse as time moves on. It’s critical they have somebody they can confide in.” She let the children know that all of their friends, family, and loved ones are willing to listen to them if they need it. Our brains are like snow globes, she says. You shake it up and the snowflakes float all around, then settle down.

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Kay is a web guru, blogger, and digital strategist at, your online resource for up-to-date, comprehensive information about the educational and certification requirements for licensed professional counselors. Her favorite hobbies include reading, writing, discovering TV shows that nobody has heard of yet, and hide and seek with her cat.