OpinionTeacher's DeskNewsEducation

Adam Voigt: How we signal negative feelings in students

I’m writing this article after a full day on the road.

What I noticed as I drove my own car to the airport, caught two flights and then drove a hire car through country NSW to visit one of our Real Schools’ partner schools is how many signs and signals we’re bombarded with these days.

Detours and reduced speed limits for roadworks seem to be particularly good at getting under my skin. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that slowing down for 90 seconds or so is somehow going to have a significant impact on the success of my day. I’ll get better at that. Deep down, the reason I don’t like these signals is that they compel an action in me that’s undesirable – slowing down. Yet, there are also other signals in our travels designed to have us choose actions that are far more desirable… at least they seem to be. I’m talking about advertising.

Visually, I’m bombarded with images of perfectly made burgers, families enjoying tropical holidays and apparent ways to halve my energy bill. And my sight isn’t the only sense under siege. As I drove, I heard repeated messages compelling me to win a fortune by gambling on sport with a new app, to take up a career as a barrister and today’s repetitive winner; to take a trip to a, rather obviously named, shop called SexyLand! You see, that’s what signals do.

They compel action and that action can be of any consequence – positive, negative, neutral, disappointing or even surprisingly rewarding. I’m not sure that would be the case with SexyLand! And yet, our students seem so oblivious to the signals that are inherent in our negative feelings. Every feeling we can experience has evolved within us for a very specific reason.

Each feeling is there to assist us to either survive (stay on the planet) or socialise (participate successfully in the company of others and to perhaps to procreate in order to preserve the species). But somehow, we’ve encouraged today’s generation to see negative feelings as things to be avoided. They aren’t. Each feeling is a signal and our failure to teach students to have a healthy understanding of that signal leads them to make wildly unhelpful choices when that feeling is experienced. Let’s take a look at just some of the negative feelings that we can experience, what the signal of that feeling is and what an appropriate action might look like:



Appropriate Action


Something that I value has been threatened or compromised.

Protect. Abandon concerns about personal safety.


Something happened that I’d prefer hadn’t.

Control what you can and accept what you can’t.


I am in personal or psychological danger.

Act upon your ‘fight or slight’ mechanism.


Something or someone I love is gone forever.

Console others, be kind to yourself, cry, mourn.


Something is physically wrong with me.

Attend to some first aid, see a doctor, take time to recover.


I’ve done something wrong.

Listen to my conscience, apologise, make amends.

We do our students an awful disservice when our responses to wrong doing or even to negative feelings being experienced by accident don’t result in appropriate actions based on the message in the signal each feeling represents.

Be aware, formal systems based on behavioural consequences and that only emphasis on positive feelings do just that.

The cheat sheet

  1. Train students to have a healthy relationship with negative feelings.
  2. Speak to the appropriate responses when we feel bad.
  3. Treat negative feelings as signals to act.
  4. Collectively discuss ways to make amends when we cause negative feelings.
  5. Avoid systems and responses based on consequences.

AITSL standards for teachers (you addressed them by reading):

4.3 Manage challenging behaviour. But also…

1.2 Understand how students learn.

4.2 Manage classroom activities.

4.4 Maintain student safety

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button
SchoolNews - Australia