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How I Check Student Emotions and Basic Needs

There’s an unspoken rule between teachers at my school. It is echoed through our society. When we pass each other in the hallway, we politely ask

“How are you?”

The truth is folks don’t want an answer, unless that answer positive. Teachers may ask students how they are every day, but instead of genuinely identifying their emotions, students learn to adapt, smile, put on a happy face, say they are “good,” and continue. We know that learning can’t always take place if students’ basic needs aren’t met or if they can not navigate difficult emotions.

I wanted to change that culture, at least, my classroom. This became increasingly difficult when the pandemic hit and my students’ smiling faces turned into black boxes on a screen.


The wheel of emotions is a great tool a friend introduced to me a few years ago. It was created by the late psychologist Robert Plutchik and has been adapted by many over the years. It walks students through the primary emotions, then explores a secondary feeling to get

more specific, then we get to a particular word that describes how they feel. This is a starting point for identifying emotions and creating positive mental health habits. When we recognize how we feel, we can identify ways to help deal with difficult emotions. This ultimately leads to emotional regulation and increases mental health.

In the “before times,” as I like to call them, I had a giant wheel of emotions poster and a small magnet with each student's picture. Students walked in, grabbed their picture, and put it on their feeling word for the day. This was an awesome attendance check, and I knew their emotions before starting class. If they walked into my class with an undesirable emotion, I had the opportunity to check in on them to ensure they had food, sleep, and other basic needs met. That became much more difficult in a virtual environment.

When the pandemic hit, I had to find a way to take this helpful teaching tool virtual. I created a daily

check-in that uses the wheel of emotions and asks students about their basic needs. It is a very mindful and intentional attendance sheet if I choose. It gives me excellent data and still allows students the freedom to be their goofball camera off, microphone off, selves because that's something I don't think I'll be able to change. What I can change is how I connect with students through a daily check-in.

The digital check-in also has a check on students’ basic needs. I felt this was very important when I wasn’t able to see my students’ faces every day. It asks students questions such as

How much sleep did you get last night?

When is the last time you’ve had a meal and not just snacks?

Are you staying hydrated? Etc.

I do this because it gives excellent data on what is going on with students if they struggle in class. It also helps students recognize how caring for their minds and bodies might affect how they feel.

When implemented daily, I start to see students say things like, “I’m tired, and I have a headache; perhaps it’s because I stayed up all nightc video games.” They can build those synapses in their prefrontal cortex to understand how their actions for caring for themselves affect their wellbeing.

Some folks believe educators should not be asking students “medical information.” Some folks are concerned about scenarios where a student doesn’t want others to know how they feel. I can't entirely agree with either of these ideologies.

Checking in with our students’ basic human needs and emotions is not medical information. It is simply caring about other humans and their well-being, especially as public servants. To create a society where students feel comfortable advocating for their basic needs, we have to remove the stigma of talking about our basic needs.

To create a classroom culture where students are comfortable coping with difficult emotions, we must remove the stigma of sharing our emotions. This comes from daily practice. It’s OK if students might not want to share how they feel every day, and I always recommend giving the option to opt-out, but opting out is enough itself is a red flag that the student might have unmet needs.

Why do this? Because it matters.

Here’s what other folks have to say about implementing this daily check-in to their mindful teaching.

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