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Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence for Feeling Empathy

By Cultures Of Dignity | August 22, 2022

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness encompasses a wide range of social and emotional intelligence skills and practices that students can work towards daily, facilitated by teachers. Self-awareness is recognizing and understanding our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and practicing mindfulness around why we act the way we do. Being self-aware also includes thinking about how we treat others with empathy, and caring about how others perceive us in a healthy way without being self-conscious. Teachers can use a framework of dignity and social and emotional learning to lay the groundwork for students to understand and practice self-awareness.

Importance and Types of Self-Awareness

Practicing self-awareness enables our students to manage and express their emotions, feel empathy towards others, and cope with stress effectively1,2. For example, a student with high self-awareness may get upset by a comment that their peer made about their appearance but be able to label their feelings and move past them during the school day, avoiding or minimizing a negative emotional reaction or a feeling of insecurity. In essence high self-awareness allows us to understand, appreciate, and control our emotions. Teachers can empower students to control their emotions with strong self-awareness skills.

Self-awareness involves our thoughts in addition to our emotions — also known as meta-cognition. Students who develop strong self-awareness or meta-cognition can critically examine their core beliefs and values. A student with high self-awareness may understand that their negative opinions about a particular school subject came from past struggles with the content. Maybe they didn’t do well on a math assignment in the past and now approach math education with disregard; they may consider this subject invaluable not because of a logical connection but because of emotional value that is associated with past, uncontrolled reactions. Students can reflect inwardly and practice mindfulness, which is an active mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment acknowledging one’s own thoughts and emotions. By practicing mindfulness, students learn to appreciate that one negative experience doesn’t mean all the subject areas of math are useless. When we teach students to learn to appreciate and work with their feelings and emotions, we can show them that normal negative reactions are temporary, and do not in any way predict future performance. In other words, students can revisit the reason why they performed less than adequately, maybe they need to spend more time studying, etc. With this realization, students can shift their mindset and treat this difficult class as a positive opportunity to improve their skills and grades.

Self-awareness also applies to our behaviors and actions. Students who learn to be self-aware of their actions can better identify what they can do to make them feel good about themselves (like eating healthy or exercising). Self-aware students can critically examine their study habits and improve their mental wellbeing. For example, when students appreciate that obtaining a good night’s sleep usually results in better grades (and this can be affected by starting their homework at an earlier time), their mental wellbeing can improve. Students can also reflect on emotional and social dynamics, like how to treat themselves and others with dignity; for example, not blaming (or otherwise reproaching) themselves up for performing poorly on a single test. Teachers who help develop students’ self-awareness can drastically improve their behavior and empower students to take positive actions outwardly1,2,4,5.

Self-awareness about our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can be grouped into and defined as internal self-awareness. External self-awareness is the practice of gathering insights from the world around you about how others perceive you. With external self-awareness, we can become more aware of how our internal thoughts and feelings project outward from us into the world through our actions. External self-awareness is critical to behaving appropriately and respectfully towards others because it allows us to understand that what we do can affect others. Students with external self-awareness understand how to better use their words without hurting other’s feelings and carry themselves in the way that they want to be viewed (i.e, a student wants to be viewed as being calm and collected, and with external self-awareness can align their feelings, thoughts and actions to appear this way to others). Students with a high level of external self-awareness can become more confident and less self-conscious and improve their ability to communicate and pick up on cues in social situations. External self-awareness differs from internal self-awareness in that the end goal is to have others perceive you a certain way but requires many skills that broadly apply to self-awareness like identifying, controlling, and expressing emotions, critical thinking, and treating others with dignity.

A student high in external self-awareness could pause and think about what they will say about their friend’s appearance before saying it out loud, as appearance based comments may not be the most positive, especially to a person who may be self-conscious about their looks. External self-awareness also allows students to practice appropriate behaviors, like speaking calmly and, in turn, with respected adults. As educators, when we talk about and teach self-awareness, we want to include practices and teachable moments for both internal and external self-awareness to empower students to become well-rounded individuals1-5.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Students Increase Self-Awareness?

School is full of teachable moments to encourage self-awareness among students. While there is no one class to improve self-awareness, there are several approaches to improving these skills throughout the day, including everyday academic and social situations and specific lesson plans for teachers to leverage. One simple example is to encourage each student to share which hobbies they like or decide to do. Ask them why they enjoy participating in those activities to promote self-awareness. Another simple action that teachers can take is to frequently share students’ work with the whole class (i.e., pin up their work on the wall) so each student can have something in front of their peers that represents their hard work and dedication. Teachers can also include readings, posters, and activities that feature a diverse range of people on them, so students can find a role model or example that looks like them, reinforcing how they think about themselves. Teachers should strive to create a positive, judgment-free, and open-dialogue environment to encourage students to learn from teachable moments on self-awareness.

To create a safe space for students to work on self-awareness, teachers can create a Culture of Dignity in the classroom, where everyone treats each other as human beings with equal intrinsic worth and value. Dignity fosters self-awareness by letting students know everyone deserves to be loved, happy, and free to reasonably fulfill their wants and desires. Teachers who foster a Culture of Dignity will see their students become more self-aware and treat themselves and others well.

Self-aware students must also be able to express their feelings, desires, and needs clearly. Teachers can help students name their emotions and feelings in words or writing to help them understand what they are feeling. Taking this approach one step further, teachers can guide students to reflect inwardly on these identified emotions and understand why they feel the way they do. One way to help students feel comfortable with being self-aware enough to communicate feelings is to read and write stories about characters that express how they feel when faced with challenging situations or positive experiences. Teachers should also be open to communicating their feelings often in front of their students. By being exposed to these types of stories and model behaviors, we normalize expression as a healthy practice for improving self-awareness.

Self-awareness also allows students to speak up and advocate for themselves. While educators should foster a Culture of Dignity, we must understand when others treat us poorly and do not deserve our respect. Too often, teachers and authority figures demand respect without being earned. By becoming self-aware, students can better realize when they are not being treated how they want to be and can stand up and speak up for themselves. For example, a teacher or parent that consistently tells a student exactly what to do for their homework and hobbies instead of encouraging them to understand why they are doing those things may lose respect from their student/child. Additionally, students can identify when friends are talking to them without respect and know when to pull away from a relationship. By practicing self-awareness, the student/child can open up a dialogue about how to improve their behaviors, rather than just being told what to do by an adult figure.

Self-awareness (both internal and external) can be a beneficial tool for conflict resolution, which can often occur in a school setting. Conflict arises due to misunderstandings, miscommunication, or emotional outbursts, and self-awareness can help students navigate through charged situations and take a step back before escalating arguments any further. A self-aware student can realize that verbal conflict, for instance, a friend creating gossip about them or ignoring them, is better solved with an open and honest dialogue with that person after taking a break from the relationship. Self-awareness is a powerful tool for understanding one’s and others’ roles in conflict and can help resolve disputes.

Strong self-awareness also leads to better decision-making that aligns with the student’s inner thoughts and desires. For example, they can better understand which hobbies and activities they like to do. In addition to spending time doing what they want, students can also make better choices about their academic and personal responsibilities. Self-aware students can develop healthy habits by realizing what works for them and doesn’t. Teachers can help guide students by helping them along the way, assisting them in choosing which assignments and tests to prioritize, and balancing extracurricular activities with their current workload. By practicing decision-making skills, students can improve their self-awareness and become more independent and responsible.

Long-Term Benefits and Need for Self-Awareness

If students learn to become more self-aware early on in life, they can find success in their academic, professional, and personal goals3. Some key benefits for self-aware students include:

  • Setting reasonable expectations about what they want to accomplish
  • Ability to adopt a positive growth mindset
  • Stronger self-regulation skills

Self-awareness lets us think critically about goals we want to achieve and set reasonable expectations around those goals. If we can meet our goals and expectations, we feel good and accomplish what we set out to do (for example, we set a goal to get all our homework in on time for the month, and we hit that goal and feel great about it). On the other hand, when students set reasonable expectations, they are more likely to feel only minor disappointment and stress when they fail to follow through on their intentions. Say a student practices self-reflection and realizes they want to be more timely as a step to improve their grades. The student aims to turn in their homework one day early to hold themselves accountable. If they follow this goal, they create healthy habits that improve their performance.

If they miss the mark due to outside factors, they can use self-awareness to determine whether these expectations were reasonable or not. They can critically ask themselves:

“What kept me from turning in my assignment early?”

The student can then distinguish why they failed to achieve this goal — perhaps due to external factors like a family emergency, or maybe they did not allocate enough time and energy to their homework that week. By using self-awareness, they take a potentially negative situation where they failed their goals and turn it into a positive, growth-centered learning experience!

Pairing this self-awareness with optimism and confidence can lead students to develop a strong growth mindset. A growth mindset empowers students to learn from their mistakes and always strive to improve their skills and abilities. For example, a student with a growth mindset can objectively evaluate how they are strong at written skills but weak with verbal communication. With proper guidance, they can determine these strengths and weaknesses and get the help they need to translate their writing skills to conversations with their peers. In turn, these improved skills increase confidence in group settings where communication is critical, leading others to perceive the student as intelligent and friendly. A growth mindset can apply to academic performance, social skills, interpersonal relationships, athletics, and future career success, so fostering this way of thinking early and often can significantly benefit students1-5.

Self-awareness can also help students practice self-regulation. As they become more aware of their feelings, they can improve their emotional intelligence and take action steps to reverse negative thinking cycles. Poor self (or emotional) regulation leads to negative emotions, which consequently lead, in a notorious feedback loop, to more poor self (or emotional) regulation. A student with poor self-regulation may perform poorly on a test, get into a cycle of stress where they sleep poorly and can’t study well, perform worse on their next test, then lash out at their peers in frustration. Instead of cycling out of control with their emotions and behaviors, a student who practices self-awareness could instead find the positives of performing poorly on a test and use it as an opportunity to grow and learn from their previous studying mistakes. By practicing self-awareness students can remain more positive, students can better practice self-regulation and empower themselves not to be controlled by negative emotions.

How can Teachers Benefit From Self-Awareness

Self-awareness can also help adults and teachers live happier, more fulfilling life.The more we practice, the better we can:

  • Hold ourselves accountable to be good role models to students
  • Set personal and professional goals, as well as plan and carry out the ways to achieve them
  • Make better decisions about how to use our time and balance our time as we desire between teaching and our personal lives
  • Deal with stress and emotionally charged situations in a more calm and measured way, practicing mindfulness as we do so
  • Try to keep an open mind, challenging our ideas of how to teach and live life to keep a positive attitude and a growth mindset

Teachers can always improve their self-awareness skills — they can practice inward reflection by setting aside times of the day to be with their thoughts, they can learn to express their emotions and desires to others better, and they can work on taking criticism and feedback from students and parents with an open mind. By embracing and practicing self-awareness, teachers can become excellent role models for other educators and their students.

How to Learn More — Self-Awareness, Social and Emotional Learning, and Dignity

Our team at Cultures of Dignity is experienced in identifying teachable self-awareness moments and creating lesson plans based on dignity and social and emotional learning. Follow our free newsletter for the latest on these educational topics, and check out our blog for more deep dives on teachable moments for your students. We would love to hear from you about your self-awareness experiences and see how we can work together to achieve your goals!

Works Cited

  1. CASEL. (2008, January). Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Student Benefits: | Education in Crisis and Conflict Network.
  2. CASEL. (2021). What Does the Research Say? CASEL.
  3. Eurich, T. (2018). What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It). 9.
  4. Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  5. Thierry, K. L., Bryant, H. L., Nobles, S. S., & Norris, K. S. (2016). Two-Year Impact of a Mindfulness-Based Program on Preschoolers’ Self-Regulation and Academic Performance. Early Education and Development, 27(6), 805–821.

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