Full Body Feelings: A Movement Activity to Support Emotional Intelligence In a Masked Classroom

The BYU ARTS Partnership promotes the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of the arts to impact student learning, well-being, and relationships in the classroom. We honor the work of certified/licensed arts therapists and do not promote that educators act as therapists.

The following article was written by Ariel Hortin, a dance educator and mom of three from Vineyard, Utah. She is currently studying to become a Movement/Dance Therapist and Clinical Mental Health Counselor at Lesley University and is an adjunct professor in the BYU Dance Department. Ariel strives to be a catalyst for joy and facilitator for change through the power of dance.

My children recently finished their first week back at school. Their spirits seemed high despite all the new changes and precautions, which was a relief to me as a mom. Finding a quiet moment, I asked them how their experience at school had been with the new policies and required masks. My third grader began by saying that school had still been fun and the masks weren’t too bad. My first grader piped in eagerly, “Yeah, it’s been fine. . . I’ve only cried once.” 

Wait, what!? 

It went from everything was “fine” to “I cried.” My heart suddenly broke, knowing that she had cried during her first week: she had been in a group of students doing an activity and had tried to get their attention to tell them something important. In the noise of everything going on, no one had heard the muffled sound of her small voice, shouting inside her mask. She hid her frustrated tears behind her mask while everyone went on with the activity.

Inhibited communication is a primary COVID consequence that educators face with  young students in school. Keeping everyone safe reduces the ability to hear voices and also makes reading facial expressions and picking up on social cues extremely difficult. Younger students are just learning to read their classmates’ emotions and practice empathetic responses. Some view these communication roadblocks as a tragic downside of our current social climate, but I see these challenges as a great opportunity. It just so happens that dance/movement is a perfect answer to this dilemma.

In dance and movement therapy, we learn that every placement of the body and movement expresses something. Even when we cannot express something clearly with our words, we are showing it to some degree with our bodies. Our bodies, completely outside of our facial expressions, can express happiness, sadness, excitement, boredom, pain, and anger. Using movement and body awareness, we can teach our students tools of using and noticing physical cues to express how they are feeling and also encourage them to notice those cues in others. As teachers, we can know our students in a more personal way as we learn how they move and express themselves in unique ways. We can also find other ways of validating our students each day when we aren’t able to offer them personal, praising smiles. Try the following activity with your students to start teaching about emotional awareness through body movement.

Full Body Feelings 
This activity can be done with the children at their desks, preferably with their masks on. Materials needed: whiteboard, marker

  1. Demonstration: Begin by asking the students to play a game called Guess How I Am Feeling! The teacher makes an expression beneath their mask. The class guesses how they are feeling. List each emotion they guess on the board, so you have an example list to work from throughout the activity. Try a few different emotions.
  1. Discuss: Ask the students how they could tell you were angry, sad, or happy even though they could not see much of your face. Discuss one of your demonstrated emotions and how you showed that emotion in other parts of your body. Ask students to notice body language: are muscles clenching, eyebrows raising, shoulders drooping, or feet wiggling?
  1. Explore: Invite students to close their eyes. Describe a brief imaginary scenario that leads to one of the emotions on the board. “Imagine that your parents just woke you up this morning and announced you were going to Disneyland today…” “Imagine if I said that we were going to cancel recess and do math tests for the rest of the day…” As they react, encourage them to notice what is happening in their bodies. Keeping their eyes closed will help them be more aware of their internal reactions, so the more detail you can add into the imaginary stories, the more responsive they may be.
  1. Challenge: With eyes open, encourage students to try and show certain emotions in isolated parts of their bodies. Ask these questions: What does it feel like to have anger in your feet? What does it feel like to have happiness in your back and chest? What does it feel like to have boredom in your fingers? Notice we are asking “What does it FEEL like?” not “What does it LOOK like?” This word choice supports the students’ processing of their own internal emotions and helps them notice how these internal sensations connect with their physical bodies.
  1. Checking for Understanding: Allow students to play the game Guess How I Am Feeling! Let a student secretly choose an emotion from the list on the board and demonstrate it for the class with their whole body. See if the class can guess what is being shown. Take turns with other students if time allows. Finish with a discussion on how being aware of emotions and physical expression can benefit the class, especially during times when mask wearing is required for safety. Let class members take the lead during the discussion. Teachers, some ways you can implement this practice in your classroom follow: 
    • “Emily, I can see you are having a hard time. If you can’t tell me how you are feeling right now, can you show me with your hand?”
    • “Welcome, class! Show me with your bodies how you are feeling this morning.”

*Please be aware that using movement to show and share emotion can be a very vulnerable process for some students. Starting the activity as a playful game can help break the ice. However, if the movement becomes triggering for a student, please give them the option of observing instead. Those situations can and should be addressed with family and school support staff outside of this time and activity.

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