Book Review: Permission to Feel M. Brackett, Ph.D.

It is a happy coincidence that I read this book Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett as I was also researching student agency. Emotions and agency are inextricably link through the cognitive processes, such that:

“The three most important aspects of learning – attention, focus, and memory – are all controlled by our emotions, not by cognition. Immordino-Yand’s research shows that wen student feel deeply engaged and connected in the learning process, and when what they learn is relevant and meaningful to their own lives, there is activation in the same brain systems that keep us alive”~Permission to Feel, M. Brackett, Ph.D. (pg. 195)

Agency is about student engagement. There are three key conceptions of agency: (1) Existential agency – that we have free will and have the choice to act to exert influence on our environments
(2) Pragmatic agency – being able to act outside of habits and routines as responses to challenges, changes and opportunities
(3) Identity agency – our commitment to our social identity across different experiences
(4) Life-course agency – these are the actions that we take towards desired future outcomes. (The Influence of Teaching, Oct. 2015)

It is clear that agency and emotions are connected, and that this connection is not understood, not leveraged, and not integrated into education – all to the detriment of ourselves, our colleagues and our students.

“Are emotions relevant to agency? Emotions can affect the cognitive bandwidth for expressing agency and the strength of the urge to do so.” (The Influence of Teaching, Oct. 2015)

You would be interested in reading this book if you…
(1) Wanted to improve your understanding of Social-Emotional Learning
(2) Wanted strategies and examples to support emotional learning (and thus leaning in general!) in your students, yourself, and your school
(3) Really want to put emotional learning at the heart of what you do, both personally and professionally.

This book aligns with the recent reading that I’ve done in a couple of ways:
(1) Everything is F*cked highlighted that world runs on emotions. We have two types of brains: the thinking and the feeling brain. Marc Brackett’s book helps to uncover how the feeling brain works with and against the thinking brain. It also gives the power back to the students and faculty in managing emotions in order to learn

(2) Range highlighted that the world is full of ‘wicked problems. These problems and challenge evoke and provoke emotional responses. For example, with change comes ambiguity, and with ambiguity comes emotions, be it excitement, fear or a mix of emotions. Being, what Marc Brackett calls, an “emotional scientist” allows us to navigate these complexities and ambiguity with more stability, awareness and success.

(3) The Infinite Game highlighted that playing the Infinite Game requires us to care and be concerned for others, both now and in the future. To care for someone, to have concern for people we don’t know, requires ’emotional labour’. Need I say more?


Brackett introduces a very important yet simple tool: R.U.L.E.R.

Using this tool alongside the Mood Meter – there is also an app for that! – allows us to better understand how we are showing up in life. I really like this tool, and would highlight the “L – label” part. In this section of the book, he uses research to show that language (or lack of it) is vital in our emotional understandings. Words and having the ability to find the right ones to label our emotions is vital, and not just tell people what we are feeling, but to tell OURSELVES what we are feeling. “…affective labeling is linked to lower activation of the amygdala, the brain region that’s activated when we feel negative emotions, and higher activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC), which supports emotion regulation. In fact, having a robust emotional vocabulary was shown to be correlated with a more positive outlook:

“Subjects who were low in granularity – called [word] clumpers – were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g. angry, worried, frustrated). When the [word-clumpers were compared with the high granularity of emotional language], she reported, granular individuals were less likely to freak out or abuse alcohol when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences.” (Brackett, pg. 110)

Don’t we want that for ourselves, our students?

How might we build this vocabulary? We use the Mood Meter. It is a quadrant that is accessible to most ages. I am using it with my own kids starting tonight! Or access the app through the link above. Practice using these words in ‘the moment’ and outside of the moment – what might that character in the book/movie/game be feeling?

When it comes to expressing emotions, how might we make the time and space for this to happen. I feel that many of the schools I know and work with, and indeed the school I work in, have great spaces, brave spaces, for students to express agency and emotions. However, it was jarring to read this from a student in a school in the US:

“One student told me (the author), ‘My school is like a prison. Our school rules dictate how we should feel, so why would I bother expressing how I really feel?” (Brackett, pg. 125)

What indirect and unconscious messages are we signalling to students about what emotions are expected, what emotions are welcome in our spaces, and what emotions are we really prepared to deal with – without passing them off to our reliable and trusting (and highly skilled) guidance workers? These are great questions to reflect upon in our work as educators.


How does this connect to student agency? The report “The Influence of Teaching: Beyond Standardized Test Scores:  Engagement, Mindsets and Agency” by Ferguson, et. al., out of Harvard University, October 2015 sheds some incredibly helpful insights.

They highlight factors/actions that boost agency and dampen agency. They explore how these different factors/actions interact and counter one-another. It is not a simple report nor does it provide a step-by-step approach to increase agency. Rather, what it does do, is highlight the art and science of being an educator.

Parents and teachers help to inspire, enable and focus both a sense of agency and expression of agency by the opportunities, instruction and guidance they provide. (Ferguson, et. al., 14)

At the heart of the research is the sequence of classroom engagement in building agency. “Of course, real life is more complex; individual students may experience backsliding and differential rates of progress compared to their peers. Still, the sequence is an important conceptual element…” (Ferguson, et. al., pg. 49)

The first goal is called “Emotional Engagement” – this is the foundation that all other goals are built upon. Without this, the classroom and many of the factors/actions therein, are dampening agency directly and indirectly. Trust vs. Mistrust is how it is framed, and focusses on “the need fo feel securely connected to the social surround and the need to experience oneself as worthy and capable of love and respect.” (Ferguson, et. al., 49). This is fraught with emotional labour, emotional communication – how might we support educators to build trust?

In other words, whether students express agency by actually applying learning and problem-solving strategies, depends upon efficacy beliefs, not simply on the desire to learn…” (Ferguson, et. al., 32).

It is all over this report, that the emotional wellbeing of students IS THE LEARNING. So when we take this report with the work of “Permission to Feel”, we know that we can and should direct attention to being “emotional scientists”, and to take time to ask and answer Marc Brackett’s big question: “How are you feeling?”

One thought on “Book Review: Permission to Feel M. Brackett, Ph.D.

  1. @gnichols, thank you for this! And yet another essential resource from your rapidly growing library. You are prolific my friend! My bias is towards experience – creating clear context for and emotional connection to the learning. However, I always worry that I do not direct nearly enough care and attention to the individual experience and emotional wellbeing of a student. I worry that teaching can sometimes be too strongly founded on “insistence” as opposed to say “acknowledgement” or “engagement” (and it surely doesn’t count as teaching if the students haven’t learned it!). I look forward to the read, and to learning more about the ways in which you foster emotional intelligence at your school.

    Hey, I just downloaded the Mood Meter and made my first mood recording particular to this exact task! No regulation required in this moment, but I look forward to tracking my overall engagement and its effectiveness. Are all of your students using this app? Awesome.

Leave a Reply to Graham Vogt Cancel reply