Teaching young learners about their emotions is an important part of creating a cohesive classroom. Children need to learn how to effectively express themselves in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, we cannot always assume that good behavior is modeled at home. You may be the first person that has displayed kindness, patience, forgiveness and love to a student. This sad truth is a reality in classrooms today.
Here is the good news. YOU can be the change. You can plant the seed for this young learner to know and understand how they feel and how to work through their emotions. If violence is the only connection they have to anger, you need to show them a better example. If you are new to education, you may think that this is not your job but you will soon learn that educators must care about the WHOLE child. There is no in between. You can't just teach academics. In order for children to learn, they need to feel safe and cared for. A child who is broken, hungry, and/or angry will not listen to a lesson you teach because their world is so much bigger than learning letters and sounds.
How To Teach Young Learners About Their Emotions
Each year, I start school the same way… laying a foundation for a classroom family. Notice I didn't say community, which yes, we are a community, but I rather think of us as a family. To me, families have to work harder than acquaintances. Family shouldn't give up on one another.
Every day I meet my students at the door and tell them good morning by name and hug them. We start our day with me hugging them, hoping they feel safe as soon as they walk in the door. I bend down to get on their level and make eye contact. I tell them that I am glad they are here today. I want them to be excited to be at school.
During the day, I make a point to talk to each child. It blows my mind how many parents do not talk to their children or how many children do not know how to hold a conversation. I ask them questions and give them opportunities to ask me questions. If they ask about my family, I show them pictures. I tell them what I did over the weekend and what my kids are up to. Who cares if they are five? We can still share life. I want them to know what they have to say is important and it matters.
During the first grading period, I read A LOT of character developing books. If there is a book about a feeling, I read it. If there is a book about a life situation, we read it. And guess what? We TALK about it. I've always been told that I have a high tolerance for noise and maybe I do but really, who expects an early childhood class to be silent? Not me.
Here are a few of my FAVORITE books to read. Some are specific to the first few weeks of school while others are great reads anytime.
Each book teaches a specific life skill. One of my favorites is Bombaloo. In this book Katie gets mad and looses her temper. She turns into something she doesn't want to be, Bambaloo. Bambaloo is a little scary but she doesn't have to lose control. She also learns that even when she gets Bambaloo, her mom still loves her.
When talking about feelings, we do a lot of role playing. We not only talk about the polite ways to respond in situations but we PRACTICE them. Everything we do takes practice. Character development is no exception. Model. Model. And model some more. Even as adults, we are still works in progress. I also help them with talking to one another. I statements are powerful!
Here is a typical situation:
Kid 1: Mrs. Radke, what's his name said I was mean.
Me: Did you tell him how that makes you feel? (motion for what's his name, ha)
Me: Tell him how you feel.
Kid 1: I do not like it when you call me mean. It hurts my feelings.
Kid 2: (often silent)
Me: To kid 2, maybe you should apologize. An apology starts with “I'm sorry…”
Kid 2: I'm sorry for calling you mean.
Kid 1: I accept your apology. Please do not do it again.
Me: I ask them to shake hands or hug to solidify their friendship deal.
Work? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. BUT, if you teach them these steps, they will eventually learn to do them on their own. If they can learn to work out situations with words and put a name to their emotion, they are less likely to allow that to explode into a physical expression.
I also allow my students to bring pictures of their family to school and we tape them to the back of their cubbies. Again, I want to provide them a safe place and sometimes when they are sad, it helps to go over and blow a kiss to mom.
I'm a firm believer in creating resource charts with your students too. You could print out cute clipart about feelings and emotions, but how cool would it be if you took pictures of your own students displaying the faces of each emotion and made a chart of it?! Children buy in to what they feel ownership over. If you want them to value a resource, let them be a pivotal part in creating it.
We need to remember that some children lack self-control because they truly are not capable of stopping to think before reacting. These children may need visual cues or even a plan of escape. That sounds dramatic but just like adults, sometimes kids need to just take a step back to breath. We have stop signs at the end of each hallway in our school. Sometimes I will let a student just walk to the stop sign and back (and yes, I am monitoring) to take a breather. It is also amazing to me what a trip to the water fountain can do. Did you know that you can't cry and take a drink at the same time? When a child is having an emotional break down, the first thing we do is take a trip to the sink to get a paper towel to wipe their face and a nice long drink. It's a miracle worker. Maybe there is holy water coming out of that faucet. Ha!
I also have a buddy (usually some of our awesome office staff) that plays along when my kids need a break. I have a special bucket in my classroom that has items in case there is an emergency. The bucket has a lid and a handle. Sometimes I'll ask a friend to take my bucket to the office and bring back a new one. It's a great way for children with sensory needs to get that release they are looking for and it also provides a moment of peace and quiet for them to breath. They feel a sense of accomplishment when my partner in crime and I both say thank you for being so helpful because we really needed a new bucket. Everyone wants to feel like they have done something good, made someone proud and accomplished something. Children work harder for compliments then with criticism. Have you ever noticed when you are in the hall and you say, “Boys and girls, voice level zero” and everyone keeps talking? But, if you say, “Jamie is doing a great job at keeping a voice level zero,” everyone immediately gets quiet. Children want to be praised. As much as they try and buck the system, they thrive on structure and accountability.
There are so many things you can do to teach children how to handle situations, just know that it's not one size fits all. You can't just read books or just make a chart. Children need reminders, visual cues, some sort of gross motor activity…all of these things provide connections that place these experiences in their memory bank for when they need them later.
Most importantly, love them. Tell them that you love them, you are proud of them, you believe in them even when it's hard to do. There are days when some children may push you over the edge. They are out of control and don't know why. Model the reaction you want them to have and the love you want them to learn to show. Take your own advice and walk to the stop sign to breath. 🙂
Trust me, I know it is not easy but once they love you back, they will love you forever and together you will move mountains, read a million books, write amazing stories, and you have planted the seed for them to be the living example of what great character is to their family.
That's pretty sweet. You can't put a price on that!