When I transitioned from teaching upper elementary for over 20 years to a pre-k classroom, I knew the differences were going to be enormous. I knew I was up for a huge challenge and lots of learning: learning about cognitive development, physical development, what is developmentally appropriate, and so on. And, I also knew that classroom management would look very different. But what I didn’t fully brace myself for was social emotional development at this age and stage.
Our curriculum, that had just been adopted that year, had a social emotional component and, as a pre-k team, we put our eggs in that basket, trusted the system, taught the curriculum, and waited for the social emotional component to come…and we waited…and waited. It was there, but it did not come quick enough for a new teacher, like me at the time, to be able to effectively address such a huge area of growth and learning. I needed tools in my my teaching tool belt, and quick.
Tapping into my teaching peers helped enormously. I’m certain that a day didn’t go by where I ran across the hall desperate for nuggets of wisdom to help me help the children that were placed in my care. Each week, each day, I learned something new about the social emotional development of my pre-kindergartners, what their needs are and strategies to help them grow in this area of development. Below are a few things that I wish I knew then.
Frustrated, confused, embarrassed, disappointed, irritated, uncomfortable, discouraged. These are some pretty big words. And, they are also some pretty big feelings, especially if you are a five year old. Children at this age feel something big and they just react according to that feeling, kind of a fight or flight scenario. They might not understand it. They might not know how to deal with it. And, most challenging, they might not know how to communicate about it, so they just explode: tears, hitting, kicking, running, sobbing, yelling. These are normal reactions.
So, what can we do about it? How do we help our little ones? We cannot assume that children at the age and stage have the vocabulary and language skills to communicate their feelings. It is our job to understand this and help them. When children are experiencing big emotions, we can begin to give them the vocabulary associated with these.
First and foremost, we must be the calm in their storm. Learn to help them regulate by simply keeping your own calm (S. Grant, personal communication, August 22, 2019). Try getting down on your knee so that you are eye level and, in your calm, caring voice, tell your child “You look like you’re frustrated. Would you like a hug?” This validates the child’s feeling, it supplies a label for it and it brings calm to the situation.
Talk about big feelings often, using their name. You can do this by using yourself as an example as children are always watching (Johnson & Etheridge, 2020): “I couldn’t get the knot untied, and that frustrated me so much so I decided to take a break from trying.” This validates your feeling, labels your emotion and it demonstrates a strategy to use when you feel this way.
Read stories that are associated with big feelings. Talk about the characters, problems and solutions. Have conversations with your child about when they experience similar feelings and talk about strategies that they can use to help regulate themselves again. Some stories that I really like to use in my classroom are:
- The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
- The When I’m Feeling books by Trace Moroney
- Sometimes I’m Bombaloo by Rachel Vail
- When I Feel Frustrated by Michael Gordon
- A Little Spot of Anxiety by Diane Alber
- A Little Spot of Sadness by Diane Alber
- Today I’m a Monster by Agnes Green
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Over time, help your child implement the strategies that you have brainstormed together: “I understand that you are frustrated. Do you think you might need to take a break like we talked about?”
“Cultivating a rich vocabulary allows us to pinpoint our emotions accurately, communicate effectively, and identify appropriate regulation strategies” (Tominsky, O’Bryon, Rivers & Shapses, 2017, p. 8). When we teach young children about emotions, we teach emotional intelligence. Growing children who are socially and emotionally competent leads to greater success in school and in life (Bettencourt, Gross, Ho & Perrin, 2018).
Bettencourt, A., Gross, D. Ho, G. & Perrin, N., (2018). The costly consequences of not being socially and behaviorally ready to learn by kindergarten in Baltimore City. Journal of Urban Health, 95(1), 36-50.
Johnson, A., & Etheridge, L. (2020). Module 4: Teaching desirable behavior by example. In ED5433 Child Guidance. [Class lecture slides]. Indianapolis, IN: American College of Education.
Tominey, S. L., O’Bryon, E. C., Rivers, S. E. & Shapses, S. (2017). Teaching emotional intelligence in early childhood. YC Young Children, 72(1), 6-12.