When Little People Have Big Emotions: Helping Young Children Develop Strategies for Self Regulation

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.”

Loris Malaguzzi

The practice of teaching is not an exact science nor does it have a clearly defined path. With no final outcome, the beauty of the teaching journey lies in finding balance between science and art. Finding this balance requires us to be comfortable and confident with not having the answers, especially when working with children. We are incredibly lucky to live in a world filled with curiosity. This curiosity about children’s development and how we can influence it has led to many various developmental theories and philosophies on teaching. As educators, we are inspired by a combination of these theories and ideas. However, our investment in Reggio inspired learning was deeply inspirational to our own pedagogy. A key element to this approach is the perspective of the teacher as a partner in learning. We used this concept to guide many of our discussions, always remembering that we are there to learn from each other and to learn together. In this way, our teaching methods unfolded with respect for each unique individual in the classroom. As an educator, you are like a conductor for a piece of music. It is your role to allow each instrument or each child to be heard, to guide, but not to direct, and therefore to create a beautiful harmony.

On our co-teaching journey, we constantly engaged in reflection and discussion, questioning what we were doing and why. All of our discussions and reflections had one consistent element: improving the sense of community and belonging in the classroom. We agreed that this would support a child’s social and emotional development and be our most important task. But we found that following traditional methods were not sufficient. Over time, our deviant ways of teaching positive social and emotional skills evolved.  We felt it would be useful to other educators and parents to share some of our ideas and generate further discussion. We want to be clear about one thing –we don’t have all the answers. We are each in different roles now, yet we find that using these ideas and continuing to build on our methods have been useful in our positions as parents and educators.

One aspect of our deviance within our social and emotional learning framework is to allow the child to feel big emotions, to be in the discomfort of it, as long as everyone was safe. When students demonstrated feelings of big emotions, we validated their feelings. Traditionally, it is much easier to use methods of redirection for young children and to try to calm them right away. After much reflection and trial and error, we found that the children were more successful by being allowed to release their strong emotion. We introduced different tools to help with self-regulation of big emotions and  taught the children not to be afraid of feeling what can be considered negative emotions (like anger or sadness). Our reasoning behind this was simple. Research shows that if children are not taught coping skills for all types of emotions and are only taught to shy away from them, then they will not be able to handle when these unavoidable intense emotions come up throughout the rest of their lives.

“Regulating emotion refers to the strategies used to manage the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to an emotional experience (Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2000). Emotions can be prevented (test anxiety can be avoided), reduced (frustration toward someone can be lessened), initiated (inspiration can be generated to motivate a group), maintained (tranquility can be preserved to stay relaxed), or enhanced (joy can be increased to excitement when sharing important news) (Brackett et al., 2011). Students who know and use a wide range of emotion regulation strategies are able to meet different goals, such as concentrating on a difficult test and dealing with disappointing news, and managing challenging relationships.”

Transforming Students’ Lives with Social and Emotional Learning, Marc A. Brackett & Susan E. Rivers Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Yale University

Our range of emotions are what makes us human. We cannot feel joy without pain. Our goal was to help the children understand that we all feel these big emotions at some point and that all of our emotions are impermanent phases. The emotion does not define the child or the person. It is separate from who they are and they can identify the emotion that is happening to them for a reason. The emotion is a temporary and passing state that is usually in response to a specific trigger. By validating this emotion, the students could then begin to understand the cause and effect as well. We worked with children to problem solve. Allowing a child to release their emotion might feel a bit uncomfortable for the caregiver initially. This idea inspired us to reflect on our own experiences with emotions and conclude that maybe as adults we are still not comfortable with big emotions. This is alarming considering that humans have the capacity to experience a vast range of big and small emotions at any given moment. These emotions trigger physical responses within our body. Children can often not connect what is happening to their physical body to the triggering big emotion.

“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”

Understanding the Stress Response Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

When the human brain is triggered by a stressful emotion such as fear or anger, the brain goes into ‘fight or flee’ mode. This function of the brain was essential for our survival but makes it challenging for children to learn self-regulation skills. It is essential to allow the individual to release these hormones and provide strategies to calm them down. During a stressful or intense situation, different parts of the brain are working and hormones are flooding the brain. As a result you can not reason with a child until they have calmed down. The part of our brain that controls judgement is not in use while the brain is under stress, even for adults. Our body also feels a physical reaction to the stress as well, such as tense muscles, increased heart-rate, red face, quickened heavy breathing, etc. A child has difficulty navigating their physiological reaction. Self-regulation during these times of stress are a learned behavior that must be taught by the caregiver by providing tools to calm down after a stressful incident.

This physical and emotional moment of anguish is not easy for anyone involved. Each child might need an individual method for how to help them cope. Sometimes, when a child is angry, all they need is a very deep hug.  It might seem odd to hug a child that is angry or that may have acted upon their emotion that will eventually need to be addressed, but it can help them to regulate their emotions. When children are regulated and calm, they are able to access the prefrontal cortex region of their brain. This translates into reasoning, logic, and a much more successful moment for teaching because the child is able to fully engage and participate. As always, other children might need space, or to be offered different strategies.  

In our classroom we found that the most successful strategy that works for all children and adults is to take a deep breath. It may sound simple but this idea, rooted in the concepts of mindfulness, is highly effective. We incorporated a practice of mindfulness and used many of these techniques to aid with our social and emotional learning in our classroom. The act of slowing down, breathing in and out, changes your body’s physical response. It is helpful for both the child and adult to take this deep breath together. I think sometimes we underestimate young children’s ability to use complex tools for their emotional development. The simple act of deep breathing is the perfect starting point for fostering social and emotional intelligence in young children.

The best part about using a mindfulness approach was experiencing it alongside the children. We were not simply instructing them to engage in mindfulness. We were actively participating alongside them, as partners in learning. We would engage in reflective sessions with the children asking how a particular technique worked for them and sharing what worked and didn’t work for us. Our daily mindfulness practice helped us to remain regulated during high-stress times in the classroom (hello, strategies for effective co-teaching!) and informed many of our ideas about social and emotional development in young children. The practice of reflection and partnership that is fostered through Reggio, inspired us to work harder on figuring out how to teach social and emotional skills in a way that reflected our philosophy on the subject.  From this we developed our own Social and Emotional Learning Framework and mindfulness practice in our preschool classroom. Look for upcoming posts regarding further detail on the steps and techniques for early childhood mindfulness practices, Teaching social and emotional intelligence, and how this all can inspire a better co-teaching relationship!

We want to hear from you! Have you used any specific strategies to teach social and emotional intelligence? Have you used mindfulness in the classroom? Do you need more strategies to build your co-teaching relationship? Join the conversation!

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#MarchForOurLives IS Positive Deviance

This weekend students, parents, educators, and community members all over the country stood up for their rights to feel safe in school as part of the #MarchForOurLives movement. In all of the hashtags, videos, speeches, posters, the things that stands out the most is how incredibly inspiring this generation is.

As parents and educators we are all trying to prepare children to become happy, healthy, and engaged contributors to our democratic country. So what does #MarchForOurLives have to do with early education and care?  Parents – here is where you might be surprised. We practice lockdown drills in preschool and child care. That’s right. Your child’s teacher practices hiding in the classroom and keeping your toddler quiet and happy in case the unthinkable happens. Our most innocent citizens are practicing safety drills for events that most adults cannot wrap their minds around.

There are so many things that we can point to as contributing factors to these tragic events and the problems facing schools these days. Mental health, trauma exposure, our nation’s opioid epidemic, social media, and unlimited access to information. But blame solves nothing. Instead we must act. Many of the recent news stories point to gun control and immediate fixes such as increasing school security. These efforts only provide comfort in the short term that we are doing something to keep our children safe. This is much needed. But what about the long term? That’s when mental health or social and emotional development come into play. The ideal time to teach these skills? Early!

Early educators truly understand the importance of teaching social and emotional skills to young children. The future lies in the hands of our current infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Research shows that 90% of the brain is fully developed by age five. (Building the Brain, letsgrowkids.org). Early educators practice a multitude of different teaching philosophies that can all contribute positive influences on children. But one aspect that almost every early educator can agree on is that supporting children to develop their Emotional Intelligence is of one of the most important.

Emotional Intelligence is a phrase used to describe the skill set that includes the ability to identify one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others, manage those emotions appropriately (or self regulate), and use those skills to solve social problems and develop relationships. Research shows that children with high emotional intelligence are more successful in school, have better relationships, and lead happier lives.

– Social and Emotional Framework, Hill-Armell & Lambert

Our society, especially at this point in time, is in dire need to revamp our education system with a spotlight on early childhood education. Early educators know what children need to thrive, yet are not always in situations with the appropriate resources to do so.

#MarchForOurLives is a positive movement that came out of tragic circumstances. The students who came together to #MarchForOurLives are just the beginning of a much needed revolution and a reminder that revolutionary vision starts with our children.   Supporting our future generations to be innovative and courageous individuals, like the students in #MarchForOurLives, starts with high-quality early education. High-quality early education provides children with the appropriate tools to form healthy attachments and relationships and to develop positive social and emotional skills, supporting mental health that can alleviate the issues that lead to violence in schools.

The student-led #MarchForOurLives movement proved that children can engage members of their community to join together for a cause. A recent North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) workshop highlighted Italian early educators’ focus on helping children to become protagonists. Protagonists were defined as the following: 

The sharing of meanings through gestures and language create a community of mind. The sharing of mind is not merely intellectual but involves an emotional dimension; the children experience a joining of feeling, in the sense of transformation felt by the group of members as a sense of wholeness with others, beauty and harmony, and mutual affinity. The individual does not disappear or recede, however…but rather seeks to count and to be heard, to make a difference, and to achieve influence and recognition in the group through dialogue and negotiation and a (at least partial) sharing of interests and goals–what Italians calling becoming a ‘protagonist’.”   

-Excerpt from Carolyn Edward’s Democratic Participation in a Community of Learners: Loris Malaguzzi’s Philosophy of Education as Relationship, (October, 1995)

The students that started #MarchForOurLives are prime examples of how to be  protagonists. We need to continue to encourage this type of thinking and behavior. Educators and parents can collaborate to create nurturing environments for children that supports their development of Emotional Intelligence.

My revolutionary vision begins with partnering parents and teachers to educate our society on the crucial benefit of providing high-quality early childhood education.  It takes a great deal of time, energy, and reflection to be an educator that allows children to become protagonists. It involves trusting each other, taking risks, and discovering new parts of ourselves.  We are at a time in our nation where it will be essential to provide our future generations with the freedom to come up with new ideas that can propel our society forward. Let’s think about preconceptions of ourselves and who we are as teachers and parents. What is our role? Model how to ask questions with confidence, and then be patient, exhibit trust, and enjoy the process of searching for answers together. We need to allow children to dive into complexity, even if it is a bit scary for us as educators and parents.  We are at a time where we might feel the most divided, therefore look for diverse perspectives to broaden your view. #MarchForOurLives illustrates that while we live in tumultuous times, when children feel empowered to use their voices they can take the lead to make the world a better place. Let’s start talking about how educators and families can come together to teach children social and emotional skills that could help to mitigate future violent acts. 

Comment below to join the conversation.
Ways to get involved and learn more….

Check out Let’s Grow Kids and their advocacy movement

Come to a viewing of The Raising of America hosted by The Junior League of Champlain Valley

Learn more about the importance of early education from Zero to Three

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is working on advocacy and professionalizing the field of early educators

Vermont Early Childhood Advocacy Alliance has information at our local state level

Informative podcasts for those that want to be an Early Childhood Leader

For more information on Social and Emotional Learning visit the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL)