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!

Find us on Facebook! Look for Pioneers in Early Education and Like our page for inspiration, conversation, and to follow our journey!

The Co-Teaching Relationship

Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

                                                                       – Mark Twain

Teaching and parenting are incredibly enjoyable. They are both also LOADS of work! If the above quote has you reflecting on your own teaching practice or parenting satisfaction then you are not alone. It is human nature to immediately jump into assessing our own well-being and feelings. We were wired that way for survival. In today’s day and age we are afforded many luxuries and ways of life that allow us to focus less on our survival and more on our contributions to this magnificent world that we are part of. In teaching, this means focusing not just on our own practice, but involving others and really participating in a team, such as in co-teaching.

Co-teaching may be a choice for you or something that your school or childcare center has designed. Either way, you are probably initially thinking about how your co-teaching relationship will impact your ability to do your job, your happiness in your career, and your personal goals. It is easy to overlook the significant impact that will be felt by the most important aspect of the classroom – the children themselves. There are good co-teaching relationships and bad co-teaching relationships. Students can learn in both. Some can even thrive. But what if your goal is to teach students about social and emotional well-being? What if this is your most significant goal as you recognize this as an important foundation for learning and lifelong success? Then you better work on your co-teaching relationship!

What does this mean and what does this look like? There is no “exact” formula for a positive co-teaching relationship. However, just like any relationship – family, friends, partners – there are components that are essential to the success of co-teaching relationships. A co-teaching relationship requires work, clear communication, and feeling safe to speak your voice.

Our co-teaching relationship started out a bit rocky. We struggled to find a good flow to our day and our classroom environment was plagued with social and emotional challenges. Through all of our struggles, we took a great deal of time to reflect on every detail of our day and our interactions with each other and the children. We continued to express our values, questions, and ideas.  Suddenly, everything seemed to click! The children intuitively noticed these changes in our relationship. We modeled for them how we could kindly and candidly voice our opinions and show respect for one another from early on in our partnership.  Neither one of us sacrificed our visions. Instead, we worked together towards a beautiful, joint vision. We were in sync.

The partnership became easier but still required us to spend much of our planning time in deep discussions and reflection of how everything was working (or not) in our classroom. One of the most important aspects was that we were always present with the children and each other. First thing in the morning before discussing business we would ask how we were doing, what was our current mood or state of mind, where were we coming from that particular day and to be empathetic towards our own personal situations to ensure that we could balance each other out that day.  We made it our goal to find joy and have fun even on our most challenging days. Many children would comment on our ability to share tasks and they would see how we often offered help to one another. The children heard us each express our own thoughts and find a way to incorporate what was best for everyone in our classroom community. And guess what? The best part was that the children observed that the one thing we did throughout each day was– LAUGH! Evidence that there is some truth to finding enjoyment in your job!

We recognize that everyone has different co-teaching experiences and hope that you will join our conversation as we delve further into this topic! What are some of your best strategies and experiences from a positive example of a co-teaching relationship? Why did it work so well? How did your relationship impact the children under your care? How can your successes in a co-teaching relationship relate to your various collaborations in other areas of your life? How can it relate to your co-parenting relationship? Comment below to join the conversation.