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A begin to ECSEL School Story – Part IV: Effectively Communicating Our Own Feelings to Children

Lauren Orf
May 23, 2024

Welcome back to our “begin to ECSEL School Stories” blog series, where we address common challenges that early childhood educators face on their journey to support children's emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Our last two installments focused on how to support children in learning and practicing important social-emotional skills like empathy and inclusion, and how to go beyond redirecting unkind behavior by helping children understand the “why” and practice perspective-taking.

Now it’s time to shift the focus to you: the educators and caregivers. As key adults in children’s lives, your own emotional intelligence and well-being matters, maybe more than you know. In this blog, we will explore why your own emotionality plays such an important role in your work with children, strategies for tapping into emotional awareness and regulation in the heat of the moment, and ways to honestly and effectively communicate what you are feeling developmentally appropriate ways.

Exploring Our Own Emotionality as Educators

We all have our own lived experiences that have shaped how we navigate our emotions and those of others — maybe you shut down when there are too many tasks on your plate, maybe you explode out of anger when you have been pushed to your limit, maybe someone else’s anger makes you anxious or uncomfortable. Or maybe you have a difficult time identifying what you are feeling, so it is easier for you to ignore your emotions entirely.

Educators can start developing emotional intelligence by recognizing their own emotional patterns and triggers

How often do you take notice of your own emotions in the classroom? How do you respond when a child’s actions or behaviors make you feel anxious, frustrated, disappointed, or overwhelmed? Do you notice the children in your classroom mirroring your emotional response and expressing their feelings in similar ways?

Recognizing our emotional patterns and triggers is an important first step towards becoming more emotionally aware, feeling more in control of our emotions, and being our best selves so we can be the best models, teachers, and guides for the children in our care. But for many of us, this is a big step that takes time, patience, and consistency with ourselves.

The Importance of Educators' Own Emotional Intelligence

Children develop within the context of relationships, and they are constantly observing and learning from the actions and reactions of significant adults in their lives, including their teachers and caregivers.

This is why your own emotional well-being is so important. Children pick up on how you respond in emotional situations and look to you for what to do when their own emotions get confusing or too big. When we are able to identify what we are feeling, understand the cause, communicate our feelings to others, and manage them before they bubble over, we become more capable of supporting children in doing the same.

Far too often, when we look for resources about “social-emotional learning” or “emotional intelligence,” almost everything is centered around how to teach children these skills. While this is the end goal, there is always one crucial piece missing: What about the teachers? How can we teach emotional intelligence skills to children if we lack them ourselves?

The begin to ECSEL Training and Mastery Program starts with you: the educator. Through engaging course content, interactive activities, ECSEL language, tools, and techniques, and comprehensive coaching support, we scaffold learning to address your mental health and emotional intelligence first so that you become better able to model, guide, and teach these same skills to children in your care.

Our partnership with our lab schools at Ellis Early Learning has allowed us to work together with their wonderful teachers and leaders as they learn, engage, practice, apply, and implement ECSEL into their own classrooms and lives.

Communicating Our Own Feelings with Children

We understand that even with support and resources, it takes time to learn, tap into, and effectively communicate what we are feeling, especially during stressful or frustrating classroom moments. Let’s explore what this looks like with an example:


It’s 9:35 am in the Pine preschool classroom, and circle time was supposed to begin 5 minutes ago. The transition from playing to sitting on the meeting rug is usually a challenging one — although the children have finished cleaning up, they are having a hard time settling down into their seats on the rug. The lead teacher has given children three reminders to quiet down and find their seats, but only a few children are following her directions. Another teacher is trying to redirect the loudest children, but the behavior persists. Both teachers look visibly frustrated. Begin to ECSEL Coach, Lauren, decides to use this as a teaching moment to help children recognize what their teachers are feeling:

Lauren: “Friends, take a look at your teachers’ faces right now. They have been waiting a long time for you to settle in for circle time. What do you think they are feeling?”

A few children pause to look before responding:

Child A: “Sad?”
Child B: “Angry!”
Child C: “She's ‘fustrated.’”

The lead teacher sighs and shakes her head:

Lead Teacher: “No, I’m not angry, I never get angry with you guys. But it is time to start circle, who’s ready?”


In a situation like this, it is understandable to want to move past feelings of anger, frustration, or discomfort and continue with the day. But, if we aren’t honest about what we are feeling, especially when it is related to children’s behavior, it can be confusing for them.

In this example, the children correctly identified the teacher’s feelings as anger/frustration based on her body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. However, the teacher responded by saying, “No, I’m not angry. I never get angry with you.” While the teacher’s response may have been well-intentioned to prevent children from feeling bad, this statement conflicts with the truth (it’s okay if children’s behavior makes you feel angry!) and can lead to uncertainty when it comes to children’s ability to identify the emotions of others in the future.

This example highlights a great opportunity for learning and growth, both for teachers and children! Let’s explore some strategies for effectively communicating your feelings with children in developmentally appropriate ways.

Strategies for Effectively Communicating Your Feelings to Children

It is important to acknowledge that it is never a child’s job to manage or regulate an adult’s emotions. The following strategies can be used in the heat of the moment when directly connected to a child’s behavior, outside of the classroom during your daily routines, or in calm, regulated moments to practice and build emotional intelligence skills together.

Ground yourself with regulation strategies that work for you.

  • Ground yourself with regulation strategies that work for you. Challenging behaviors can be stressful and even triggering, but when children are dysregulated, our own dysregulation can make things worse. Take time to reflect on what helps you feel better during stressful, overwhelming, or frustrating moments so you are better able to communicate what you are feeling. Below are some ideas to get you started. 
    • In the heat of the moment:
      • Practice deep breathing or guided meditation. This is a great strategy to practice for yourself and even with children during both dysregulated and calm moments.
      • Squeeze a sensory toy (they aren’t just for kiddos!).
      • Change your environment: turn off the lights, play calming music or sounds, open a window.
      • Take space or a break from what is causing you stress. Check in with your co-teachers and make a plan to tap out if you need!
    • In your daily life/routines: 
      • Practice mindful movement like yoga, stretching, or taking a walk.
      • Engage in reflective journaling.
      • Listen to your body. Remember to have a snack or a sip of water when you need it most.
Connect your feelings to a simple and direct cause.
  • Connect your feelings to a simple and direct cause. Identifying what you are feeling and what caused it out loud for children models the connection between cause and effect and helps them better understand their own emotions and those of others. This strategy isn’t limited to prickly feelings either!
    • "I'm feeling frustrated because you are not listening to my words.”
    • "I’m feeling angry because I do not want you to hit my body. I’m going to take some space if you continue hitting me.”
    • "I’m feeling happy because all of my friends are at school today!”
    • "I’m feeling proud because you did such a great job using your words to share what you are feeling.”
Use visual supports like Our Emotions Cards
  • Use visual aids. Using visual supports like Our Emotions Cards or pictures of people expressing different feelings can help you communicate your emotions in ways all children can understand. Younger children (infants, toddlers, transitional preschoolers) can show you rather than tell you what they are feeling by pointing to the pictures, and older children can use this helpful tool to enhance their understanding of how to express emotions effectively in the moment. As a teacher, you can also connect your facial expressions to the ones being portrayed on the cards and identify the feeling out loud.
Practice identifying the emotions of others throughout the day with children.
  • Practice identifying the emotions of others throughout the day with children. Some of the best practice I gave myself when it came to my own emotionality in the classroom was narrating the emotions I noticed around the room during different parts of the day. Not only does this allow us as teachers to pause and check in with what our own bodies and faces may be expressing, but can help children become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of their peers.
    • “I see a big smile on your face! You look so happy this morning.”
    • "Uh oh. When the tower fell over, I noticed you stomp your feet and cross your arms. Are you feeling angry?”
    • “It’s so hard to say goodbye to our families in the morning, and I can see you are feeling so sad. Can we read a book together to help you feel better?”


If this ECSEL story resonated with you or if you are experiencing anything similar in your classroom, we want to hear from you! How do you respond when you feel angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed in the classroom? What strategies work well for you when it comes to communicating your feelings with children? Feel free to comment below!

Stay tuned for the entire series!

Part 1: Dealing with Disappointment

Part 2: Redirecting vs. Understanding Unkind Behaviors

Part 3: Turning Exclusion into Empathy

Part 4: Effectively Communicating Our Own Feelings to Children

Part 5: Navigating Co-Teaching Team Dynamics



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