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As a begin to ECSEL educator, I often find that the most teachable moments are not outlined in a science lesson or correcting a child’s pencil grasp, or even a Venn Diagram activity, but in identifying, understanding, and managing the emotions that our everyday experiences bring to the forefront.
When developing our monthly curriculum, my co-teacher and I will ponder over where we can weave ECSEL in naturally - a science experiment where the outcome might be unexpected, surprising or disappointing, an acting activity where children can work on expressing different emotions or solve a problem as the characters they are portraying, or a class-wide discussion about the many emotions felt by the characters in a story - all wonderful and key to a successful begin to ECSEL classroom experience, but our work doesn’t end there. In fact, it is just the beginning.
Emotions happen every day and at any moment and as we know well, can disrupt learning. This makes it all the more important for us to know how to work in these moments and turn them into opportunities. While it is important for children to learn about emotions through curriculum activities, my most important job as a begin to ECSEL educator exists when the children I teach need me the most: when they are fed up or frustrated or have simply had enough; human emotions that, let’s be honest, we all feel at one point or another. It is during those times that our responses to the heightened emotions of our students make a difference.
Emotions are what bind us all together. They are our universal first language and are the most innately human thing about us all. Emotions are heightened for children who do not yet have the tools and skillset to self-regulate, understand and manage their emotions, and persist in the face of challenge. Think about the number of times you feel frustrated throughout the day. Your morning commute is taking longer than it usually does. Your biggest project is due this week and you feel blocked for inspiration. Your Zoom isn’t connecting on time for your 10AM meeting. Your back is sore from sitting at the same desk in the same room over and over again. In these instances, we as adults know how to take a step back, take a deep breath, and move on. But for children, moments like these can be a minefield that derails the day and disrupts learning.
Imagine: you have instructed your Pre-K students to work on an activity where they will create self-portraits using mirrors as inspiration. Once they have finished creating their self-portrait, you tell them that they will be writing about something that makes them unique in the background of their portrait (a word you had taught them about during that morning’s circle discussion). On the table in front of them they have their piece of paper, their mirrors, their pencils, collage materials, watercolors, and more. Now, for us adults, this activity seems fun… a stress-reliever even. However, for young children, this activity may bring up a slew of emotions. One child may feel worried about the array of materials in front of them and where to start. Another might get to work right away, immediately dislike what they’ve produced and want to start over. Other children might rush through their portraits and say the dreaded, “I’m done!” no more than five minutes into the start of the activity. Another child might finish and feel proud of the work he has done, while one more might feel incredibly frustrated, crumple up her piece of paper and throw it on the ground, unwilling to carry on.
Each of these different displays of emotion are teachable moments where your guidance, modeling, support, and responses come into play. What are some ways to approach and handle these opportunities?
For the child who feels worried about where to start - “I see that you have so many materials in front of you but haven’t chosen what you want to use. What are you feeling about this activity? Would you like to talk about your idea?”
For the child who dislikes their work and wants to start over - “I understand. Sometimes I get disappointed with the work that I create but instead of starting over, I brainstorm ways that I can add or change what I’ve created to make it something I’m proud of. Let’s brainstorm together.”
For the children who rush through the activity - “That was fast! Can you show me what you’ve worked on? Tell me about it; I’m sure your ideas are exciting.”
For the child who feels proud of the work they’ve done - “I can tell you are so proud of what you have created. What about your portrait makes you feel that way?”
And for the child who crumples their paper and throws it on the ground - “I noticed that you threw your paper on the ground. What are you feeling? I understand that sometimes activities can be frustrating. When I feel frustrated, I take a deep breath and like to talk to someone else about my ideas, come up with a plan, and try again. Let’s do that together.”
It is because of these many moments and the opportunities that arise from them that I am a begin to ECSEL educator. I know that it is in these moments that I make a difference in the lives of the children I teach. By focusing on ECSEL in everyday classroom experiences, my students learn that they can regulate their emotions. They can take a deep breath to calm their bodies and try again. They can appropriately express and discuss their emotions. They have the tools they need to understand, manage, and regulate. They can solve problems, compromise, and resolve conflicts. And most importantly, they can be resilient and they can persist in the face of challenge and frustration.
At Housman Institute, we believe our role is to nurture the social, emotional, and cognitive well-being of all students and educators without bias. It is critical that every child feel recognized and validated from their earliest days—to understand that their voice matters, regardless of background or experience and is being heard. We listen to, respect and support the needs of our educators as we recognize their critical role in a child's emotional growth and development. Together we need to begin the important work to help all our children and educators, as we move toward a more equitable environment for early learning, setting the stage for the building blocks of empathy and conflict resolution, and a more equitable future for us all. To learn more about how our program works to address equity in early childhood school communities... visit here.