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How to Start BIG Conversations on Emotions for Teachers & Parents

It’s a month into the new school year and children are still adjusting to their new classroom, new teachers, and new routines. A child, Chloe, arrives at school already in the midst of a tantrum. Chloe’s mom looks frustrated and is raising her voice. What do you do? 

While this situation is all too common in early childhood classrooms every day, this year has increased everything in size and scope - especially children’s emotions and our own. We may already be a month into the school year, but settling into new routines and finding out what works best for each child and their family can realistically take months to establish. As educators, it can be challenging to manage children’s heightened emotions around saying goodbye to their family members each morning and starting a new routine in a new space with new people, while also navigating parents’ understandable anxiety about leaving their children and their concerns about their children’s social-emotional skills and well-being. There is a lot going on that requires your attention in the classroom, and you need the help of the other important adults in each child’s world - their family. 

Making a connection with families and establishing school-home communication is key for helping children, teachers, and parents stay on the same page and build the bridge between home and school in order to best support all children. So, where do we begin? How do we help parents talk to their children about emotions, and more importantly, how do we help children feel ready to do the same?

All you need to do is start a conversation.

Simply giving context to children’s feelings through intentional conversation starters can relieve a great deal of stress and anxiety, while also modeling helpful communication strategies for parents. Just like any of us, it can be challenging for children to communicate their thoughts and feelings when in the heightened emotional experience. Oftentimes, children may just need a little support in identifying what they are feeling, and parents may need our help with initiating these conversations. 

Conversation starters can be used by both teachers and parents at any time - whether it be the first week of school, months into the school year, during difficult drop-offs or transitions, or at moments when emotions are strong. Knowing how to start these conversations can help ease the transition into school, build trusting relationships between children, teachers, and parents, and help children begin to express how they are feeling and understand the reasons behind their feelings. 

Here are some everyday begin to ECSEL conversation starters and tips that we like to use in our classrooms and share with parents to help children ease into the day, or navigate any part of the day when heightened emotions arise:

  • “I can see you might be feeling a little nervous. That’s okay! Sometimes I feel nervous too. Maybe we can take some big ocean breaths together.” TIP: Try using fun deep breaths that have to do with children’s interests, or even silly ones to help them begin to let go of their big feelings and move on with the day.
  • “Good morning! I can see that you’re feeling a little shy today. Would you like to draw a picture to show me what you’re feeling? We can even give it to Mom/Dad at the end of the day.” TIP: When children aren’t ready to discuss their feelings, guiding them to draw what they are feeling is a great way of initiating a conversation while helping them integrate into the classroom. 
  • “You know, there is a special book on our library shelf about a friend who was also feeling really sad. Do you think we could go find that book and see what helped them feel better?” TIP: Utilize classroom resources like relatable stories about emotions to help further give context to how children are feeling, and to build a routine and expectations that reading stories can be a reliable regulation strategy. 
  • “I understand that you are feeling really sad because you’re missing your Mom. Let’s think of a short activity that you would like to do with Mom when you get home. We can tell her at pick-up.” TIP: Incorporate Mom/Dad into routine plans. Creating a plan for when children get home or for drop-off the following morning can help children anticipate what is going to happen next and get excited about a predictable routine. 

We also use begin to ECSEL tools such as Our Emotions Board and Our Emotions cards, which bring a visual element to enhance conversations and give children agency over their feelings. Here are some ECSEL conversation starters that you can pair with ECSEL tools to help children with their big feelings at any point during the day: 

  • “Good morning! Let’s check in with how you are feeling on Our Emotions Board. Mom/Dad can join, too.” TIP: Regardless of the intensity of children’s emotions, establishing a “feelings check-in” routine using Our Emotions Board is a great way for children (and parents) to begin consistently communicating their feelings with others - big or small, cozy or prickly.
  • “I can see you have a big frown on your face, but on Our Emotions Board you put your picture on ‘happy.’ Would you like to move your picture to better match what you’re feeling?” TIP: Using intentional language around feelings and emotions can help children identify their emotions accurately. Pointing out facial cues and body language that you notice will also validate children’s emotions before they may have the words to communicate how they feel. Changing children’s feelings on Our Emotions Board can also spark a conversation about what caused the change in emotion.
  • “I wonder if we can find what you are feeling in Our Emotions Cards. Would you like to look through them with me?” TIP: Involve family members in this “find my feelings” process too, so children can see that adults like their teachers and Mom/Dad also have feelings!

Finding ways to have consistent and open communication between teachers, children, and their families will begin to create an environment of learning, growth, and validation for everyone involved. Being able to have these important conversations can ensure that children are receiving consistent language and messaging about how to identify, understand, express, and manage their feelings and build the important toolkit that they will carry with them, even after their preschool drop-off days are behind them. 

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