Teaching Practices & Advice from ECSEL Educators

As all early childhood educators and families know, children have a lot of big feelings that oftentimes come with even bigger behaviors. What all early childhood educators and families may not know is how to navigate these challenges. We asked parents, caregivers, and educators like you to share what you are experiencing with children in your classrooms and at home, and reading your responses sent us right back to our own experiences in the classroom. 

We may not know all the answers, but as educators ourselves who have gone through years of ECSEL (Emotional, Cognitive, and Social Early Learning) training centered around helping children build emotional intelligence skills and empathy, we can provide language and strategies that have worked for us.  

In this blog, we will highlight some of the major cornerstones of our training, including ECSEL language and strategies to use with children in the heat of the moment. 

What Is ECSEL Training? 

ECSEL is an acronym for Emotional, Cognitive, and Social Early Learning – a relationship-based approach developed by Dr. Donna Housman over 35 years ago. Educators are trained to improve their own self-awareness, emotional well-being, and emotional intelligence skills in addition to strategies to help children develop these same important skills. ECSEL focuses on using emotional situations as learning opportunities for children.  

When caregivers teach children from birth what we refer to as the building blocks of emotional intelligence – the ability to effectively identify, understand, express, and regulate heightened emotions – they develop increased self-regulation, self-awareness, resilience in the face of frustration, and empathy. Our training allowed us to apply strategies to our interactions with children in the classroom while providing us with opportunities to reflect on our experiences, learn, and grow in order to set children up for lifelong learning, mental health and well-being, and success.  

Learned ECSEL Practices

Let’s get into some of the key practices that we have used every day in the classroom (and in our personal lives) that can also help you! 

Use the heat of the moment as a learning opportunity.

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As stressful as a dysregulated meltdown can be, it can become a learning opportunity once children are calm. First, support children in taking deep breaths and calming their bodies. Then, ask guiding questions to help them reflect on what they were feeling, what caused it, how they expressed this feeling, and what they can do to feel better next time. This process not only validates children’s feelings but deepens their understanding by connecting it to a cause. Next, offer ways to better express these feelings in the future and brainstorm strategies for the next time a similar situation arises again.  

When you close the door to an inappropriate behavior, always open the door to an appropriate one. 

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Behaviors such as hitting, screaming, and throwing can surface when children do not know how to deal with their big feelings. Instinctively, we may just want the behavior to stop in these moments, but without giving children another way to express themselves, emotions will continue to escalate. Instead, clearly let children know why their behavior isn’t okay and provide them with a choice for how to appropriately express their feelings. For example, “Hitting is not okay because it hurts. When you feel angry, you can either tell me with your words or take space to squeeze a pillow. Which would you like to try?”  

Be a model and guide by working to improve your own emotional awareness and self-awareness.

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As educators, parents, and caregivers, we are key socializers for children. Children are emotional detectives, so our actions and reactions matter. They pick up on our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to know what to do next. It is our job to make sure that our tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and words match what we feel so that children can accurately understand these feelings. In doing so, you are also giving children a model of how to appropriately express them! 

Offer choices to give children agency.

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Young children are constantly taking in new information from those around them and learning from that information. A developmentally appropriate part of this learning is saying no, testing limits, and pushing boundaries. While it may feel like children are trying to push us away in these moments, what they are really needing is a sense of control and security. Boundaries are important, but children want to feel empowered. Offering choices is one way to avoid power struggles and support children’s growing independence. 

Explore solutions to challenges children are experiencing through the context of storytelling or play.

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Storybooks are an invaluable resource to help children feel seen and heard in their emotional experiences. When we read with children, we can ask them guiding questions about the characters and give them opportunities to connect back to their own experiences, such as: “Have you ever felt this way before? What happened to make you feel this way? What could the character do to solve this problem? Could we try that in the classroom?”

Next, read about real-life challenges and advice with ECSEL!

Want to learn more about how to become an ECSEL Educator?

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