November 20, 2021 8 min read
Teachers of young children know that sometimes the smallest incidents set off massive meltdowns.
Why? Because children aren’t born with the skills to manage their emotions.
They need to be taught how to identify, sort through, and regulate their strong feelings. As a result, there are many benefits of teaching emotional regulation in early childhood.
Emotion regulation is a child’s ability to monitor their own feelings, thoughts, and action in order to identify their emotions and regulate their behavior.
Meltdowns happen in the classroom for several reasons. For example, a student might knock all the toys off a table because they’re angry that other children aren’t playing in the way they prefer. A child might also kick a classmate for cutting in front of them in the line.
Big emotions result in big outbursts because students aren’t equipped to navigate their emotions. Therefore, learning how to manage these big feelings in a safe classroom environment is beneficial to little learners while also helping maintain effective classroom management.
Children often don’t have the words to describe large, uncomfortable feelings. Teaching students how to identify basic emotions slowly builds their vocabulary to express themselves when they become overwhelmed or agitated.
Every teacher has been in a situation where they ask an upset student how they are feeling, and they responded by saying, “I don’t know.” Eventually, a child will have increased their emotional intelligence to the point they can tell the teacher they are feeling frustrated, angry, etc., because they finally have words for the feelings they are experiencing.
Early years learners are just beginning to communicate. Frequently, young children speak in manners that are only properly understood by their caregivers. As a result, they may be hesitant to share with teachers who may not understand what they’re trying to say.
Using circle times and morning meetings to lead activities about feelings can help give standard language that the students can use. They learn that the feelings they experience have names, and their classmates feel them too.
Having standard class language can also help the children feel confident that their peers and teachers will understand when they say they are happy, sad, tired, etc. This will encourage them to communicate with others in the class.
Young children are incredibly egocentric, which is 100% developmentally appropriate. They are the center of their own universes and often pay little attention to how their actions affect others.
A preschooler might not understand why their classmate cries when they get pushed over, but they do understand that they cry when they scrape their own knees. By giving the child an opportunity to connect crying to pain and sadness, they can connect that their classmates also cry when they get hurt.
Understanding the feelings of others is a fundamental building block of empathy. When students can identify the feelings of their peers, they can begin to make responsible decisions that take the emotions of others into account.
Early years students are experiencing school for the first time in their lives. As a result, they are often learning to socialize outside of their family circle for the first time as well.
A room full of four-year-olds can be overwhelming for an only child who spent the first three years of life at home with their parents. Therefore, they can be overstimulated or stressed, which can make communication difficult. A child who cannot express that they are feeling overwhelmed may withdraw and disengage from their peers.
However, if the child learns to put words to their feelings, they can begin to communicate to their classmates that they want to engage in a quieter, calmer activity.
When students have words for their feelings, they can build meaningful connections and bond over similar experiences. For example, if a child understands that they gravitate to cars because playing with cars makes them feel happy, they can form friendships with other children who enjoy playing with cars.
The more students talk about their emotions, the more they are able to navigate their everyday interactions.
For instance, a child may get their hair pulled by a playmate. A child who is in tune with their feelings and has developed regulation skills can tell them that they do not like getting their hair pulled because it hurts. The playmate might not be aware that they were hurting their friend, and hearing them communicate their feelings will help them make a meaningful change to their behavior.
As I’ve mentioned before, a preschool or kindergarten classroom can be loud and overwhelming. This can be quite a stressful environment for shy children or those without siblings.
The stress is exacerbated when the child cannot accurately communicate how they feel or identify why they are overwhelmed. Instead of speaking up, they may retreat and isolate themselves. When they learn to analyze their feelings and the causes for these emotions, they can communicate with those around them and reengage themselves in classroom activities.
This piggybacks off the previous point. A child who feels stressed at school and cannot communicate that to their peers or teachers may also not express themselves to their parents. Often a child who is stressed in the classroom will go home and complain to the family that they just don’t want to go to school. As a result, the parents will quickly grow concerned or worried.
However, when a child can sort through their feelings, they can also begin to manage their stress. Instead of remaining upset for the whole day, they can talk to their classmates or teachers to make adjustments and solve problems. They will begin to have more pleasant experiences at school, which will help to put their caregivers at ease.
Conflict is expected in early years classrooms because little learners are only just beginning to learn how to socialize with each other. These minor conflicts can be due to anything from snatching toys to pushing. Because these situations are uncomfortable and unfamiliar, young children can have difficulties resolving them on their own.
We previously established that learning how to identify and talk about their feelings helps children develop empathy, and empathy is vital when resolving conflicts. When students can express their feelings, they can begin to see things from someone else’s perspective. This leads to compromise and agreements.
For example, two students fighting over a toy can start resolving their conflict by explaining how they are feeling. Child A says they’re upset because they do not want to give up the toy, and Child B says they’re upset because they want a turn with the toy. Child A may realize that they’ve had the toy for a while, and it’s not fair that their classmate hasn’t had a turn yet. They may then agree to give Child B a turn while requesting to have the toy again later.
When students begin to resolve their conflicts, they will most likely require a lot of teacher mediation. However, the children will quickly familiarize themselves with the process and will begin to resolve small conflicts independently.
Slowly, the teacher will see that they’re being called to solve the small problems less and less. If the teacher acknowledges the progress, the students will be motivated to continue resolving conflicts independently.
Children thrive in environments where they understand the structure and schedule. Changes to this structure can cause stress which can then cause outbursts. When children learn to express their feelings, they begin to communicate their frustration and ask for clarification when changes occur.
For example, a young child might feel confused when they walk into the music classroom and see a substitute. They might cry for the entire class period because they are unable to express their confusion. However, if that same child learns to identify their feelings, they start to understand that they’re confused because there is an unfamiliar person in a familiar setting.
When they next see a substitute in the music room again, they may feel more comfortable asking their teacher where Ms. Music is. When their teacher clarifies that they have a sub because Ms. Music is sick, the child understands that the change is temporary and may then be more willing to participate in the lesson.
There are several things that you can do in the classroom to teach your students to regulate their emotions. However, it’s important to remember that consistency is key. Students will only develop these skills if educators make plans and stick to them.
Here are a few ways to help your students.
Students cannot mimic behavior that they have not seen before. It’s not enough to explain things to young children because they often need to see repeated visual examples. The easiest way to accomplish this is through modeling.
Communicate your feelings to your students throughout the day. Be sure to include a wide variety of emotions, including the negative.
A teacher’s natural instinct is to jump right into action when a student is upset or crying. However, rushing to their aid doesn’t allow the child to process their feelings or react on own their own.
Take note of the situation and assess the severity. It should go without saying, but don’t delay if there is an injury. If the situation is a minor conflict, give the child a minute or two to feel their emotions and sort through their thoughts. Give them a chance to resolve things independently, and jump in if you see they need a little assistance.
As mentioned previously, building a shared classroom vocabulary is essential to streamlining communication and building confidence. If students know that there are set words for different feelings, they will be more inclined to use them. This is especially helpful for students who are English learners.
As teachers, it can sometimes be difficult to sit back and let children slowly resolve conflicts when the answers seem obvious in our adult brains. Providing quick solutions robs children of the ability to think critically and solve problems.
Letting children sort through their feelings can lead to some creative solutions.
Again, this goes against our instincts because we feel our job as educators is to protect our students from stress. However, stress is common and natural. Classrooms are safe spaces for students to experience anxiety and learn to navigate it.
A student who is stressed by a conflict with their playmate can take their time in the classroom to remove themselves from the situation and examine their emotions. Over time, they will be able to put words to their feelings which will help them communicate with their playmate to find solutions and compromises.
By establishing vocabularies and routines related to feelings, your students will improve their emotional intelligence and learn to process their emotions in ways that limit outbursts and meltdowns. As a result, it’s also a powerful tool for classroom management.
Investing time into teaching emotional regulation is well worth it.