Putting Emotions Before Academics In Our Primary Classrooms

I was supporting a Kindergarten class earlier this week and within moments of entering the snow-dusted, cootie-filled play area, I received a rundown on the unique behaviours: “Blue snowsuit over there is a little clingy lately.”; “Green snowsuit likes to pretend they’re a snake.” Then, after yelling in the direction of a small rosy-cheeked gentleman, she mentioned, “Don’t get me started on Red snowsuit- he will do anything to get on my nerves.”. Appreciative of the open communication, I sat with the information for a couple minutes and then let it go, as quickly as I excuse my willpower when I see a good sale- my spidey senses told me that this message was just the tip of the iceberg.

So what’s emotion got to do with it?

If you think about it, it’s no surprise that our emotional states can impact:

  • Attention & memory retention
  • Social skills
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Creativity
  • Resilience & grit
  • Leadership skills
  • Self-esteem

These are quite literally the pillars needed for success in our education systems! Therefore, if our students do not have a strong foundation in emotional literacy, they are unable to see the bigger picture or learn the overarching lesson, because during these moments they are physiologically robbed of the ability to think clearly and methodically during the flight, fight, freeze or fawn stress response states. The same goes for us as educators. 

So let’s break down our playground scene.

Grown-up subject

Response: A Kindergarten teacher speaks negatively about, and towards a student.

Cause: A good, kind-hearted, but exhausted educator feels ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of Red snowsuit’s ongoing behaviour. Anxiety and low self-esteem shut down their control centre each time there is an outburst. Subconsciously, they’re likely thinking, “Am I a good enough teacher?”; “Is someone watching and judging me every time I can’t get through to them?”; “Am I even making any impact here?”. In addition, they could even be triggered by the child’s behaviour, because it reminds them of the same actions they were scolded for when they were young.

Mini subject

Response: The student in the red snowsuit kicks the wall and continues to instigate inappropriate outdoor behaviour, such as throwing snow at peers.

Cause: The chap in the red snowsuit was scolded, “Stop!”, “Seriously? Again?”, “Don’t do that!” by supervising adults numerous times during our outdoor exploration, causing feelings of shame, embarrassment, resentment and possibly causing negative memories from home to resurface. As a stress response, his brain is now impervious to logic and inhibits the ability to learn from his mistakes, to make better choices or to think reflectively. Stuck in this dysregulated state, not only will this outdoor time be impacted, but likely the next learning period will, as well. 

In the end, I approached Mr. Snowsuit and said, “Hey, I don’t want you throwing snow because someone could get hurt. But I do want to get to know you because I’ve heard you are a pretty cool dude. Would you like to do pufferfish breaths or firefighter breaths with me to calm down?”.

A child holding a mindful breathing exercise task card

After he melted into a more regulated state, I asked, “If you could be any animal in the world, what animal would you be?”, to which he responded, “A dog! And I’m going to send my dog to heaven after school today.”.

So, not only had this child been dysregulated from a barrage of (well-intended) demands to stop acting out (which may or may not have resulted in public humiliation), he was also denied opportunities for connection that he so desperately needed, in order to try and navigate the confusion of shock and grief related to putting his dog down after school.

I love this quote from psychologist Marc Brackett, who says, “Even a gifted child who doesn’t have the permission to feel, along with the vocabulary to express those feelings and the ability to understand them, won’t be able to manage complicated emotions around friendships and academics, [entirely] limiting his or her potential.” 

So next time you think, “I can’t deal.”, or, “They’re trying to manipulate me and I won’t let them get away with it.”. Stop, Notice the stress response and calm yourself. Observe your own panic and tell yourself, “This is not a reflection of my teaching abilities nor of the child’s capabilities. This child needs me and I, being the brilliant, resourceful educator I am, will find a way to connect before we correct.”. Observe the child’s signals and co-regulate with them. Ask them a silly question, engage in play and see how quickly the underlying triggers surface.

Or better yet, try this hip, seasonal acronym (S.N.O.W): 

Stop and Self-regulate

Notice the signals that indicate triggers (within yourself and the child)

Offer connection (by listening, validating, reminding them they’re not alone)

Work together to decipher the emotion behind the reaction and establish a plan when they’re back to a regulated state 

Remember: Behaviour is just action trying to communicate a need and emotional needs must be nourished in order for our children to socially and academically flourish.

Choose SEL & Be Well,
      Namaste in School

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