As children file back into America’s classrooms, they bring with them “backpacks full of emotion,” says Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of “The Happy Kid Handbook.” And they are counting on adults to “work together to help them sort it out.”
During children’s early years, teachers and caregivers have a prime opportunity to focus on emotional skills that support students’ academic achievement, wellness and sense of connectedness. Some of the most effective strategies are also the simplest – which is good, says Hurley, because “we are all running on empty.”
Check-In with Emotions
Many early childhood and elementary classrooms start the day with a date and weather check. This is a good place to also include a “feelings check,” says Hurley. For example, try creating pockets that are labeled with different emotions and asking kids to put a popsicle stick in the pocket that matches their mood. It’s a quick temperature check that allows the teacher to scan the class and see who might need a little extra attention. Families can also check in at dinner or before bed, taking turns sharing two or three words to describe their day.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
When kids’ emotions are running hot – if they are bringing anger or anxiety into the classroom – there are several strategies teachers can use to help them cool down. And while there is no one-size-fits-all method, in Hurley’s experience, “deep breathing is the single best thing you can do to calm down your central nervous system.”
That said, simply telling kids to “take a deep breath” is rarely effective. Hurley recommends using a memorable, guided strategy such as square breathing, pretending to blow out birthday candles or pretending to blow up a balloon.
The key is practice and adult support, says Hurley. “You have to practice this when they’re calm. When kids are hot, it’s not the time to start saying, ‘Do deep breathing.’ The brain will say, ‘That’ll never work. This is a five-alarm fire – I can’t just breathe my way through it!’ But when we take those deep breaths, the brain starts to say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, it’s not as bad as I thought. I can handle this.’”
When we practice deep breathing regularly, it becomes a habit. Habitual strategies are key because when we are faced with a stressor, we instinctively enter “fight or flight mode.” And then it is harder for our brains to access coping strategies. Hurley urges parents and teachers to start the day with a breathing exercise, take a mid-day breathing break and do it again before bed. “That way our brain internalizes it and says, ‘Oh, hey, you know what? Breathing calms me down. This is something that helps me feel good.’”
Maintain a Balanced Wellness Diet
Our brains tend to overreact to perceived threats and stressors, says Hurley, sending up false alarms that say to us, “This is bad. Nothing’s working. Everything’s horrible. You’re in trouble.’”
And this internal alarm system is extra-sensitive when basic needs are not being met including sleep, exercise, hydration and nutrition. Hurley emphasizes the following basics with parents and teachers: kids need 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night; they need to drink water; they need to move their bodies; and they need to eat healthy foods.
“It’s all interrelated. When these needs aren’t being met, children’s coping skills are compromised and one little stressor, like a timed math test, can send their brains into overload.” That’s why a system-wide commitment to healthy school lunches, movement breaks and recess supports students’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
“Let’s Do This Together”
When children are emotionally hot, adults often send them away to deal with their feelings on their own – such as out into the hallway or up to their room.
Some of that comes from our own anxiety, says Hurley. “When our kids yell at us or throw a tantrum, it triggers us. We might think, ‘Oh no, I don’t know how to handle this.’” But this strategy also makes logical sense to us: “When adults get overwhelmed with emotion, we want to be alone. We say, ‘I just need five minutes to myself to collect my thoughts.’”
But most kids don’t want that. “When kids are feeling their worst is when they want the most connection,” says Hurley. When they lose control, what they are really saying is “‘I need you – I don’t know how to do this.’ But we send them away to be alone with all their negative, scary, intrusive thoughts.”
Instead, says Hurley, “we have to learn how to meet their storm with our calm.” That starts with empathy, says Hurley. Alternatively, she suggests saying, “’This is really hard,’ or ‘I can see that you are really upset/angry/scared.’” Then follow it with “I’m going to help you through it. Now sounds like a good time to take a nice deep breath. Let’s do this together. Do you want to do square breathing or blow up a balloon?”
For those everyday emotional fluctuations, Hurley recommends that teachers and parents create a “calm corner” in the house or classroom: a place where children can self-select to spend a few minutes when they notice their emotional temperature rise. You can stock it with soft squeeze balls, glitter jars or fancy coloring pages – anything that is a tension reliever.
These small interventions not only support emotional health, but they also build adult-child relationships that will pay off over time. “Children need anchors, and we are their anchors,” says Hurley. “That’s our job as parents, as educators and as coaches. We have to practice these things on our own so that when things go wrong – and they will every single day – we will feel ready for it.”