Being a small child with big feelings is hard.
The glow of holidays and winter break has faded and it’s a long time until summer. For my 4- to 6-year-olds, this time of year often brings on those big feelings. I can easily find tons of age-appropriate resources covering emotions like happy, sad, and angry. But what about creating an environment to discuss disappointment? Anxiety? Guilt?
We live in a time in which these more complex feelings can come out earlier, last longer, and more intensely affect young developing minds. I’ve discovered several approaches to work on processing these types of feelings with my youngest clients. I also share these simple strategies with preschool and kindergarten teachers to use with the entire class.
Let’s start talking about big feelings, and let’s make it fun!
We’ve all probably participated in setting up rotating centers for small groups to work on targeting skills. They’re mostly used for the basics: math, reading, language, and science. What about a social-emotional development center? Working with three or four children instead of 15 makes it easier to introduce tough topics. Each participant can ask more questions, share more stories, and feel safer in a potentially less intimidating space.
I use typical treatment materials to address these social emotional skills including pictures, short stories, and role play.
Once you’ve introduced tricky emotions in smaller group settings, bring the class together for a group discussion. I find circle time after a story works well as a setting to encourage young students to talk to teachers and each other. Many classrooms already incorporate some form of story or circle time, so it’s an easy routine to use. I found numerous books suitable for preschoolers and kindergarteners about big feelings and the inevitable big reactions those feelings can cause. After reading the story, I suggest problem-solving questions to get things going:
- What can Joanna do to help herself feel better?
- Michael is having a big feeling right now. His loud voice and his unkind words show it. What are some better ways for Michael to express his feelings?
- Did Donny make a good choice or a poor choice? What do you think would have been a better choice?
Make positive associations with uncomfortable emotions to help a young mind learn how they can move on instead of dwell. It can be a difficult undertaking to guide a child out of their big feeling, whether or not they also work on language or communication delays. We all need to develop coping skills to handle the hardships we inevitably face.
If we can teach children that they have the power to “let go” and adjust their emotional state from a young age, we open the door to emotional maturity. Learning how to handle these big emotions can also improve self-esteem and friendship development.
So how can we create this positive association? Pop the bubble!
Announce an emotion, ask a student to identify a coping strategy—examples include take five deep breaths, talk about it, take a walk, think happy thoughts, find quiet time, squeeze a stress ball—then let them pop a bubble (or balloon, if you’re brave). So simple! By immediately following the mention of uncomfortable emotions with coping strategies and then the physical release associated with an enjoyable activity (such as popping bubbles or balloons) you generate a positive association.
I work with some teachers who incorporate this activity into their daily closing routine. Students share a challenging experience they experienced that day so they can “pop a bubble” before heading home.
What strategies do you use for helping young students learn to cope with big, complex emotions? Share in the comment section below.