U. ILLINOIS (US) — Preschool teachers who are able to deal with their own emotions are better able to support emotional outbursts of anger, frustration, happiness, and excitement from their young students.
“When teachers aren’t trained to respond to emotional outbursts in supportive ways, they often fall back on responses that reflect the way they were raised and whether they feel comfortable with their own emotions,” says Rebecca Swartz, a doctoral candidate working with Nancy McElwain, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois.
For a new study published in Early Education and Development, 24 student teachers in the University of Illinois Child Development Laboratory (CDL) filled out self-assessments, rating their responses to hypothetical emotional situations and reporting their beliefs about the best ways to handle children’s emotions.
These student teachers were then each observed several times interacting with children in the CDL classrooms over the course of a semester. From these observations, the researchers rated how the student teachers responded to the children’s positive and negative emotional displays.
As expected, student teachers who reported more effective strategies for regulating their own emotions—for instance, thinking about a stressful situation in a different light—and who also reported more accepting beliefs about children’s emotions were more supportive of children when they had emotional outbursts.
The most common non-supportive response was not responding. “Perhaps teachers were busy and didn’t notice an emotional display or they needed a strategy to work through that difficult moment,” Swartz says.
Teachers should learn emotional regulation strategies as part of their professional development so they can model them for children and manage challenging emotional moments in the classroom. “It might be effective to bring in a mentor who could coach, consult, and reflect with teachers as occasions arise.”
In the typical preschool classroom, it wouldn’t take long for a mentor to find a teachable moment, she predicts. “In a classroom for two-year-olds, sometimes it’s just emotion, emotion, emotion.”
Instead of saying “Don’t cry” or “That’s not important,” teachers should label the child’s emotion and help him learn to cope with his anger or frustration.
“If a child is crying because a classmate has taken a toy, a better response would be, ‘I know you’re sad. You really want to play with that.’ Then the teacher could use a problem-solving strategy: ‘Maybe you could take turns, or you could play with another toy for now.'”
According to Swartz, “These everyday moments are golden opportunities for children to learn how to manage their emotions. Too often, teachers want to make negative emotions go away. Instead we need to use them as learning opportunities.”
Although it’s important to support positive emotions—”we like to see teachers smile when children are smiling, and to give them pats on the back or high-fives”—the student teachers only sought the support of a master teacher in dealing with a child’s negative emotion, she says.
But kids need help handling happiness and excitement, too, she notes. In those instances, teachers could say, “We can’t throw blocks in the air to show we’re excited, but we can clap or cheer instead.”
Emotional self-regulation is important not only for kindergarten readiness, but for long-term success as children move into the higher grades, Swartz says.
“When you’re sitting with a long-division problem, it’s not just understanding long division that’s important but being able to stick with it long enough to understand it. When children are building a block tower and managing their frustration, those skills will help them later.”
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