Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional Learning to Snack Time in Your Early Childhood Classroom

By Molly Breen

Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional LearningSharing food and conversation go hand in hand: As humans we are, in some ways, hardwired to do these things together. In hunter-gatherer clans, extended families and communities would assemble to share food and, presumably, conversation as a matter of survival. Developmental psychologists have long emphasized the importance of family meal time for healthy child development. Why? Research suggests that eating together as a family can have lifelong health benefits including better prosocial behaviors (manners), which may result in less aggressive or antisocial behavior and better overall well-being and physical health.

In the scope of our own preschool “clans,” snack and mealtimes can be just another of the many transitions throughout the day, or they can be opportunities to extend learning.

I am not a proponent of scheduling every moment of the day as “teachable.” That would pull us out of being truly present and responsive to the lived experience of teaching and learning. And, quite frankly, it’s not always practical to teach through every transition. But I cannot think of a better time to connect in conversation than during the age-old practice of sharing food.

In my setting, we have a tradition of sharing childhood stories (both the children and teachers) with one another during snack and mealtimes as well as a shared framework of “table talk.” We set up the expectations for table talk at the beginning of the year together. These are simple and include: No potty talk; Don’t yuck someone else’s yum (no insulting others’ food choices); Take a turn to talk (don’t talk over someone else). Our childhood stories have a social-emotional learning/character-building theme and can be truly factual or just inspired by real events.

Here are a few suggestions for seamlessly incorporating some extended social-emotional learning into your snack or mealtime.

Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional LearningForgiveness
Tell a story about a time you made a mistake and worried about telling the truth and getting into trouble. Let the resolution of the story be about forgiveness. Use the book Forgive and Let Go as a guide to your own storytelling.

Ask students: Have you ever forgiven someone for something? What did they do? How did it feel to let them know that everything was okay? Have you ever been forgiven? How did that feel?

Draw examples from the school experience and ask kids what they would do. How could they forgive someone for making a mistake or causing hurt?

Tell a story about learning a new skill and the practice it took to get better. Emphasize the route of persistence through practice and encouragement. Who helped you? Use the book Bounce Back as a storytelling guide.

Follow up by discussing some examples of skills that children acquire in your setting that they may not have when they begin.

Ask students: What are “words of encouragement”? When do we use these at school?

Tell a personal story about going somewhere new or doing something unfamiliar as an act of courage—maybe visiting another country for the first time or standing up to someone who is bullying. What questions went through your mind as you anticipated the new experience? How did you find the courage to do something challenging? Use the book Have Courage as a storytelling guide.

Talk through the beginning of school for your students. What were some things that kids were feeling worried about? How did they know to use courage and be brave?

Ask students: Do you have examples of bravery or courage that you have witnessed in other children?

Part of this table talk tradition can be developing emotional language beyond the basics of mad, sad, happy, glad, and so on. When we partner our real-life experiences with new emotional language, it provides a better context for understanding. We took photos of our students with a wide array of facial expressions and mounted them on the wall near our lunch table. When we did our storytelling at snack and lunch times, we would refer to the wall of expressions to figure out how a feeling might look to an observer. This, in partnership with our more expressive language, provided another layer of understanding and recognition for the wide range of possibilities in our emotional life and learning. If you run out of emotional descriptive terms, you can use a feelings wheel to help you and your learners develop your emotional vocabulary.

Like all things in teaching and learning, the attitudes we share with our students are contagious and create deeper connections with our school communities in both intended and unintended ways. For me, the incredible bonus is always that I become a better person in the process, and that feels pretty outstanding.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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