By Molly Breen
Launching into a school year with children, no matter their age, requires a great deal of thought, planning, and labor—both physical and emotional. We plan our environments and lessons, staking our best efforts in the bedrock of expert wisdom: visually appealing spaces, responsive environments, developmentally appropriate practice, trauma-informed teaching practices, and so on, and so on, and so on. The bedrock is deep, and we are all doing our very best. And then, they come! The very best that each family has to share with us: their precious children. And despite our very best efforts to plan everything “just so,” the children are ultimately the ones who decide how we move through our days together. We may lay the foundation, we may even be the architects who design the vision, but the children are the builders.
In this pandemic aftermath, I have observed that children’s social skill sets when they come to preschool are ever-more variable. So the big question is: what type of builders will we have? And have they built anything with others yet?
As we plan our curriculum and our environments and set our intentions for a wonderful year, we have to check in with ourselves and with our young learners to find out where we are now and where we want to go. Much of where we can go depends on the skills we are able to build with our students. And—I’m letting go of the builder metaphor here—these are the “soft skills”: the social set of capacities that develop in the context of relationships. A lot of preschool-aged children have missed out on some of that capacity-building while riding the waves of pandemic living. Without a doubt, their social experiences took a sudden turn toward isolation and safety and the wide world became very . . . narrow.
So how do we approach building a lived experience of preschool learning with children who may have not yet had much practice? By developing social awareness, social skills, and our own capacity to truly meet children where they are (versus where we think they should be).
Part 1: Self-Work (Talking the Talk)
Here are three ideas to help you start talking the talk or social and self-awareness:
- Start by growing your own self-awareness. Check in with yourself throughout the day: How am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body? What are my responses to cues in my environment?
- Practice using emotional language to describe how you’re feeling. Consider using an app like a mood tracker to dig deeper into more nuanced emotional language.
- Reflect on times when you have had to work to understand the behavior/choices of someone else. What was that like for you?
Part 2: Growing Social Awareness Alongside Children (Walking the Walk)
Once you’ve begun to talk the talk, it’s time to start walking the walk alongside children. Here are a few ideas:
Make learning about emotional experiences a part of regular, daily interactions. Ask questions like, “How are you feeling today?” Notice changes in body language and facial expressions and bring gentle attention with neutral statements like: “I noticed your shoulders slumping down. Do you feel that?” or, “Your face is telling me a story right now. What is that story about?”
Create an emotions wheel or a feelings felt board for checking in on children’s emotional states. Children might identify how they’re feeling as they arrive or during morning meetings. You could also use these items as a responsive activity throughout the day.
Use books to guide awareness building and to keep conversations going about understanding ourselves and others:
- The Learning About Me and You series from Free Spirit has excellent, clear messages about perspective-taking, building confidence, and so much more.
- The Learning to Get Along Series (also from Free Spirit) has great guided discussion questions included in each book to help extend learning after you read together.
Use puppets or “what’s happening” cards to create a safe context for building empathy. I know, I know. Puppets aren’t for everyone. But they are an effective tool for building empathy and perspective-taking. I like to use puppets to reenact scenes from the “real world” of preschool. After I cycle through the storytelling, I ask, “What could they do to help figure out this problem?” or, “How do you think each of the puppets is feeling?”
What’s Happening cards are snapshots of real-life moments, from interactions that are often positive and feel good, to more nuanced and unexpected moments and even sad, mad, or hard feelings. You don’t have to buy these cards; you can make them using royalty-free images. There are plenty of premade cards that you can easily purchase as well.
Celebrate milestones as you “build together.” Create a kindness jar in your classroom and add marbles, cotton balls, or other objects each time a child or teacher observes acts of kindness. When the jar is full, there can be a special dance party, treat, temporary tattoo, or other little celebration.
Shout out! During meeting times or perhaps in individual meetings with kids, ask them to share something they like, admire, or notice about another child in the group. These can be written down on a card or simply shared verbally. Follow up by asking how it feels to hear nice things about yourself.
Make sure that awareness-building, celebrations, and acknowledgments are never punitive (for example, someone gets left out because they didn’t participate, didn’t add to the kindness jar, and so on). Instead, remember that the examples you set through the lived experience of your presence are the most important lessons.
Make sure it’s okay to not be okay. As we build social capacities, we have to remember that it is natural and human to experience a whole range of emotional ups and downs throughout a day, week, month, or year. I’m not always at my best and neither are you—and that’s okay! This work is about strengthening our skills so that we have the capacity to ride the ups and downs of our lives. And the capacity to be with others, riding the waves alongside them.
So, as you set out with your designs, your visions, and your materials in hand, may you also keep in mind and in heart the potential for new directions, uncharted plans, and building something better than you could have imagined. The remarkable thing about working with children to develop social awareness and so-called soft skills is that we adults expand our capacities too!
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., 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 and 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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