Early Ed Talks: Social/Emotional Skills

About our guest blogger…

Rudi Monson’s daughter is currently in her second year of preschool at the Lawrence Arts Center. Her older daughter spent three years in the Arts Center’s Early Childhood Education program, including kindergarten. Rudi holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary/Middle School Education from the University of Kansas, and a master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with ESL emphasis from Concordia University in Chicago. She taught Language Arts and Math in middle school in Chicago for 12 years. Her experience as both an educator and parent gives her a unique perspective on Early Childhood programming at the Lawrence Arts Center.


She was wailing.  Clenched fists, red-faced, crying her eyes out, body trembling with emotion. I stared at her. Honestly, I was a little scared of her. Or scared for her. She couldn’t control it, you could see the rage and fear just tearing through her little 3-year-old body. Muscles shaking and tears streaming and guttural cries and unable to get her breath.

It was about 7:45 in the morning. Her toast was too brown.

Anybody? Anybody with me?

It’s terrifying, isn’t it? When you see your little ones just lose their freaking minds? The first few times you see a true 3-year-old tantrum, it really hits you.  You see how they truly have no control. They are out of their little senses and scared of their own emotions. They have no skill set for how to settle themselves down, how to catch their breath, how to stop crying, how to come out of this terrible tantrum. They are scared and they don’t know what to do.

This is the story of our kids at this tender young age. They are emotional trainwrecks, and kinda jerks sometimes. (Rumor on the street is that this repeats around adolescence. Just a heads up.)

Does anyone else ever fear that their child shows this side at school? That their teachers see the tiny little monster that your sweet child turns into sometimes? Guess what? They do see it. And what’s more? They expect it! They want it! It’s a teaching opportunity for them! (I know, they’re lunatics.)

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Mr. Rogers

Taking turns and waiting patiently are the first things we learn in preschool.

The masters of the universe at Lawrence Arts Center, the ones who call themselves early childhood teachers, have devoted a major portion of the preschool and kindergarten curriculum to teaching our children strategies to navigate their emotional worlds with kindness toward themselves and others. In the hours of playing in the sand, finger painting, snacks, books, and singing, our kids are learning how to comprehend and manage their emotions. How to feel empathy and show compassion, express their feelings, and adjust to changing expectations.

Come into the classroom with me on this unseasonably warm and sunny winter morning. Come see what magic our teachers have in store today.

On this December morning, we spent about an hour outside playing in the sand area. I’m not kidding. An hour. AN HOUR. This is a long time for unstructured play time. I mean, they’re literally just playing in the sand and on this little concrete area with chalk and toys. I came to see the teaching! I came to see the art! I came to see the leaps of learning and imagination! I mean, let’s get to the good stuff!

Then, I started paying attention. And watching. And listening closely. And whoa, guys.  Whoa.

It’s like the teachers PLAN this to be a time where kids are going to fight over toys, fall and scrape their knees, get mad when their structure doesn’t work. It’s like they WANT them to get frustrated so that opportunities arise to teach the children strategies for how to handle the situation and their emotions.

First, I notice a little boy throw a toy. A girl starts to yell, then cry. He is ignoring her. The teacher, Andria, squats down in the sand next to the kids without saying a word. The little girl reports what happened. Andria then turns to the little boy and says, “Can you tell her — ”

Pause. This is the moment that first blew me away. I was expecting her to say what I always say to my kids and what I hear most parents say at this moment. “Can you tell her sorry?” But that’s not what happened.

“Can you tell her why you threw that toy?”

Can you hear the difference? The difference between an automatic phrase and learning to articulate your emotions?

The little boy finds the words to tell the girl that he is working on a sandcastle and he doesn’t want her help. He wants her to leave him alone.

Andria continues talking to the kids for another few moments, asking questions and offering advice. “Why don’t you ask her if she’s ok?” “What could you have done when he said, ‘Leave me alone?’” “You can ask him if he’s done working here so that you can play with this toy.”

After a few moments, the boy is done and tells the girl she can play there.

Later, I asked Andria about this interaction. She said they rarely ask kids to say sorry! That’s right, they are not teaching our kids to say sorry! BLASPHEMY! No, instead of the word, they are teaching them to verbalize their frustrations, to listen to each other, to have care for each other. As Andria and Kim told me, “What’s the point of that word if they don’t have any emotion behind it?”

Play involves communication, negotiation, patience, problem-solving, turn-taking, risk-taking, cooperation, and on and on and on.

According to Jean Piaget, one of the key researchers of child development, children at this age are still very egocentric. Focused primarily on their own tasks and feelings, they have difficulty seeing a situation from another person’s point of view. In the interaction I watched in the sandbox, Andria carefully prompted each child to think about the other child’s experience in that moment.

As I was jotting down notes from the sandbox situation, I heard the wails of a frustrated child and watched another teacher, Kim, head over to her. The little girl, let’s call her Jane, was playing alone, trying to build something with pieces of wood and concrete blocks. “I want this HIGHER!!!” Kim offered to help her build it and then several kids came over to join. This really set Jane off. She was annoyed, stomping her feet and yelling, “I want to do it myself!”

Instead of reprimanding Jane, removing her from the situation, or forcing her to allow others to help, Kim asked her if she could “host” the other kids. Kim repeated over and over again while the children played with the structure, “Jane built this! It’s all her idea! What’s your next plan to make it higher, Jane?” Jane ended up enjoying time with friends AND learning to take turns. Kim stayed to help facilitate the turn-taking and to continue to praise Jane’s work.

Talking to Kim about this later, she said that the goal here was to give Jane power. She explained that kids at this age often feel so frustrated because they are powerless. She wanted Jane to feel powerful. She helped her achieve her goal of a taller structure for climbing AND practice taking turns with friends. At some point in the conversation, I said, “So this is a good example for showing how you guys teach them to share?” She and Andria both immediately shook their heads and said, “No, I feel uncomfortable with that word.” SHARE?? You feel uncomfortable with the word SHARE? You’re preschool teachers! Isn’t that the main word of this age?!??!

“Share is too big. Taking turns is easier. Share means empathy. It requires an emotional leap. It means I have to put myself in your shoes, imagine your feelings AND set my feelings aside. It’s too big. We often just ask children to say, ‘When you’re done, can I have a turn?’ And 99% of the time, they say yes.”

So far, I’ve learned that they are not teaching our kids to say sorry and they are not teaching our kids to share. What kind of school is this?!? A respectful one. An environment that respects the development of our children and encourages steps toward growth in meaningful ways.

So, what’s going on in the kindergarten? Is it lunacy in there, too? Of course it is. I interviewed the dream team themselves, Becky and Emily, Kindergarten Teachers Extraordinaire.

Trying so hard to help a friend get her hat on!

“Learning to be caring is the first priority, before anything else.” –Becky

At 5 and 6, it’s time for children to start moving beyond the egocentrism of earlier years. Teachers spend a lot of time prompting, “How would you feel if…?” “What does it mean to be a good friend?” Early in the year, they have an entire unit on friendship. Reading books about kind vs. non-kind behaviors. Writing, “I am kind when I ____.” Sorting actions into kind and non-kind categories. Building empathy in talking through stories, “How did that feel for that character?” This gives teachers an opportunity to talk about these situations before children experience them. They also teach the kids that another important aspect of friendship is finding your voice. Playing tag too rough? You need to go tell them, “I didn’t like that.” They don’t know you feel that way. As a listener, clarify others’ words. “What do you mean by that?”

So much time dedicated to friendship! Because it IS critical. Are we not raising future citizens?

Another component of the kindergarten curriculum that highlights teachers’ emotional work with the children is Quiet Mind Time. Becky and Emily devote class time to teaching children different activities to slow breath down, calm their bodies and mind, practice mindfulness. Is your body and mind calm and clear to learn? How can we get there?

This is huge. Think about how often you’ve asked your child, “Are you ready to come out of time out? Are you calm?” And they usually say yes, but then they go back to yelling or stomping or pouting or whatever. They don’t know what it feels like to be calm. They don’t have the skills to get calm. In the Arts Center kindergarten, they learn to regulate their breath, feel their belly, close their eyes, slow their thoughts.

“It’s within you how you choose to react. You can calm yourself down.” –Emily

I mean, that’s powerful for me as an ADULT to hear. Imagine if you’ve been told this since you were young.

It’s funny actually. The teachers take for granted the delicate and intentional way they handle our children. It’s second nature for them. Hopefully, these skills become second nature for our kids as well. As we know, the academics of education will always be there. Children will approach reading, writing, and math soon. Students from the Arts Center Early Childhood Program will be prepared for the path. They will arrive with empathy, with kindness, with the ability to work with others, to voice concerns, and to calmly seek help. Without these critical skills the academic path, and life itself, becomes more challenging than necessary. I am grateful that the Early Childhood Program focuses on these critical components of “academic readiness.” But really, I’m grateful that my kid is learning to rein in those temper tantrums, find her calm, and find her voice.