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Teaching Children How to 'Feel Their Feelings'

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Helping children understand and manage their feelings is a big responsibility. At Edward Street, we recognize the importance of healthy social-emotional development in young children. In July 2023, we were one of 18 Worcester area organizations awarded a grant via the UMass Memorial Health Determination of Need (DoN) program.

With the DoN grant, Edward Street received $60,000 in funding. We're using this funding to create specialized professional development complemented with nine in-class modeling sessions inside classrooms. During these sessions, experts shared child-focused mindfulness, art therapy, and music therapy enrichment across the following sites:

  • YWCA Central Massachusetts
  • Webster Square Day Care Center
  • Rainbow Child Development Center
  • Guild of St. Agnes on Granite Street in Worcester

Teaching Teachers About Emotional Regulation and the Impact of Trauma in Early Childhood

Kayla Daly, an expert in art therapy and music therapy, and Wendy O'Leary, an expert in mindfulness awareness, facilitated teacher training, showing them how mindfulness, art therapy, and music therapy activities work and how they can help children develop and maintain self-regulation skills.

During the training, Kayla and Wendy modeled self-regulation techniques with children. This helped create a powerful connection between what's learned and practiced and how it plays out in the classroom. At the same time, Kayla and Wendy focused on sharing things that were straightforward and easy. This helped teachers build confidence as they applied what they learned in their classrooms.

The training series also included a unit on trauma in early childhood, which highlighted the impact of trauma and how it manifests itself in children. With this training, teachers would be able to enter their classrooms with a trauma-focused lens, understand how children dealing with trauma feel, and help them manage their emotions and build their self-regulation skills.

At first, teachers were skeptical about the new techniques. They also weren't confident that they could replicate what the experts do. After Kayla and Wendy modeled a few of their techniques, they saw how simple, effective, and impactful they were. Now, teachers are using these techniques in their classrooms, helping children connect with and manage their emotions better than ever before.

Helping Children Identify and Manage Their Emotions

Combining social-emotional learning goals with arts-based literacy, the classes emphasized how teachers can use mindfulness, art therapy, and music therapy techniques to tap into children's emotions. They encouraged children to express their emotions and gradually build the skills they need to manage them.

The preschool enrichment sessions lasted 30 minutes. They were anchored in "The Color Monster" and other books designed to help children "feel their feelings," says Jo Ann Borinski, a Master Teacher at Edward Street. 

Child playing

For example, based on "The Color Monster," a teacher would encourage a child to put a pom pom into a jar based on how they are feeling. A child chooses a pom pom of a color representing happiness, sadness, or another emotion, then puts their pom pom into a jar. Each child in the class does this, and the jar illustrates the wide range of emotions kids are experiencing at a given time. This activity helps kids identify and connect with their emotions and gives them insights into how their classmates may be feeling.

Along with this, teachers used art projects, songs, and other activities to teach children about emotional regulation. One art activity encouraged children to use materials in various colors, textures, and sizes to make collages to express their feelings through artwork. Another activity centered around Wendy's "It's OK" children's book, which teaches kids about the power of resilience and self-compassion. In this activity, children created and named their very own paper-bag heart puppets. That way, if a child ever wanted to give themselves a hug, they could hug their puppet.

Meanwhile, teachers also have a collection of new interactive songs about happiness, anger, and other emotions. These songs helped children understand and connect their emotions to how their bodies feel and move in a given day. Teachers also taught children about music and how playing musical instruments and dancing can provide fun, safe, and healthy outlets to express their feelings. They even used a meditation bowl to create relaxing sounds, signaling to children to center themselves and calm their minds and bodies.

Additionally, teachers introduced a five-finger breathing activity to help children manage their "big feelings," Jo Ann says. With this activity, a child holds out their hand and — using their other hand — traces each finger up as they breathe in and down as they breathe out. The child does this until they trace their five fingers, then does the same activity with their other hand. This promotes the use of deep breathing to help a child relax their body and mind.

Building Social-Emotional Skills

Research shows that children who engage in arts-based therapies have lower post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom scores and are less likely to report negative moods than those who don't. Yet, the power of expressive therapies is immense but often misunderstood, Kayla says. And most teachers don't get trauma-informed training, says Jo Ann, who has over 34 years of experience in the early childhood profession.

"There's a lot that kids need to learn, and many haven't reached their developmental milestones yet due to COVID," Jo Ann points out. "In some cases, kids are six months behind in their development due in part to COVID."

kid in art class

Children use the arts as a primary method of communication, Kayla points out. Mindfulness, art therapy, and music therapy activities help children develop healthy coping skills and enable them to share their experiences through creating music and art together. They also teach children that they aren't alone in how they feel and that expressing their feelings creatively is healthy.

"Most adults use verbal language to process their feelings or talk about their emotions. Young children are still working to develop their social-emotional language skills and coping methods when they feel overwhelmed or are exposed to traumatic events. The arts provide a way for children to communicate their emotional needs and feelings in a supportive and structured manner," Kayla says.

Improving Our Training for Teachers and Children

At this point, we're performing pre- and post-assessments to analyze our training for teachers and how we can replicate it in future classrooms. 

"Teachers need to be able to deal with their own trauma. If they can't, it's difficult for them to work with kids dealing with trauma," Jo Ann says. "When teachers are able to look internally and take care of themselves, they'll be better able to care for others."

Teacher and child

Parents will receive a booklet highlighting home and classroom activities and children’s books and resources to support social-emotional health. This booklet, along with several take-home activities, such as the “Five Fingered Breathing Hand” to hang on the refrigerator, will provide families with strategies that they can use to help children identify and manage their emotions. 

"If we build trust, we're able to help children grow," Jo Ann says.

Read our blog and follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook to learn more about the DoN grant and our other programs and initiatives.

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