(Written with Marjorie Wild)
As the new school year approaches, we want to share some of our favorite SEL strategies for starting off strong. Social emotional learning is a sturdy foundation on which children's success in learning - and in life - is built.
We hope you find our tips helpful as school starts, or at any time of the year!
1. Find your inner calm!
Calm may not be the word that comes to mind when thinking of a classroom of young children, especially in the first days of school!
Practicing your own self-regulation skills to keep calm during times of stress will help you be better able to help your children feel safe.
Modeling the strategies you use to calm yourself and self-regulate not only helps you, it also supports young children as they begin to learn these important skills for themselves.
Below are just a few ideas to try. For more mindfulness activities, see our previous blog posts.
Help children learn breathing exercises to calm themselves, and be mindful of your own breathing. When your body or a situation tells you, “I need to take a breath,” try "box breathing": Step 1: Breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds. Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Step 4: Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel re-centered.
-Take a brain break with the children by leading a movement activity aimed at calming -Take a walk outside (either on a break, or with children during outdoor play) -Practice simple stretches (like reaching for the sky, touching your toes, arm or neck circles).
Have a touchstone, a physical object that reminds you of being centered. It can be a piece of jewelry that you wear, a family photo, or written words that serve as a reminder of core values, or a goal. For a child, it may be a comfort item (like eepworm!) or words of re-assurance such as, “You are safe. You can handle this. I am here to help you.”
How do you find your calmness in stressful situations? Please comment below!
2. Begin by creating connections with children
Here are some ways to make connections with each of your children at the beginning of the day. Do what works for you and the children you care for. If children enter the room from a hallway, greet children as they enter. While there are charts available with greeting choices, it may be best to make or modify your own. Limit choices and have children give input as to their favorites to include. Choices can be changed or added over time. Choices can include:
After the morning greetings, create opportunities to connect with each child throughout the day by playing connecting games with them. For ideas for connecting activities with children, see our previous blog posts. We also highly recommend Dr. Becky Bailey’s book, I Love You Rituals.
3. Help children connect with friends!
Imagine how young children feel when they will be going to a new class or school, especially if the experience is totally new for them! We can help children adjust to these new situations by including activities that strengthen peer relationships and nurture important social-emotional skills.
Here are some of our favorite ways to help children get to know new friends at school:
-Make a class book with pages picturing every student. Children love recognizing and naming classmates.
-Practice name games, like singing, “My name is Miss Marjorie.” Children echo, singing back, “Her name is Miss Marjorie.” Continue with everyone’s name.
-Help children make friends through stories.
“Meesha Makes Friends” is a book by Tom Percival, author of the Big, Bright Feelings book series. In the beginning of the story, Meesha is happy to “make friends” out of paper and craft materials, but not as comfortable talking to other children. Sharing this book can open a discussion with preschoolers: “How did Meesha “make a friend”? How do you make friends?” Children can also “make a friend” like Meesha and Josh in art!
-Guide children through role playing. “What do you say when you want to play with someone else? When you want a turn to play? When you need help? When someone asks you if they can play with you? How do you feel when someone shares a toy with you or gives you a turn?”
How do you “coach” children through making friends with classmates? Share with us your favorite name game or connecting activity!
4. Help children meet all the adults in their school family
When we talk about the school family, we are referring to children and those who support and care for them, providing a safe and supportive place in which they can grow and learn.
We can help children feel safe by introducing them to all the adults who work in their school or child care program. We can provide opportunities for the children to connect with each adult, not only at the beginning of the school year but throughout the months. If we notice and point out the adults contributions, the children will begin to do the same.
Here are a few ideas that may to reinforce these connections and the children's sense of appreciation:
-Make a book of the people at school, explaining everyone’s jobs and emphasizing that they are all a valuable part of the school family.
-Help children show appreciation for all the people who take care of them at school. Assist them in drawing or writing notes of thanks, especially when school family members do something above and beyond their duties.
5. Make the most of your morning routines - before and during school
Mornings can be hectic for families at home, in the car, and at drop-off, especially at the beginning a new school year! Take a deep breath and guide your children to school or child care by sending the calming message that ``It's gonna be a good day!”
Try to keep the before-school morning routine as consistent as possible. As you dress or prepare for the day, talk through any special activities your children can look forward to, like telling them that you packed their favorite snack!
Connecting games can be incorporated into the morning drive. Sing favorite songs together or look for familiar places along the way.
At school, share a hug or handshake that is special to you and your children. If possible, walk your child to their teacher or caregiver.
If your child is upset at your leaving, show compassion, focus on safety and provide a connection before you leave. You may say, “I see you are feeling scared that I am leaving. You are safe here at preschool, and your teachers will keep you safe and help you learn and play today!” Let’s take a big breath and say “Have a great day!”
At school, teachers and caregivers can begin the day with consistent routines. For young children, a familiar “Good Morning” song can be an opportunity to individually greet and connect with teachers and other children.
Keeping the daily schedule as predictable as possible helps calm the children's uncertainties as to what is going to happen. Posting a picture schedule and reviewing it during every transition can ease children into the school routine until it becomes familiar.
6. Set goals and take action on them every day
The beginning of a new school year is a good time to set goals. For myself, I find setting goals much easier than accomplishing them!
If you struggle with taking action toward your goals as I do, perhaps you can try what I'm trying: start with small steps. I got this idea from a book I recently read, Atomic Habits by James Clear. Another piece of valuable info in the book is this: the best way to change a habit is to focus on the person you want to become. So I’ve started telling myself, “I’m the kind of person who…”
Here are some of my personal examples:
-I’m the kind of person who follows through in a timely fashion when I say I will do something.
-I’m the kind of person who completes projects I start
-I’m the kind of person who reaches out to help others
NOTE: I don’t have any of these identities yet! But I want to be the kind of person who does those things - and much, much more. And I’m finding James Clear’s idea of focusing on identity to be a helpful way to start. I hope it will be helpful for you, too.
Here are some identity ideas to get you started, based on my 4 C’s Framework of Emotional Support.
Perhaps you would like to be:
-a connected teacher, who builds strong, caring relationships with each and every child
-a calm teacher, who uses deep breathing and other stress relief strategies regularly as part of your self-care
-a compassionate teacher, who is empathetic toward all your children, especially the challenging ones
For more info about these 3 C’s and the 4th C as well (Capacity-Building of Self-Regulation), see my blog posts from May and June of this year
We hope you found some of these ideas helpful. Please share your own if you are willing.
All of us at ECS are wishing you a wonderful school year!
I'm Diane Goyette, a Child Development Specialist, Trainer, Consultant and Keynote Speaker. I'm excited to share my blog!