Three back to school learning opportunities to increase emotion regulation and empathy! Back school, and starting school for the first time, can be a challenge for children of all ages. Children often experience a mix of emotions such as anxiety and excitement. Keeping three social and emotional learning opportunities in mind during this time of year can help your child increase emotional functioning and increase empathy related skills!
Let me first introduce you to two children’s books I have written to even further facilitate young children leaning these skills, Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten and Ursula Unwinds her Anger.
Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten is an excellent back-to-school read because it is the story of a kitten’s first day of school. Buttons experiences separation anxiety on his first day and then this becomes an opportunity for him to learn about all of his different feelings. He creates a fun goodbye routine to help him separate from his caregiver and begins to learn about others’ feelings too so that he can make kind choices. https://www.amazon.com/Buttons-Brave-Kitten-Kristina-Sargent/dp/1493104233
Ursula Unwinds her Anger also teaches children about feelings since Ursula the sea-dragon turns different colors with her feelings. She learns all feelings are okay to have and that she can make saw choices with her feelings by using mindful breathing. Ursula is able to practice assertiveness skills when she is being teased by other sea creatures and learns to accept herself just as she is! https://www.amazon.com/Ursula-Unwinds-Kristina-Marcelli-Sargent/dp/1499073003
Back to school learning opportunities:
1) Increase emotional literacy
Point out your child’s feelings about going back to school and validate them. “So you are happy and scared about starting school tomorrow. That’s completely okay to have your feelings and different feelings at the same time.”
You can also share your own feelings with your child in age appropriate ways such as, “I feel so happy you are going to school tomorrow and get to meet your new classmates and teacher. I feel sad because I will miss you but I know I will see you at the end of the day.” Helping your child realize emotions come and go is also helpful. This can be done by talking about past experiences with feelings and pointing out how those feelings had come and gone. Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky!
2) Increase safe ways to cope with and express emotions
After validating your child’s feelings, you can then engage him or her in a discussion about safe choices to do with the feeling (safe ways to cope with or express the feelings). You can prompt this by saying something like, “What are some things you can do that help you feel better when you are afraid? What are some things you can do to let the feeling out instead of holding it inside? Safe ways to cope could include deep breathing, imagining a happy place, looking at a book, playing a game, etc. Safe ways to express the feelings could include talking, drawing, writing, playing, creating sculptures or other art about the feelings, etc. The more tools your child has in his or her toolbox the better and remember, just because something works for you doesn’t mean it will work for your child. Listen to your child’s ideas of what works for him or her and offer ideas and examples as needed.
3) Increase responsiveness and concern for others’ emotions (empathy)
Offer prompts to discuss and think about other people’s feelings by asking your child to think how others may be feeling about starting school. “I know you are happy and excited to go to school tomorrow and see your friends again. Remember Aaron who just moved in? How do you think he may be feeling about starting school tomorrow since he doesn’t know anyone yet?”
Act out stories with dolls or puppets about starting school. This allows your child to put themselves in someone else’s shoes while playing and think of perspectives from that character. You can even take turns picking up feeling cards and acting out stories about characters experiencing the feeling on that card. Great ones to start with are happy, sad, angry, afraid, and safe.
Point out the feelings of other children in the moment. If a child is crying during drop off time on the first day point this out in an empathetic way to your child. “She seems really upset about leaving her grandmother. It must not feel very good to feel so sad. What can you do today to help her feel happier and more comfortable in your classroom?”
As we increase our emphasis on teaching emotional skills, children become more competent in understanding their own feelings and are better able to handle their feelings safely and respond to others in compassionate ways. So this back to school season, let’s focus more on social emotional learning today for a more compassionate tomorrow.