Moving Toward An Emotionally Responsive Classroom

Within my studies at Bank Street College of Education I was taught to think about the whole child. My education was rooted in the developmental-interaction approach. Development emphasizes shifts and change over time, which occurs at different rates for different individuals. Interaction refers to the child’s engagement with the world. Developmental-interaction refers to the ways in which cognition and emotion are interconnected in any teaching situation, while taking into account the relationships with others when co-constructing knowledge.

Upon completing my degree, I wanted to work in a school that focused on supporting children’s emotional experience thoughtfully and respectfully. In defining the whole child the emotional, social and cognitive were all important. Literature has shown that a preschool environment that supports social and emotional growth will lead to a healthy and cognitively-ready kindergartener. I was lucky to find this environment at the Downtown Little School in New York City. As I grew as a teacher at DLS, I also clarified goals within my classroom. These ideals I brought with me to Alphabet Academy in building an emotionally responsive classroom.

Within an emotionally responsive classroom, teachers create an enriching, process-oriented, open-ended classroom with a variety of choices. Teachers pay attention to children and narrate the process of play to let them know that attention is being paid to their endeavors. They think a child’s work is important and watch quietly to see what learning is taking place, while respectfully talking with children about their work. This is Alphabet Academy!

The goal is to understand and acknowledge what a child is feeling. “You are so sad because you bumped your toe…”
Alphabet Academy is a forward thinking progressive school. It has thoughtfully created a Reggio-inspired school, a rich outdoor classroom, as well as a phenomenal food program. Teachers observe children and offer open-ended materials so children can construct their own knowledge. Children create process-oriented art that reflects their learning. Before I arrived on the scene as a teacher, Alphabet Academy was supporting children’s emotional development. After Amy observed my work with two year-olds, she realized that creating an emotionally responsive classroom was the next phase for Alphabet Academy’s growth. She asked me to lead a professional development workshop for staff members focusing on this topic.

Within an emotionally responsive classroom, teachers create a world in which children feel an appropriate sense of ownership and control, while recognizing that the adults are in charge, keeping everyone safe.

As much as possible this world should be predictable. Routines should stay the same. Adult responses should be predictable and, within reason, should remain consistent from day to day and from adult to adult. In this world children should feel safe to be themselves. The angry, aggressive self, and the quiet, meek self, should find as much acceptance as the self-assured settled self.

Adults must acknowledge and accept the feelings of all children while teaching the most appropriate possible ways of expressing those feelings. The goal should be to understand what a child is feeling, while helping him or her to understand these feelings and express them in a healthy way. Within this environment it is important to help children hear and learn words to associate with their affect, as well as cause and effect. For example, “You are having strong feelings because she is using the bucket that you were using. Or, you are happy to slide down the slide beside your friend.”

We believe it is important to place a label only when we are sure of a child’s feelings. When one is unsure of the emotion a child is feeling is it is better to say, “You are having strong feelings about that”.

It is confusing and limiting for a child to have an inappropriate label placed upon what they are experiencing. An adult’s role is to affirm feelings and set limits on them so that children can learn how to manage emotions appropriately. For example, “You are angry. It is OK to be angry, but I am not going to let you hit your friend. Come and hit a pillow.”

Another important strategy teachers have been practicing is to pause after narrating what is observed. For example, “She has the shovel. You want it. (Pause).” This pause will allow children to feel comfortable in their emotions and to learn how to resolve their own conflicts. Our goal is to send a message to children that their emotions and experiences are valid. We remain close to them as they navigate through this terrain. When we give children space, they are able to know what they are feeling and offer solutions that we can only imagine, while they feel more self assured and confident in all of who they are. Research has shown that young children who are able to label and manage their emotions are happier, healthier and more productive adults.

The goal is to understand and acknowledge what a child is feeling. “You are so sad because you bumped your toe…”

Teachers are working on how to support children’s emotions in a thoughtful and non-judgmental way, which will require reflection and practice. It is a work in progress to create an emotionally responsive classroom. As a long time teacher who is well versed in these techniques, it is often challenging to put these ideas into practice as the parent of a three year-old. Because of my work, I know how important it is to put these ideas into practice and attempt to remain non-judgmental and accepting. It is worth admitting that it is so much easier to do this when I have my teacher hat on and not my mommy hat. Either way, acknowledging our children’s emotions, as well as our own will pave the way for them to do the same with themselves and others for the rest of their lives! It is certainly a challenge and as most thing in parenthood, a work in progress.