I’m a Kindergarten teacher… but I try not to let people know. It’s not shame that stops me, it’s that enevitable response: “Awwww, Kindergarten! How cute!”
Yes, the kindergarteners themselves are cute. But, Kindergarten, the grade, is messy, hard work. Set aside that many students are still figuring out what that “bathroom feeling” is, they have only been on IN THE WORLD for five or six years. There’s a lot to learn.
We expect a lot out of kindergarteners, and rightly so. Their minds are primed to soak in tons of information. But, I have learned to temper my expectations in one area: emotional recognition.
I define emotional recognition as the ability to correctly interpret another person’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to determine their feelings. Together, this trifecta can synthesize into words like “angry,” “annoyed,” “frustrated,” “excited,” etc.
Through my teaching, I quickly learned emotional recognition is something I need to teach as I would any core subject. I read books about different feelings, spend time debriefing conflicts and, most importantly, constantly narrate my own emotions.
For example, one morning after a particularly messy breakfast meal (which is eaten daily in my classroom as opposed to the cafeteria), I was vigorously sweeping up crumbs and explaining that I did not like having to clean up after them so much. I must have sound exasperated, because some of my students started laughing. I immediately stopped and pointed to my face: I had raised eyebrows, big eyes, and no smile. Did it look like I was trying to be funny? I didn’t pose this question in a mean way. I asked it the same way you would ask, “What is 1 +1?” My students looked at me and answered, no, it didn’t look like I was trying to be funny. So what was I? I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t exactly angry. It was then I taught them “annoyed.” I said, “Annoyed means I don’t like what you’re doing, but you’re not getting in trouble for it. I just wish it were different. I wish I didn’t have to sweep up so many crumbs, so I am annoyed.”
The more clarification I can give students about how their behavior affects my emotions, the more they make the right choices in class. I like to think they do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, but there are always kids who do the right thing just to please an adult. For now, I am okay with that. It’s a good place to start with such a young crew.
Teaching emotional recognition not only helped teacher-student relationships in my classroom, but I have also seen a positive impact in student-student relationships. When students can correctly interpret their friends’ body language or facial expressions, they can avoid potential conflicts.
For instance, I’ve encouraged children to think about how and when they should ask kids to play. I act out scenarios, saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t try to play tag with the kid who is standing with their arms crossed and their head down. Maybe I should ask them if they’re okay instead.” And I’ve seen these scenarios play out in my classroom – a real teacher success!
On the other end of the spectrum, I have kids who are taking this emotional recognition thing and running with it a little too far. Like the student who tattled on a girl at his table because “She looked at me with an angry face!” But even this is a teaching moment – it sparks a conversation about how looking angry or feeling angry is totally okay. I love the conversations that have come from teaching this important skill in my classroom! They sneak up at some unexpected times, but I never feel I’m “wasting time” when I interrupt a lesson to debrief emotions.
So I ask you: How often have students misinterpreted your facial expressions or tone of voice? Do they realize when you’re getting upset? Do they know what causes you to get upset? Have you ever tried to teach these things? Take some time to reflect on these questions. No matter the age, emotional recognition can have a big impact on your classroom, your students, and you.
Rachel Wirt is a Kindergarten teacher in a North Philadelphia public school. Her goal as an early childhood educator is to cultivate her students' curiosity so they will be lifelong learners.