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April 19, 2021

First Steps Towards Emotional Literacy

At the beginning of the year, my kindergarteners reminded me of kittens just beginning to open their eyes. They were just starting to become aware of the world and, as egocentric little beings, had trouble seeing the world through anyone else’s perspective. Sometimes they had trouble even understanding that others were out there.

As the year went on, my kindergarteners’ eyes started to open. We did a lot of work with the Mosaic Project, an amazing nonprofit devoted to teaching students community building and peacemaking skills. One of my main goals as a teacher was to help my students be empathetic and kind. But how do you teach empathy to students who can barely see beyond themselves? (This song should inspire you!)

Start by taking a look inside a masterful preschool teacher’s classroom where students are learning the first steps towards developing empathy. Jennifer Hawkins gets her 3-year-olds recognizing and defining their own feelings. If you can’t describe how you’re feeling, how will you be able to empathize with others? Ms. Hawkins has an extensive toolkit of ways to help her students develop emotional literacy. Here are three videos that give you a peek inside her bag of tricks:

Reading Faces

Ms. Hawkins helps her students build emotional literacy by looking at how feelings are made visible on faces. Watch how Ms. Hawkins uses books, mirrors, and pictures to help her students examine different emotions. Then see how Ms. Hawkins engages students in a read aloud by having them use face puppets to identify the emotions of characters. By starting with fictional characters before moving to real-life scenarios, students get a chance to practice then apply their “face reading” skills.

Emotional Check-ins

Ms. Hawkins begins the day by having her students do an “Emotional Check-in“: as they come into the classroom, students think about how they are feeling and move popsicle sticks adorned with their own photos into jars labeled with the appropriate emotions. This strategy is a great way for students to recognize and share their feelings, and teachers can use it as a way to assess and respond to their students. I’m curious to see how this strategy could be adapted across grade levels.

Stop Sign

Young children’s days are rife with conflicts — from kids not sharing with each other to incessant tattling, young children are navigating the social world. In this video, Ms. Hawkins shares how she uses a stop-sign strategy to help students resolve problems. When a conflict arises, a student grabs the stop sign and brings it to the other child(ren) involved in the conflict. The kids share what happened and how the event made them feel, then they brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Check out the supporting materials for a Stop Sign you can use in your classroom.

No matter the age of your students, consider how to address their need for emotional literacy in a developmentally-appropriate way. Ms. Hawkins utilizes many of the resources from the Teaching Pyramid, a framework developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). The Teaching Pyramid has a collection of helpful classroom resources available here.

Regardless of the approach you take, by teaching students how to read, interpret, and respond to emotions, we are helping them to become compassionate problem solvers. While it’s infinitely important to learn content, I believe it’s equally important to learn emotional literacy. With kindness, empathy, and knowledge, our students will be equipped to change the world.


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