Teaching Peace with Elyse: Developing Emotional Intelligence in Preschoolers: Tools of Inner-Peace and Self-Soothing

A four-year-old stood at the window in the expressive arts room. The paper and crayons usually kept on the ledge had been moved.

"Can I draw at the window?" the boy asked, looking sad.

"Are you missing your family?" I guessed.

He nodded. Paper and large crayons were gathered for him. With the help of his teacher, he taped the paper to the window and drew a circle, then two dots inside representing eyes.

When asked whom he had drawn, he said, "My papa."

Adding long legs, he finished drawing his papa. He then drew a very tiny portrait of himself next to his father. With my art therapy background, I knew this suggested how he was feeling: small and vulnerable. He stared at his drawing for several minutes and then came down from the bench that allowed him to reach the window. I observed him retrieving another piece of paper on his own.

His friend, who had also been observing, joined him at the window. They stood side by side, as did their drawings. But, this time they both drew themselves with confidence, taking up most of the space on their individual papers.

"I forgot the nose," the other boy said, adding a third dot to his drawing.

The one who missed his papa looked at the other boy’s drawing and then back at his own.

"I don’t need a nose," he said, pleased with his own artistry.

Both children then jumped down, smiling, and began to play together.

Giving children tools for self-soothing, managing and expressing their emotions begins with our guidance. We offer several choices to the children, beginning with helping them name the emotion they feel. Working together with the children, we learn and teach what soothes in the present moment.

What worked yesterday might not be successful today. Yet, as we offer choices, we encourage them to fill their toolbox with what will help them name, manage and appropriately express their emotions. It’s never too early to begin teaching EQ.

Guidelines for Teachers:

  • Naming Emotions: First we offer our best guess. "Are you feeling sad? I see tears and your face looks like this. "You can mirror them with your face or show them their own in a mirror. You may get a nod or no response at all. If you get a subtle expression of rejection or a firm "no," stop and try something else.
  • Hugs/Being Held: It may be that a hug or being held is needed. When you feel them relax into you, you can explore further. "Are you sad because you wanted your papa (or whomever dropped them off) to stay longer?" Sometimes your words comfort; at other times, the child may not be ready to hear them.
  • Photos: You can also have them point out their feelings from photos of children expressing different emotions.
  • Time: Drawing clocks may be the next tool to offer. "Let’s make a clock so you can see when you will get picked up today." (See blog from September 11, 2012.)
  • Family Photos: These are often used in the classrooms. They are tangible and the children can hold and carry them. I’ve noticed some teachers have laminated them. Some are laced onto felt hearts.
  • Drawing: Suggest making drawings of family or themselves and how they are feeling. You can also ask them how they will feel when their parents come to pick them up.
  • Dictation: Children can dictate to you letters for their parents. Once they’ve calmed down enough to speak, ask if they’d like to write a letter about how they are feeling and what they need. Write their exact words, encouraging more with simple statements such as, "And what else; anything else you want to tell them?" Often children will fold the letter and put in a pocket or their cubbies. Many read them to their parents when they arrive or have their parents read aloud to them.
  • Puppets: Rather than deal directly with a child’s raw emotions, use a puppet to act out similar feelings to those the child is expressing. This allows them to have some distance from their feelings. It may work best to have a circle for a small group of children when they are not directly feeling the emotions. If sadness at saying goodbye to their parents is being expressed regularly by several children, a small group puppet circle may be the best solution (see blog from March 25, 2014). Make it interactive. Have the children guess how the puppet is feeling. Allow them to figure out solutions to how the puppet can feel better. You may want to ask if anyone has felt this way. Then inquire as to what they did to help themselves feel better.

Preschoolers, particularly at the start of a new school year, need tools to self-soothe and comfort themselves.

What have you discovered that works well for your children? Please consider sharing your tools with other readers. As teachers of young children, we can never have too many tools in our toolbox.

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