Student teachers learn a lot about how to teach in college, but they don’t get much training in how to respond to young children’s emotions, such as frustration, anger, and excitement, according to new research.
“When teachers aren’t trained to respond to emotional outbursts in supportive ways, they often fall back on responses that reflect the way they were raised and whether they feel comfortable with their own emotions,” said Rebecca Swartz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois and the study’s first author.
For the study, 24 student teachers in the university’s Child Development Laboratory (CDL) filled out self-assessments, rating their responses to hypothetical emotional situations and reporting their beliefs about the best ways to handle children’s emotions.
The students were then observed several times interacting with children in the CDL classrooms over the course of a semester. From these observations, the researchers rated how the student teachers responded to the children’s positive and negative emotional displays.
As expected, student teachers who reported more effective strategies for regulating their own emotions — for instance, thinking about a stressful situation in a different light — and who also reported more accepting beliefs about children’s emotions were more supportive of children when they had emotional outbursts, according to the researchers.
The most common nonsupportive response was not responding, the researchers add.
Swartz wants teachers to learn how to handle emotional situations in the classroom as part of their professional development. “It might be effective to bring in a mentor who could coach, consult, and reflect with teachers as occasions arise,” she said.
In the typical preschool classroom, it wouldn’t take long for a mentor to find a teachable moment, she predicted. “In a classroom for 2-year-olds, sometimes it’s just emotion, emotion, emotion.”
Instead of saying “Don’t cry” or “That’s not important,” Swartz suggests the teacher label the child’s emotion and help him learn to cope with his anger or frustration. “If a child is crying because a classmate has taken a toy, a better response would be, ‘I know you’re sad. You really want to play with that.’ Then the teacher could use a problem-solving strategy: ‘Maybe you could take turns, or you could play with another toy for now.’”
These “everyday moments” are “golden opportunities for children to learn how to manage their emotions, Swartz add. “Too often, teachers want to make negative emotions go away. Instead we need to use them as learning opportunities.”
Another interesting finding from the study was that the student teachers only sought the support of a master teacher in dealing with negative emotions, the researcher said, noting that kids need help handling happiness and excitement, as well. In those instances, teachers could say, “We can’t throw blocks in the air to show we’re excited, but we can clap or cheer instead.”
Swartz said that regulating emotions is important not only for young children, but for their long-term success as they move into higher grades.
“When you’re sitting with a long-division problem, it’s not just understanding long division that’s important, but being able to stick with it long enough to understand it,” she said. “When children are building a block tower and managing their frustration, those skills will help them later.”
Source: University of Illinois