For more than 35 years, Donna Housman has been helping young children, their teachers and their caregivers build their emotional intelligence. At the Housman Institute, her work with teachers at all stages in their careers has produced important insights about how adults can model emotional regulation for children and how adult capacity in managing emotions can be enhanced. When teachers are provided professional development opportunities that focus on their own well-being, this translates to their students through self-regulation with long-term benefits for young children.
Brightbeam’s Maureen Kelleher recently talked with Housman to learn more about how adults can keep their cool and in doing so, help young children build the feeling and thinking skills they’ll need for a lifetime of success. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the work you are doing with teachers on their emotional regulation so that they are better grounded and more able to support their young students.
It’s really important to be very supportive of the teacher as we help them understand we all have emotions and our bodies often communicate before our mind does. The first thing we do in training teachers to be more aware of their emotions is to help them become more aware of their bodies. What’s happening? Is my heart really racing? Am I breaking out in a sweat? Am I flushed?
Then they can reflect on what they are feeling right now. In becoming more aware of their emotions, they’re better able to express them in really constructive ways. Then they can reflect on what may be creating these feeling for them, and then think about what can help them in this situation.
Having the teacher model what is going on in terms of how the teacher is dealing with emotions and how the teacher is responding to the child, all of that is being absorbed by the child. The child is learning from watching the teacher about how to deal with really strong emotions. The child is also learning not just from what the teacher says — the content of their words — but the tone of voice, the speed with which the teacher talks.
When you work with teachers, what kind of feedback do you hear from them?
The feedback I get from teachers all the time is, they love this. Not only is it supporting them in their work with children and helping them become much better teachers, they’re also finding it’s really helpful in their own personal relationships. You know, with their partners, their family, their friends. So, for them, it’s a win professionally and personally.
Are you aware of any research to back up this common-sense theory: When teachers stay emotionally grounded in their interactions with students, that could reduce their disproportionate use of discipline with boys, especially Black and brown boys?
I can’t quote any current research on that, but I can tell you our experience with Housman Institute. We have taught children from all cultures, all races over the years, and when we help teachers learn how to tune in to what is going on for the child by understanding what’s behind the behavior and understanding the emotion that is prompting the behavior, we see a tremendous decrease in prescribed opinions they may be having about a child. They become more understanding of the child and therefore more empathic. The child feels a lot better, the teacher feels a lot better, and it reduces those implicit opinions teachers held before.
It probably also opens up more creativity and collaboration in problem-solving.
Much more, because that really critical component is getting the children to participate in the problem-solving. [For more on this, check out the MakePeace Table among the tools on the Housman Institute website.]
So this brings up the question of how you bring this learning to parents. How do you build that consistency among parents, teachers and children, so everybody is using these skills?
Yes. You know, you brought up bias before. Often times I have found that teachers can have bias about parents putting their child in [preschool, for long hours]. We really need to address that — and address together to understand the needs of parents and the choices they make. That is not a judgment call on our part. We understand that people have to make choices and teachers have to be able to be supportive, not judging, so we’re helping the teacher understand the needs of the parent.
When a parent comes in frustrated or distressed, that teacher is also reminded not to take this personally. Teachers need to understand that the parent is going through something and you’re there to help bring the down. If you meet them in the same place they are emotionally, you’re just going to escalate it and it’s going to explode.
That’s great. And I wonder whether some of these strategies you have been using to calm emotions down might be difficult to execute in a pandemic environment, so tell me about what has and hasn’t changed in terms of strategies.
OK, in a pandemic environment you’re thinking about, for example, returning to school. One of the things teachers need to be very alert to is the fact that they and their students will be returning to school with a lot of big emotions. Until they can address that, they’re not going to be able to address what everybody is concerned about: learning loss. They have to be able to start to deal with those emotions.
This needs to be woven into science and reading and math. Teachers need to be very comfortable with this. In a safe, controlled environment where a teacher is in control of his or her own emotions, this can come to the forefront and teachers can say, we can talk about these feelings and help you with them. That starts to unite the kids and calm them down. It’s not being stuffed under a rug, it’s being discussed openly. Kids realize, “I’m not alone in feeling anxious,” or worried, or whatever the emotion may be.
It levels the playing field for everybody, and the emotions start to be reduced and controlled, so all that energy becomes available for them to start to learn. With the child up close and personal, when they are dysregulated, I can say, “Let’s take a deep breath together.” They’re feeling me, being there with me and they are watching. They get in touch with the rhythm — because otherwise a child can breathe very rapidly and we don’t want them to do that.
It is better when kids can be in the same room and smell one another and touch one another and really see up close the expressions on each other’s faces.
But in a situation where they can’t (because they are still virtual), the second-best thing is to address feelings with visuals and ask children to show us their feelings and ask what they see in cards with facial expressions, you know. As for breathing, online we can be doing that and showing, “Let’s count to three when we’re taking a deep breath.” Sometimes I’ll say, “Let’s pretend like we’re smelling a really wonderful flower… and now we’re going to blow out a candle.”
So let’s back up a little bit further. It’s still summer break, hopefully, for many teachers. Understandable, teachers are truly exhausted from last year. Do you have recommendations for teachers for self-care over the remainder of the summer, to make sure they are in a strong place coming back in the fall?
Absolutely. One of the things we’ve created at the Institute is a teacher emotional wellness program to reduce stress. There are four different kinds of courses. They are interactive, but asynchronous. Teachers can watch the courses on their own time, learning to breathe, different things they can do to relax. They help them begin to understand the emotions they are having and what to do with them. This is an important way to start dealing with these big emotions and practicing skills that will help teachers feel better.
How does providing these emotional foundations set things up for the development of executive function?
In the brain, emotional and cognitive circuits are interrelated, so the more you strengthen the emotional circuits, the more you strengthen the cognitive circuits. Emotion is the first language of all children, no matter what race or culture. They’re really skilled with tuning into emotion. When you strengthen the emotional skills we’ve been talking about, that in turn sends signals to the cognitive circuits. When emotions are regulated and managed, cognition opens up. Energy becomes available to get involved with executive functioning skills like attention, listening and problem-solving.
A few years ago, the Department of Defense was asking me to help them with something in terms of doing a curriculum. We brought them into a classroom of our 3-year-olds, who were learning about physics. They were talking about gravity, about momentum, about friction. These two big guys watched for about 10 or 15 minutes and then we came back into the conference room and they said, “Outstanding.”
I didn’t know what they meant, so I said, “Can you help me understand what you think is outstanding?”
We have never seen such young children be able to attend and concentrate and be able to absorb such complex phenomena. What the hell are you doing with these kids?
This is an example of what can happen when children learn how to manage their emotions effectively.