System- SEL & Big Feelings

Big Feelings are natural and inevitable! Learning to identify our feelings and causes, and then to calm ourselves and find solutions is a lifelong journey for most of us. Young people especially need support to build a strong foundation for all their social-emotional learning (SEL). 

Social-emotional learning must be integrated into all aspects of life and learning, not taught in isolation. Meaning with SEL objectives in mind, academic activities will provide practice for both academic objectives and SEL skills. A strong classroom community and an open-ended learning environment is an ideal situation for developing a wide range of social-emotional skills at any age.

Skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, resilience, emotional regulation, empathy, and more. For a more in-depth look at social-emotional learning, we recommend reviewing the CASEL Framework which includes five areas of SEL: Self-awareness, Social awareness, Responsible decision-making, Self-management, and Relationship skills.

Even if all of that makes sense, this next step might challenge your brain’s current pathways…

Having the opportunity to experience a range of emotions and problems is essential to provide necessary practice for those social-emotional skills. That means we cannot predict and prevent everything that could result in a child failing or getting hurt. It is a disservice to them, and ultimately will not benefit them as children, as adults, or as future contributing members of our society. Learning to work through tough situations, problem solve, communicate, collaborate, exercise resilience, and to literally and figuratively fall down and get back up again will benefit them now and later. These types of opportunities are everywhere, but many of us adults are so used to fixing everything quickly or trying to avoid big feelings we do it instinctively. It has to STOP. 

Admittedly, this is tricky. We find two things to be key in balancing the powerful benefits of falling and failure with the need for safety in this day in age. First, building school-home relationships through communication so families trust us to guide their children safely through learning challenges. Second, looking at situations through multiple lenses. An example:

Children want to stand on a chair to hang something higher on the wall. Our first instinct might be “No! That is not safe!” Instead, look at it a few different ways… Why are they standing on the chair? What benefits or skills might they gain in this situation? Consider that they are demonstrating independence, ownership and pride in their work and their classroom, and exercising balance. Are they mitigating the risk of falling by say having a friend hold the chair? Is there a safer solution available (other than the adult doing it for them)? Maybe you can add a step stool to the resources in the classroom for next time.

Be Specific… Not “Be Careful!”

One of my favorite lessons I learned while raising my small humans and teaching children of all ages is the idea to not say Be Careful! Instead, provide specifics, foster awareness, and encourage problem-solving.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s jump into the systems for big feelings (or SEL).

Teach feelings, perspective-taking, and problem solving.

We like to teach these both explicitly and in an integrated manner. A text the class is reading may be ideal for a lesson on adverbs or theme, as well as a prime example of emotions and behaviors. Other times, I may choose a text or activity because it will enhance a SEL discussion. Generally, it depends on the details and timing of your day, week, or unit; just keep in mind that SEL should not sit on the back burner waiting for it to naturally appear in the classroom. As with any other objectives, you must plan for it if you and your students are to successfully practice those skills. And practice we must! The future of society depends on us!

Calm Down Corner

Create a system or place for emotional regulation and problem-solving. When working with young children I kept a cozy place away from most work areas, where children could go to sit when their feelings were BIG. There they would find resources to help them help themselves including a mirror, pictures to reflect various emotions, a sand timer, a sparkle jar, various fidgets, and of course pillows and stuffed animals (my favorite was the weighted dragon from Target). 

Adults could offer support as needed, and manage the space relatively easily with a few expectations (not rules) such as “Use the sand timer- Check if you are ready to return to your work.” In many situations, children calmed down and returned to work, other times they needed a hug or moral support from the adults before they were ready to go back. Listening to children explain the reasons for their big feelings is just as important as identifying the emotions and taking a break. This allows them to reflect out loud on the details, and consider what could be done differently in the future (and strengthen their relationship with you). 

Of course, every child and every situation is different. With practice we get better at listening to understand rather than to respond, as well as knowing each child as an individual to understand their needs. Do they need to go for a walk? Do heavy work? Drink some water?

Our class reflection meeting provides an opportunity for students to share what they felt and what they learned with the class, or for example for the teacher to show their pride in how children solved their problems or showed kindness to their peer. More on that later!

It is clear that SEL is a deep well to draw from, full of important life skills, many of which must be practiced in a developmentally appropriate sequence. For that reason, we will stop here and note that this was meant as a primer to why and how to implement SEL Systems in your classroom.


These are some of the products I have used in the past to teach and support big feelings:

MindUp Curriculum 

Nature Emotions Cards by PlayAtTheTreeHouse

Feelings Unit- Pocket of Preschool

Problem Solving Solutions- Pocket of Preschool

Gedikoglu, M. (2021). Social and emotional learning: An Evidence Review and Synthesis of Key Issues. Education Policy Institute. Education Policy Institute- SEL Evidence Review-Nov2021

Book List Coming Soon!

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