Building a Foundation of Feelings: The Importance of Teaching Emotional Regulation


Did you know emotional regulation is not something we are born with? You may have noticed babies and toddlers have no emotional regulation. This can exhibit itself in a few ways you are likely familiar with:

·         Tantrums

·         Hitting, biting, pushing

·         Crying

In order to regulate their emotions children must first be able to recognize what they are feeling and name it. Once they can do this they will be better able to adapt their emotions according to the situation. Optimal emotional adaptation does not always mean decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones! It is important if a child is feeling sad or frustrated we give them the language to express that and send the message that it’s okay to feel those feelings, even important to get them out, and when they are ready we are there to coach them on how to express and manage their emotions appropriately.

How can we as teachers and parents help?

  • Model emotional intelligence!

    • Remember, children are watching your interactions with other adults all the time: your co-teachers, your spouse, the waiter at the restaurant, the front desk person at school. It is healthy and okay to have disagreements – this is a time we can show our little ones how to resolve conflicts peacefully and with respect for others.

  • Treat your child with the same respect you would an adult. In order to understand what respect is, you need to show them every day, consistently what it looks like in your interactions with them. Before picking them up, for example. ask if they would like to be held. This will help teach them that their body belongs to them and reinforce the autonomy we want to instill.

  • Be kind and firm. Show empathy and connection by labeling a child’s emotions while also setting a limit.

    • “It seems like you are really frustrated right now! But it is not okay to kick a friend. If you are feeling frustrated you can come outside and kick the ball.”

  • Read books about emotions constantly! Here are some for different ages and feelings:

    • Millie Fierce by Jane Manning

    • Don’t Think about Purple Elephants by Susan Whelan

    • The Way I Feel by Janan Cain

    • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

    • When Sophie Gets Angry - Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

    • Llama, Llama, Mad at Momma by Anna Dewdney

    • I Hate Everything! A Book About Feeling Angry by Sue Graves

    • I Will Be Okay by Laurie Wright

    • When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Spelman

    • What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner.

  • Ask for help!! If a child is having a particularly difficult moment and not responding to your strategies, ask for help! Sometimes children need a change of environment or a different face to help them get through their difficult emotions so they can then process them and reflect. Teachers or other parents may have solutions you have not tried when emotions are high in the moment. We are stronger when we collaborate and put our heads together to find strategies to best support our children.

Parents and Teachers are People Too

Parents and Teachers are People Too

How Taking Care of Yourself is Part of Taking Care of Your Classroom

“Following the child does not mean ignoring ourselves.” (Simone Davies, The Montessori Toddler, 193)


A few months ago I led a seminar with a few other teachers on Positive Discipline, self-care, and Mommy and Me yoga. Most of the moms who came were probably eager to learn Positive Discipline techniques and do some downward dogs with their minis. Little did they know we were going to talk less about what to do specifically in the throes of a tantrum, and more about how our own behaviors and patterns can precipitate and/or exacerbate these events. In the Primary classroom, we often talk about being “a bucket-filler,” which means doing or saying kind things to another person. But how often do we pause to fill up our own buckets? You cannot pour from an empty cup. When we take time to show up for ourselves, we are better able to show up, level-headed for our children. We are better able to respond, rather than react.


Dr. Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline training for parents and teachers includes an activity called “Top Card.” During this activity you are to imagine you receive 4 (horrible) packages - rejection/hassles, stress/pain, criticism/humiliation, and meaninglessness/unimportance. Of these four options, participants are to choose the one they loathe the most and would send back. Depending on which of these bothers you the most, you likely have some go-to behaviors when feeling this way during moments of conflict or stress. If you chose rejection and hassles your go-to behavior is pleasing. If a child is having an epic meltdown over reading four more books together and you desperately fear their rejection – you will likely do whatever is necessary to please them. If your least favorite of these options is stress and pain, you handle conflict by seeking comfort, often over solving the problem. If criticism and pain are your kryptonite you aim to control the situation or seek control over other aspects of your life to feel better. Finally, if the worst thing you can imagine feeling is meaningless or unimportant, you may often display behaviors that emphasize your superiority.

I tell you about this activity because it has almost nothing to do with the child’s behavior – and everything to do with our own. If we take the time to take care of ourselves we will be better able to reflect and recognize what our triggers are, how we typically react to a challenge, and perhaps make a more thoughtful choice in the moment.  

Taking time for ourselves looks different for every person, but here are some ideas for ways to give yourself a break:

·         Let go of being perfect. “We’re all imperfect and that’s perfectly okay. Tiny humans need connection not perfection” (L.R. Knost). Instead of striving to be perfect, focus on having a growth mindset. Demonstrate for your students and those around you that you don’t know everything. There is no finish line where we’ve “made it.” We are all learning and growing every day.

·         Start and end your day mindfully. Wake up a few minutes earlier to have some quiet time and start your day off positively with intention. You can’t control the blunders that may happen, but you can control your emotions and how you react to them.

·         Make a cup of coffee or tea. I attended a Montessori Coaches training recently where the speaker, an administrator at a public school, described her struggle to fit a cup of tea into her busy daily schedule. She literally wrote it down on her to-do list and was determined to give herself a break each day. She said she got so great…at boiling water. Make the time. Have the tea.

·         Play music.

·         Exercise.

·         Go outside.

·         Spend time with friends.

·         Go slow. Being on time for anything with a classroom full of toddlers is difficult, but every once in awhile stop rushing. Say “no” to some things so you have more time to notice the pleasures present in each moment. Bonus – if you cultivate more of a slow attitude, your students will learn to take it more seriously when you really do need to rush!

·         Practice presence. Toddlers set a great example of being truly present every day. They delight at the appearance of a bird flitting close to them on the playground. They drop everything they are doing to alert us and gaze in wonder at an airplane. Follow them. Actively listen when someone speaks, rather than internally formulate a response. Turn off technology and practice calming your mind. Take time to pause. When we slow down we can be more objective observers and see our student’s struggles from their perspective. This allows us to be more steady, tranquil leaders for them through the difficult times.


Another activity we do in the Positive Discipline training is tell all the parents or teachers to make a fist. We instruct them to watch carefully and do as we say. We then tell them to place their fist on their cheek as we place ours on our chin. You’d be surprised how many grown adults put their fists on their chin, rather than their cheek. Children will always learn more from what we do than what we say. If we show them how important it is to take care of ourselves – they will grow up learning how to do the same.

Pretty Smart. Pretty Kind. Pretty Funny. Pretty Strong: How to Talk to Girls to Build Confidence in Their Inner Beauty

“I want to apologize to all the women

I have called pretty

Before I’ve called them intelligent or brave

I am sorry I made it sound as though

Something as simple as what you’re born with

Is the most you have to be proud of when your

Spirit has crushed mountains

From now on I will say things like

You are resilient or you are extraordinary

Not because I don’t think you’re pretty

But because you are so much more than that.

-Rupi Kaur  


“What a pretty dress!” “You look so beautiful!!” “Look at those perfect curls.” How often do we dish out compliments to girls based on their appearance? I do it all of the time. We mean well. We want to build up their confidence. Make them feel beautiful before they enter a world of ruthless comparison. We do it for the right reasons, but when we overemphasize girls’ looks or how they dress we unintentionally send the message that these are the qualities that give them worth, rather than emphasizing intelligence, leadership qualities, or naturally inquisitive minds about nature and science. I’m not proposing we never talk about appearance, but If we shift our flattery at least twice as often to focus on intrinsic qualities, we can help girls build a quiet inner confidence that is not only valued, but unbreakable. We can help set them up for a future of strength and self-assuredness with less need for constant, superficial approval from others.

Developmental Specialist, Aileen Jackman, recently led a lunch and learn about confidence at the Suzuki Buckhead campus. She started off the session by asking, “Do you remember a time when someone said something to you as a child that negatively affected you?” In a room full of women every example was related to physical appearance - no comments were related to a skill, intelligence, or abilities to accomplish something. I’m guessing this experiment would have gone differently in a room full of men.

So how do we change the conversation? How do we take the focus away from looks while still ensuring girls grow up confident and proud?

  • Focus on effort and process-oriented praise, rather than product-oriented. Make a conscious effort to balance out compliments on looks with twice as many compliments on who a girl is and what she does. Point it out when you notice she worked really hard to complete a task or project, or came up with a creative solution to a problem.

  • Model self acceptance.  Our most relentless critics are almost always ourselves. Next time you go to make a comment about what you look like or how much weight you want to lose - remember who is listening. Instead of making negative comments about what you look like, talk about the positive healthy habits you’re focusing on, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables and celebrate what your body is capable of. In over-complimenting our children on their looks, we may be inadvertently communicating our own insecurities. Practice more self-compassion so the inadvertent messages you send are positive ones.

  • Encourage skills and activities that are independent of appearance. Sports are a great way to encourage healthy habits that focus on developing a skill and build self confidence. If your little one is more creative and is interested in playing an instrument or dreaming up stories and writing, foster that. Celebrate her interests and individuality so she feels accepted for who she is, not just what she looks like.

  • Provide examples of women you admire for their spirit or strength. Read books together about women who faced adversity and prevailed, or accomplished amazing things to change the world. Television and social media provide a plethora of princesses, damsels in distress, and girls whose primary concern is what they look like. It’s up to us to supply examples of the qualities we want our children to value in themselves.

  • Allow your little one to solve problems on her own. We don’t get self confidence from being told what a great little girl we are or from having others solve our problems for us. Our self esteem comes when we overcome obstacles on our own, establishing a strong sense of competence. By letting our children know we are there if they need support but are not going to do everything for them, we send the message that we know they are capable of meeting challenges themselves and don’t need rescuing.

According to the US department of Commerce, women filled 47% of all US jobs in 2015 but only held 24% of the science, technology, engineering, and maths jobs. The difference in the way we treat girls and boys begins at a young age. Girls are typically given dolls or encouraged to play house, while we give boys Legos and blocks to build with. If we begin to be more mindful about the subtle messages we send, we can start to change the script. With more thoughtful compliments our girls will grow up less concerned with what they look like and have much more time to focus on everything else they bring to the world. We don’t need to stop communicating to girls they are pretty - but rather emphasize the fact that they are so much more than that.

Let There Be Wiggles: Sensitive Periods and the Importance Of Purposeful Movement

“Stop fidgeting.” “Be still.” “Be quiet.” How often as a teacher do you find yourself berating students with these statements? Imagine a child: bouncing around, babbling, nearly falling out of his seat. Is he listening? This type of behavior can distract us as teachers. Traditional education and our own educational experiences have us teach to most children, while we intuitively know, and research increasingly purports, that every child learns at her own pace, and each child (and adult) learns best in different ways. Some are visual learners; others learn best with kinetic input, and others still by listening. Children calm their bodies and focus in a variety of ways as well. It’s time to let go of what we think a focused child should look like. Let’s help them determine what they need to do to be balanced - whether it’s humming, moving, or laying down - and encourage them to do it, so they are better able to direct their full attention on learning.


Dr. Stuart Shanker, a research Professor Emeritus at York University, Science Director of the Self-Regulation Institute, and former President of the Council of Early Child Development and the Council of Human Development, in his book Self-Reg, describes the “hidden stressors” that children struggle with that can make it appear they have emotional, behavioral, or learning issues, when in actuality they need tactics to help them self-regulate or adjustments in their environment. Some children are overstimulated by certain environmental triggers - a loud classroom, open spaces, etc. - and some are hypo-aroused, needing more physical input in order to return to a calm stasis. The environment is a key component in a Montessori classroom. Teachers are able and encouraged to observe each child and adjust the classroom to meet their needs. A Peace shelf is often a staple in a Montessori classroom, tucked away in a quiet corner complete with sand timers the child may sit mesmerized watching or a sensory bin with materials the child can pull, twist, or otherwise manipulate for kinetic stimulation.

Maria Montessori recognized that children go through “sensitive periods” - windows of time during which the child’s brain and development learns certain concepts easily. From birth to about age four the child is in a sensitive period for movement. In other words, you may notice a child fidgeting in his seat during a lesson because his body literally needs to move in order to better focus. Montessori materials were developed with this tenet in mind. The Sensorial lessons such as the Broad Stair and Pink Tower require the child to not only manipulate blocks with his hand in order to build a structure, they are also presented carefully by the teacher requiring the child to travel back and forth to the shelf many times to complete them. Every Montessori lesson also has countless extensions that allow for purposeful movement and engage the child’s working memory. For example you may observe a child in a Primary classroom removing Geometric shapes from the cabinet on one rug before bringing his tray to a separate rug across the room to match the shapes. The Montessori curriculum, lessons, and teachers honor each child’s development and need for movement in order to learn and focus.

Most Montessori schools look a little different than traditional preschool environments. You may see children sitting in a circle for a classroom meeting, but you will also see several children quietly continuing to work at other tables if they have other work they are attending to. When I teach a lesson, if a child is fidgeting, or laying down instead of sitting, I evaluate whether this is interfering with their participation in the work, and if not, I allow it. This is not because I’m extremely laid back or don’t believe in enforcing rules, rather, it’s clear from observing that some children focus better when they are engaging their body. Rather than distracting them, movement can promote better comprehension. Instead of insisting on sitting “criss-cross applesauce” and asking a three year old body buzzing with energy to be completely still, let there be wiggles.

Hold the Applause: How to Avoid Raising Praise Seekers and Tame the Fear of Failure


In an age of everyone gets a “participation trophy”, encouragement and praise can be a touchy subject, with a wide variety of opinions. The difference between “Great job! You’re so good at math!” and “It looks like you really worked hard on that, you must be so proud of yourself!” might not seem drastically different, but the subtle difference in celebrating a child’s skill versus celebrating their effort can have monumental effects on motivation, self-confidence, a child’s ability to navigate through challenges, and their overall enthusiasm for learning.

I have recently become interested in listening to podcasts. In my current fervor I listen to anything that comes my way, but of course I have a tendency to relate everything to Montessori. An episode of the Tim Ferris show in particular caught my attention: #187 Josh Waitzkin: The Prodigy Returns. Josh Waitzkin is an eight-time National Chess Champion, the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, as well as a martial arts champion with twenty-one National Championship titles and several World Championship titles. Most recently he is the president of the JW Foundation, “a nonprofit committed to maximizing each student’s unique potential through an enriched educational process.” (The Art of Learning) After identifying with so much of what he discusses in the podcast, I ordered his book The Art of Learning. In it he discusses how developmental psychologists have recently done research on how a student’s approach to learning can ultimately affect his ability to master a concept or material.

Entity vs. Incremental Theories of Intelligence

Waitzkin discusses a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck, who explains the difference between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. If you speak to a child as if their intelligence is a fixed entity, saying things like “What a great reader you are!” they tend to think they are “good” at certain subjects and internalize that success or failure is based on innate, immoveable ability. If you congratulate children on their effort, (“look at how hard you worked sounding out those words!”) they learn that difficult lessons or materials can be mastered incrementally with hard work and persistence. Waitzkin elaborates that Dweck’s research has also shown children who associate hard work with success “tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situation. In other words these children believe if they work hard at something and practice consistently, they will incrementally get better at it until they conquer the challenge. Children who see themselves as just plain “smart” or “dumb,” or “good” or “bad” at something, have a “learned helplessness orientation” (The Art of Learning, 30). Children who receive effort-based feedback from parents and teachers are more likely to be excited by challenging work, rather than children who have been praised on their ability, who tend be “dispirited by the inability to solve the hard problems…” (The Art of Learning, 31). When presented with difficulties or challenges, these children tend to shut down and have their self confidence destroyed.  

Positive Discipline and Encouragement vs. Praise

Dr. Jane Nelson, a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and Child Counselor in San Diego, is the author of Positive Discipline - The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills. At Suzuki we use many of the strategies she suggests. Positive Discipline boasts of no rewards, no punishments, and no praise. Instead teachers have been taught to use careful, well thought-out encouragement, and skill building. For example when a little girl brings a painting over half-done, tilting her head up, clearly looking for approval and praise - of course my natural instinct is to tell her how beautiful her painting of air balloons is. Instead, I take a second and ask her to tell me about the picture, which colors she used, the paint, etc. to engage her in conversation. This way the focus is more about bonding and sharing rather than seeking approval and we avoid connecting it to her self esteem. I talk about how focused I can tell she is and encourage her to continue working. Dr. Jane Nelson warns of creating “approval junkies” that need constant validation from outside sources. When we encourage a child, rather than judge their work based on our ideals - we give them the power to assess their own effort and decide whether or not they are proud of what they’ve done.  

It is imperative that children learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable and approach learning as a long-term process that requires they leave the safety net of what comes easy to them. In order to feel safe enough to do this children need to learn from their parents and teachers, based on their careful effort-focused encouragement, that if they face a challenge and make a mistake, it’s an opportunity for growth. They have the tools and tenacity within them to acknowledge their mistake, continue learning, and perhaps seek an alternate route. Small changes in the way we speak to our children can have a huge impact on their sense of self and future success. What we say to our children matters - so choose your words carefully.