It’s OK to Get Upset

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As long as I have been a part of the early childhood education world, the following phrase has been a part of it: You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. 

I don’t know when parents and educators started using this phrase, but can we please stop?

Not only is it dismissive to the child aka you’re feelings don’t matter but more and more research indicates the importance of teaching children how to express and handle their emotions. When we teach children about their emotions, we give them the power of expression and self, and we start letting them know their mental health and well-being are just as important as their physical well-being.

I understand what the phrase is trying to do; it’s saying, whatever happens, it’s going to be ok, but to blatantly and repeatedly tell children they cannot get upset is ridiculous; it’s also not human.

We get upset. I get upset. One day years ago, when I was teaching four-and-five-year-olds, it was my day to be at the school early and open the classroom. On these days, I made a special stop at Starbucks and bought an expensive splurge drink. A parent who was in a rush asked if they could leave their child with me.  Even though I wasn’t clocked in yet and not even in my classroom, I was in the kitchen of the school enjoying my last moments of quiet before the crazy day began; I said yes. 

While in my hazy, still sleepy, somewhat-annoyed-that-the-parent-had-just-done-this-state, and trying to keep an eye on the kid while I got what I needed for the classroom snack that morning, I set my coffee down on an uneven surface and the entirety of my specialty, splurge coffee spilled on the floor. 

It wasn’t even 7 A.M. My once-a-week splurge lay on the floor (and I now had to clean it up). And I had a 4-year-old standing next to me. I vividly remember telling myself silently, “Don’t cry. Do not let this child see you cry over a spilled coffee.” Honestly I wanted to have a tantrum.

So why didn’t I have a tantrum? Well, I came close, but I didn’t because I had learned how to process and handle strong emotions. We need to teach our children that it is OK to be upset when something negative happens, but how you respond that matters.

When I was teaching and passing things out, I would always shorten it to “You get what you get.” There was always at least one child in the class who would then say, “and you don’t get upset.” When that happened, I would look at them and say, “It’s ok to be upset when you don’t get what you want; what’s important is how you handle it.” Pay attention to that second part – it is OK to get upset when you don’t get what you want.

I have been performing in theater and music nearly my entire life, which means there are countless times I didn’t get the part or the solo I auditioned for and wanted. Do you know how many times I was upset I didn’t get the part I wanted? EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Of course I was upset! But here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on social media and bash everyone involved with the show. I didn’t scream and throw things. I didn’t swear off doing theater ever again. 

I talked to a friend or my mom. I went and did something I enjoyed like reading a book.  I took a walk and listened to music. I enjoyed a glass (or two) of wine. I took a bubble bath. The point is I found ways to work through my disappointment and move on. These are the skills we need to be teaching our kids. Go ahead and have your disappointment, but let’s figure out the best way to handle it.

There are times I cried and times I didn’t. There are times it took me a few weeks to get over the disappointment and times it only took a few hours, but I was still upset every single time; because I’m human. 

Is it appropriate for a ten-year-old to cry because their sibling got the last green Jolly Rancher?  In most cases, no; but they are allowed to be bummed out about it. Is it appropriate for a five-year-old to have a tantrum because their best friend got the sticker they wanted at circle time? Probably not, but if they do, we can use it as a teaching opportunity to find other ways to express disappointment.

It is rarely a healthy option to tell kids “Don’t cry” because it is another way of telling them their emotions are not valid, but sometimes it can be hard not to roll our adult eyes and think, “Really? He’s crying because Godzilla is no longer on Amazon Prime?” (And yes, my son did this. So what I like to do instead is say, “It is ok to be upset, but Is this situation worth your tears?” Phrasing things in this way makes children slow down and evaluate their responses.

We can help our children process big emotions and disappointments by using phrases like:

  • I see you’re really upset right now. Would you like some space?
  • This seems to be making you sad. Do you want to talk about it?
  • It is ok to be angry, but it is not OK to hurt people or things.
  • You seem worried. Would you like me to sit with you?
  • I am not sure what is bothering you, but I am here if you want to talk.

The more we as adults recognize and discuss emotions, the more our children will understand them. Like language and social interactions, children learn about handling emotions from the adults surrounding them.

If a child grows up in a house where anger is considered “bad,” they may have trouble processing feelings of anger because they believe it makes them bad. We must also avoid assigning emotions to genders. For example, if children hear that crying and whining is what girls do and boys should be strong and fearless, then we are assigning weakness as feminine, but we are telling our boys that they have to be brave all the time. 

Fear is another normal and completely biological response in many situations; fear is what kept our early ancestors alive. They needed to know when to run, when to fight, and when to hide too, survive. 

Emotions need just to be emotions—all normal and all OK.

Children should be learning self-awareness and understanding of their own emotions, regulating and controlling those emotions, learning to understand what is essential and what is not (AKA is this situation worth your tears?), and reading and understanding emotions in others. 

We do this when we allow children to see our emotions and emotional process and demonstrate how to handle disappointing and upsetting situations. Teaching emotional intelligence puts our children in the driver’s seat of their mental well-being and teaches them how to problem-solve and self-soothe. 

So, teach your kids you get what you get, and you CAN get upset. But also teach them that a tantrum over a Jolly Rancher probably isn’t worth the energy spent, and if you take the red one, at least you still got candy! More importantly, you’re helping them process their emotions and how to handle things independently so that when they are thrity they don’t have a melt down over spilled coffee.

What Teaching Early Childhood Taught Me

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I spent fourteen years as a classroom educator before recently switching to writing full time. I was very green when I began in this field, and I had never intended to become an educator. Instead, I had studied Music and Theater and dreamt of being on Broadway. Yet there I was at the age of 26, embarking on a new career in which I only had passive, marginal, and informal training and experience.

Since I spent 14 years teaching, I will share 14 lessons I learned during my time “behind the desk.”

You are going to make mistakes, lots of them.

It’s OK. It’s part of the human experience is messing up. We all do it. Whether we forget a friend’s birthday, sent the email to the wrong person, or become distracted and cause a fender bender. Mistakes come in all sizes and shapes, and you are 100% going to make them as a teacher. Probably daily. Probably several times a day. There are so many times when I forgot the book I needed for a lesson, assumed I had the supplies I needed for a project in my closet, or said something more harshly than I should have. When working as an educator and with young children, we need to set the example and own our mistakes so they can learn that it happens and it is entirely OK.

You Can’t Win Them All

You will create some of the most fantastic lesson plans and activities that this earth has ever been graced with. You are also going to have ideas that flop so severely they should be featured on Rotten Tomatoes. These failed activities will leave you standing in a haze of confusion and smoke as you try to figure out how this fantastic idea fell short. Use this as a time for reflection. Once the dust settles, take your time to go through why it failed methodically. Was it beyond your student’s abilities? Did it not hold their interest? Did you purchase the wrong ingredients or supplies? Did you lack in your presentation? Self-reflection is a powerful tool when teaching.

There Will be Children You Can’t Reach

As much as you will want to help every child that passes through your classroom, there will be some you won’t be able to help. The obstacle may be your lack of knowledge in a particular area. The parents don’t want to see the issue you may be seeing, or the child may have personal or developmental problems beyond your professional scope. Again, I recommend this as a time to self reflect. Then, go out and learn more. Take a continuing education class, attend a webinar, or read up on related situations. Maybe next time a similar child passes your way, you will be more equipped. You still may not be able to help them, but there is truth in the saying Knowledge is Power.

Never Stop Learning

This tip goes along with what I mentioned above. Take continuing ed classes (beyond what is required), read articles, subscribe to educational newsletters or journals. When you encounter a situation, child, or topic you aren’t familiar with, take it upon yourself to learn more. Learn from those more experienced than you and from those who come from a different walk of life. Talk to those who have been through similar situations before. Fellow teachers can be one of your best resources. The more you can learn, the better teacher you will be.

Don’t Pigeon Hole Yourself

Just because you went to school and studied Elementary Education, or American Literature, or Earth and Space Science, it doesn’t mean those are the only things you can teach. I earned two degrees, one in English/Theater and one in Music. I wound up with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a TEFL certification. I was able to use the skills I learned as an actor and musician and translate them to teaching. You may have a degree in science but have spent years writing books and literature reviews as a hobby. Use what you have. There are certifications galore out there that can boost your resume without costing a ton of money.

You Will Not be Liked by Everyone

It’s ugly, but it’s true. You will have co-workers that, despite your best intentions, find you annoying, or eccentric, or boring, or too loud, or strange, etc. It’s just the way life is. You will also have parents that don’t like you, They will think you’re not doing enough for their child, or they won’t care for your personality, or they may not enjoy hearing that their child is struggling in your class because of course their child is perfect.. Develop a thick skin, read up on how to deal with conflict and challenging personalities, and buckle down. And again, I say, self-reflect. There will be reason beyond you that people don’t like you, you cannot change that, but you change change how you deal with that.

Some Parents Will Love You!

To some parents, you will be the greatest thing that has ever happened to their child, and this time, believe it because it’s true. You will find the most amazing connections with some of the families that pass through your walls. Embrace those, enjoy the love and respect that comes with that relationship. Those are the experiences you will draw on when things are rough when you feel challenged, and when you think you don’t want to do this anymore.

You Will Not Like Every Child

You just won’t. Children are people, and never has there been a person who has liked everyone they’ve met. It’s OK. I struggled with this at first. I thought, how can I not like a little kid? The answer was because they were annoying to me. Again I say, it’s OK. You are not required to like every child who walks into your classroom, you ARE required to treat them all with the same level of respect and care.

You Will Never Feel So Loved

Young children have a never-ending supply of love, and they are happy to bestow that love heavily on those who care for them. Hugs from kids can be one of the highest parts of the day, especially when you are feeling off. They will make you all kinds of gifts and cards that are guaranteed to make you smile!

Engage in Self Care

Do not deprive yourself. Teaching can be a demanding job, so do not allow it to take over your life. Engage in whatever forms of self-care are most meaningful to you. I always enjoyed walks with music on my breaks, power naps, and on really rough days an extra caramel drizzle caramel Frappucino from Starbucks. Carve out time for yourself every day to unwind and do something you find relaxing.

Maintain A Sense of Humor

I have had children throw up on me, pee on me, and bite me. I have cleaned up poop of the floor and poop off of children. I have stood by while children have thrown epic tantrums smiling at as parents dropped off their children, quoting Olaf, “This is fine.” Children will say the most astounding things, and you will have to keep a straight face because they are deadly serious. They will say funny things that will have you laughing until tears are coming out of your eyes. The good, the bad, and the ugly come with teaching young children. The ability to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself will come in handy.

You, Will Be Underpaid, Over-stressed and ALWAYS have to Pee

You will never make enough money teaching Early Childhood. It is a sad truth that needs systematic changes in this country, but this is not a job you do for the money. If you are lucky enough to work this job and not have to work a second or third job, consider yourself lucky. The more educated you are, the more you will make, but the difference is marginal. There is little to no room for career advancement in this field. It is a high-stress job and, as a result, has a lot of turnover. People do not appreciate early childhood educators in this country. You will often be referred to as “daycare’ or “baby sitter.”

You Will be Mary Poppins, The Punisher, Mom, Physician, Psychiatrist, and Best Friend

You will play every role in your students’ lives, usually all in one day. That rash that popped up? You will have to determine if it might be an allergic reaction or possibly viral or just a skin irritation. You will have to dish out consequences and pull magical tea sets out of your bag. You will sit and listen to their disagreements and problems and dispense out wisdom help. You will be their confidant and the one they run to when they need a hug or have something exciting to share.

You Can and You Will

Even on the days, you think to yourself, I cannot listen to that child scream all day again. I cannot spend another day in the cycle of potty-training and diapering. I cannot have so-and-so’s parents complain again about something they don’t like. I cannot struggle through circle time with this group that doesn’t seem interested, no matter what. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot…. you will. And when and if the time comes, as it did for me, you have to make the bittersweet decision to move in another direction with your career. You will look back on your time as an educator and be grateful for all that you learned.

These are a Few of my Favorite Things… for Kids

As both a mom and a Pre-K teacher I have purchased and interacted with A LOT of toys. Some have been fantastic and surpassed my wildest dreams while others have left me out to dry. I’ve complied a list of some my top toys. If you’re not familiar with these already then I hope I just introduced you and your child to their next favorite thing. Click on the name of any of these items to learn more!

Zingo! This a fan favorite in my four and five year old classroom. The set in my classroom used to be my personal game before my two outgrew it. It’s Bingo but requires letter and word recognition. It also promotes memory and hand eye coordination skills.

Lego Marble ~ Few things keep young children busier than Legos. Combine that with a marble run and there are endless opportunities. This is the perfect toy to boost STEM skills, problem solving and creativity.

Lazada Pig Pillow ~ My six year old has this and it goes everywhere with him. It’s so incredibility soft I want one of my own. It comes in a variety of sizes and options and is bound to be your child’s new best friend.

Chalk. Colored chalk is one of the most popular toys I have ever utilized. It is open ended and provides so much opportunity for creative expression. Plus it’s a great way to get everyone outside and enjoying the sunshine!

Dan&Darci Flower Growing Kit ~ Spring is the perfect time to take your kids outside and teach them about gardening. This kit is a great starter garden for your budding botanist and bonus it comes with paints to decorate the flower box!

Flybar My First Foam Pogo Stick ~ These are fantastic! Both my boys received these this year for their birthday and they are loving them! They hold up to 250 pounds, so you better believe I tried it out too. This toy is great for building balance and gross motor skills. Hey, if your kids don’t want one get it for yourself!

Kanoodle ~ This is a fantastic logic game that has even stumped me at times! Admittedly, when it comes to logic puzzles, I am not the best. I had to order a second one of these for the house because my kids were fighting over who got to play with it. Logic and problem solving are the key skills honed by this marvelous, inexpensive toy.

Piano Music Mat ~ We had one of these for years in our home and it was always a favorite of my two. Your kids can jump and dance around and make sounds with the instrument options and it has a record setting so your little Mozart can play back the music they made. I used it to reenact my own Tom Hanks “Big” Moment.

I could list so many more, and I will probably will down the line! When purchasing toys for kids I like to think about what possibilities the toy presents and what senses it engages. For me, the less electronics the better. Guide your children while playing by asking them open ended questions as this will engage and enhance their language and literacy skills.

If your quarantine brain is starting to fuzz on what to do to keep your kids engaged then I hope this list can give you some ideas or at least set you down the right path!