In the current social and political climate, emotions are high. What prompted it was particularly heinous, but this is far from the first time. And it likely won’t be the last injustice that brings people to the streets. Home-bound teaching may be the new normal for now—but not forever. So let this be is an opportunity for educators of young children to reflect on best practice.

I taught kindergarten and first grade for twelve years, as well as worked with college students training to be teachers. And I’ve been reflecting recently on what I learned over time about emotions and young children.

Regardless of a community’s prevailing beliefs, teachers see emotions play out in classrooms. This is true with children as young as kindergarten—and even younger. Early childhood teachers often don’t know what to do when emotions around “adult” topics arise. So they don’t address it.

In my experience, far too often, colleagues and college students would express reluctance or refusal to talk about subjects like bias, stereotypes, immigrant deportation, grossly unequal criminal justice, outright racism and other issues under the guise of students “not being ready” or “not understanding.” In reality it’s the teachers who were not ready. I include myself here in my first few years in the classroom.

Teachers fear saying the wrong thing. Instead of leaning in to the discomfort, they choose to ignore it. Sometimes what teachers need is permission and guidance. But doing nothing is unacceptable—right now, or ever again.

Here are some important things for those who work with young children—for anyone who spends time with young children—to keep in mind.

Emotions carry: Whether or not teachers want to talk about them explicitly in the classroom, politics creep in—as both happy and bitter realities do. Young children are particularly sensitive to emotions in their environment. They inherit those of their own families, their neighborhoods, and from media they’re exposed to. Young children don’t understand politics. They do know how to listen. And they believe what they hear.

Prepare to educate: Teachers must constantly educate themselves about ways to talk and help children process difficult situations. Talk also happens among children. If they bring it up, it means their curiosity is peaked and they’re grappling with what something means. It’s not inappropriate to talk with children even as young as 5 about topics that may seem sensitive but are certainly relevant. Numerous resources are available to help do this in age-appropriate ways.

Ask questions: Teachers don’t need to reveal personal politics, and shouldn’t. But if fear and other strong emotions, or misinformation, enter the classroom—it’s the teacher’s responsibility to ask questions. Teachers can make themselves a part of children’s conversations in order to understand what they do understand. Then they can provide reassurance (and facts) if it’s clear children misunderstand.

Know who you are: For teachers who are white, American-born, not Muslim or Jewish, and/or heterosexual, this is a time for a self-check. It’s disingenuous to pretend to know what it’s like to be a racial, religious, or cultural minority, or an immigrant in a country not always welcoming, when a person is not. And straight teachers don’t know what it’s like to be LGBT. Specific fears experienced by children in these communities are legitimate, based on various injustices that happen time and again. Validating the emotions of students of color, Muslim or Jewish students, those from immigrant families and those with LGBT families is not the same as pretending to understand how they’re feeling or a teacher saying his or her emotions are just like theirs.

Be the adult: Though little, children live in an adult world. When they’re at school, teachers are the adults who are there to help them understand the world in ways they can understand. Some families may be looking for guidance. Teachers are the experts, after all. They must act like it by being present and open.

Seek support: Teachers must find ways to support each other. They also bring the outside world into schools. While it’s not appropriate for teachers to talk to children about their own strong emotions, it is important to have others to talk with. This is especially important because teachers have the additional challenge of being present for children all day.

Listen: Most important of all is listening. The worst we can do when we hear children express intense interest or emotions about something is turn the other way. Silence speaks almost as loudly as a scream. Children certainly hear it.

Some parts of this article originally appeared in Education Post.

photo credit: Michael Mims on Unsplash.


  • Kevin Wood

    Writer. Editor. Professor.

    Kevin Wood is a freelance writer, writing coach, and contributing editor for The Good Men Project, where he focuses on social justice, queer issues, and education. A former teacher, he also works with college students training to be educators. Previous writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Litro Magazine, Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Elephant Journal, Manifest-Station, and American Chordata, among others. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.