Simple and Lasting Mindful Emotional Management Habits for Early Childhood Educators
As early childhood educators, we have experienced and observed the stressful workload that comes with being a teacher. Daily stress can negatively impact aspects of our health, causing issues with blood pressure, the immune system, or mental health (Colman 2015). One way to counteract these negative effects is through self-care, including mindful awareness of emotions. Spending time focused on emotional management can help with stress levels (Napoli 2004), problem solving, insight, clarity, and how to react to situations (Coleman 2015; Kabat-Zinn 2003).
In our current work as professors of early education, we’ve seen an increase in the need to support the emotional well-being of both child and adult learners. As a part of our teacher preparation programs, we now offer mindfulness strategies to provide students with a teaching toolbox that includes self-care.
Below, we share four of these strategies that you can practice once per day or as often as needed. You can complete them together or separately, and you can adapt them to fit your situation and preferences.
Breathing Deeply and Slowly
Deep, slow breathing signals to the brain that your body can relax. There are many available techniques and exercises that support intentional breathing. It’s best to explore several until you find one that feels natural to you.
Here is one idea to get you started, and it can take as little as two minutes:
- Counting slowly from 1 to 10 in your mind, inhale on the odd numbers and exhale on the even numbers.
- When inhaling, breathe from the bottom of your lungs (the diaphragm) to the top of your chest. It may help to visualize being filled up with a pitcher of water from the bottom to the top.
- When exhaling, release slowly. Notice any tension within your body, such as in your neck and shoulders, and work to relax those areas.
- You can repeat this technique for 2 minutes or more if needed.
- Notice how you feel after finishing this exercise and consider any changes that have arisen.
Inviting Emotions: "I see you."
Identifying and allowing emotions can help you to hold space for yourself during a difficult moment. It’s a way to approach yourself with the same compassion you might give a child or another adult who needs comfort. By remaining compassionate and receptive to your experience, you will be able to increase your awareness with renewed clarity, non-judgmental feelings, and problem-solving insight.
- Begin by acknowledging how you feel. Notice where the feeling is showing up in your body. You might experience tightness, tension, or heaviness in your chest, throat, head, shoulders, or all over. For example, if an incident made you feel angry, you might initially begin by expressing frustration. Maybe you notice yourself exclaiming, “Ugh!” accompanied by a tightening in your shoulders and neck.
- After noticing this feeling, you can label it. For example, you might simply say, “I feel frustrated,” or “I feel angry.”
- Naming and allowing an emotional experience can be difficult, so you may need to give yourself permission. Instead of judging what comes up, you can say, “It’s okay to feel this way.”
Releasing Emotions: The Letting Go Box
At times, you may experience an emotion that no longer feels good to hold on to. It may no longer serve you well. The Letting Go Box exercise can help you release an unhelpful or unproductive emotion. You can use an actual box or visualize a box in your mind.
- Begin by taking deep, slow breaths. Picture a box as if it were in front of you.
- Identify the experience or emotion troubling you and release it by placing it in the box.
- Invite a feeling of relief and gratitude as you allow yourself some distance from the emotion.
- It may help to imagine someone coming into the room and saying, “Here, let me take this from you. I’m here to help!” Then, you can conclude the practice by slowly saying, “This is taken care of for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Welcoming and Expressing Gratitude
Gratitude can be a powerful life hack! It can quickly change your perspective and approach to a situation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (2022), even “small acts of self-care,” such as relaxing activities and gratitude practices, can be impactful. The NIMH (2022) also lists several benefits of self-care, including managing stress, lowering the risk of illness, and increasing energy. Here is one way you can mindfully engage in a practice of gratitude:
- To begin, place your hands over your heart and close your eyes. Think about someone or something you love, honor, and/or give thanks for.
- Fully immerse yourself in the emotions associated with this someone or something. Sit with these warm feelings and let them fill you up. You may even allow a smile if that feels good to you.
- You can conclude this practice by giving thanks with words spoken internally, whispered, or aloud.
Emotional management as a form of self-care is a vital life skill. You deserve to take care of yourself in the same way you care for others—with thoughtfulness and compassion.
Brittany Crumley, MS, is an associate professor of early education at Greenville Technical College in Greenville, South Carolina. Brittany has worked in early education for many years, including Montessori programs and higher education.
Sandra Linder, PhD, is a professor of early childhood education and Assistant Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education at Clemson University.