Curriculum Approaches

Kindergarten and SEL (Ep. 214)

Guest host Jonathan Juravich uses today’s episode for a discussion with art teacher Cassie Fanning about SEL and teaching kindergarten. Listen as they discuss the importance of play, how to be more fun and creative in your classroom, and how we can teach our kindergarteners to be part of a community. They also share a long list of their favorite books for kindergarten toward the end of the episode. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Jonathan: Kindergarten is unique. I mean, really unique. These students are entering a structured school setting for the very first time in their lives, and that could be something that we forget each fall, as we get used to the progress that students make during the school year. But they are young, and they find themselves in a world where everything, including the chairs, might be just a little too big for them. These experiences can bring about a lot of feelings, frustrations, and reactions. Enter the importance of social-emotional learning.

In a year where we worry about students inexperience with writing their names or holding scissors, we also should refocus on supporting kindergartners, especially as they learn about sharing spaces with other people and verbalizing their feelings.

Hi, my name is Jonathan Juravich, elementary art educator, host of The Art of Education University’s podcast, The Art of SEL, and today’s guest host for Everyday Art Room.

In an effort to understand how best to support kindergartners with social-emotional learning, or SEL, I sat down for a conversation with my friend and fellow elementary art educator, Casey Fanning. We discussed strategies, lesson planning, and the importance of play while engaging our youngest students with SEL.

All right, Casey. So in my podcast The Art of SEL, I start off each episode by asking my guests to use a descriptive word to share how they’re feeling right now. So let’s continue it, right? So, how are you feeling right now?

Casey: I was going to say I’m feeling a little ornery today. I’m also a little nervous, because I’ve never done a podcast, but I’ll be fine.

Jonathan: That’s good. I really appreciate ornery. Don’t be nervous, except for I get it. Right? I’m nervous, too. And part of that is about the topic of that we’re going to talk about today, which is kindergarten and social-emotional learning. It’s about our feelings. So with kindergarten though, we’re both elementary art teachers, and kindergarten is its own special beast of creativity, and tears, and joy and bathroom accidents. And why do you think that that is?

Casey: I think kids are coming to school sometimes never going to school before in their lives. So they’re little, and we help them learn how to sit. Like my first day, I’m always teaching my kids how to sit like Mona Lisa. We look at the picture, and we practice it, and we smile, because even sitting is something new sometimes in kindergarten.

Jonathan: Yeah. It is, like not getting up and leaving the room just whenever you feel like it. Right?

Casey: Right. Yes. Yes.

Jonathan: That’s like a hard concept

Casey: Or like going and dancing, like, oh, we’re actually not dancing right now. I’ve said it before. Things that you say sometimes you think you’d never have to say, but yeah.

Jonathan: Isn’t that funny with kindergarten, too, because you’re like, “I don’t want to say don’t dance right now, but also can you not dance right now?”

Casey: Maybe later. I do like dancing. Maybe later.

Jonathan: Maybe, and then I know. I always have that moment where I’m like, “Maybe I should schedule some dance time later today.”

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: Yeah, maybe I should. Right?

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: But what makes teaching kindergarten artists so incredibly unique is that, right? For so many of them, it’s their first time being there. I remember a kindergarten student falling asleep in the middle of class, because they had never been in one place that long before.

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: And having to wake them up, because they had to get used to being in the building that long.

Casey: Yeah. I mean, it’s all new for them. Yeah. I think what makes kindergarten so fun is they’re so little that everything is fun. I had a lot of kids the other day in kindergarten all saying my name at the same time, which happens always. And so I was like, “Okay, everybody stop.” And they all looked at me and they’re like, they had no idea that I was even feeling overwhelmed. And I said, “It’s really overwhelming when you’re the teacher and everyone is saying your name at the same time, so I want to teach you a secret signal.” And I literally raised my hand in the air. Nate, nobody laughed. Everyone was like, “Yes.” And I was like, “So if you need me and you do that secret signal, me or my aide, [Ms. B 00:04:37], will come help you.” And my aide Ms. B was trying not to laugh really hard, but they were eating it up, and I’m like, everything is new. Everything is fun. And you just have to make it fun. Yeah.

Jonathan: That is fascinating, because I think that’s one of the things we forget. All of these skills that we see our older kids being able to do, that include using scissors, using a glue bottle, asking to go to the restroom, right, those are all skills they had to learn.

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: They’re learning about themselves, about each other, but then also how to function within a school.

Casey: Yes. A little community. Yeah.

Jonathan: Wow. I love it. I am so going to try that next time. Like, “I’m going to teach you something amazing and magical.”

Casey: They ate it up.

Jonathan: It’s called raising your hand.

Casey: Yeah. It’s a secret signal.

Jonathan: Love it. Well, I know that, especially right now, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. There’s been lots of discussion about kindergarten students missing out or being behind on skills due to a lack of time at daycares or preschools. I’m sure that a lot of this has to come down to learning how to write their names, learning how to use scissors, learning how to use glue bottles, but what I’m interested in, because of my area focus, is about their development socially and emotionally, because when they’re not around other kids or other adults, that is something that they’re lacking. So right now, as we’re looking at kindergartners, can you speak to your experience with them and about their social-emotional development, like right now in this time?

Casey: When I think about that, I think art is a place where almost everything we do is helping kids to learn how to be part of a community. So even getting in line to get a paper, it’s helpful, you know? Okay, well actually when we get the paper, we can’t all run up at once. Like it’s so many little, tiny skills, and I don’t know that I necessarily feel it as much as some people are feeling it, because I think at our school, a lot of the kids have been to preschool or they’ve been other places, and I think a lot of our kids are lucky in that way.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah.

Casey: But I’m sure that that feeling is being felt a lot of places that this kid it’s very apparent that they have not been in a group setting with other kids. But I think the art room is a place where literally everything we do is helping to build that community, and helping them to learn how to interact with one another, and be patient, take turns. Even reading a book today on the floor, like, “Oh, you’re reading that book? May I share that book, too?” It’s just little things like that they’re learning it all the time and you just don’t get that if you’re not in a classroom.

Jonathan: I mean, everything you’re saying, I’m like, “Yes, yes, this is so true.” Because as adults, when there’s a line, we get in it. We have to be patient.

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Even if we’re disgruntled, it’s not going to move any quicker.

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Right? And yet at some point we had to learn, hey, it’s not socially acceptable to run to the front of the line, even though that’s all I want to do in the whole world.

Casey: Or to grab the same paper someone else has and slowly rip it out of their hands. It happens in here, but it’s not really like-

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: It’s something we’re working on.

Jonathan: Yeah. But those are things that yes, that we are experiencing in real time with small humans that’s preparing them for a life outside of these art room walls, but then also as adults as they’re growing up.

Casey: Yeah. For sure.

Jonathan: That’s really, really fascinating. And something else that you said is context is important. Whereas maybe your students have had this great opportunity to still attend daycares and preschools and be engaged with other people, that’s not necessarily true for so many kids right now. I know of one student who the parent shared that he’s not been around other people other than them. I kind of was like, “Wait. Like no other people?” And they’re like, “Well, no, we’ve really been as a family just kind of in lock down.” And for kids like that, it could be really overwhelming.

Casey: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah.

Jonathan: Right? Not only am I new to what school is, but I’m new to even seeing this many people.

Casey: Yeah. That’s wild to think about.

Jonathan: I mean, I guess a lot of it is our own awareness building, too.

Casey: Yeah. And being patient as teachers, yeah. Being aware and knowing maybe I don’t know. Maybe this kid has been with his family for two years in his house during our lot of really important developmental times.

Jonathan: Yeah. Wow.

Casey: You don’t know. I don’t know.

Jonathan: We don’t know.

Casey: Something to think about for sure.

Jonathan: Yeah. So, I read this great article recently that shared that there are so many possibilities to engage in SEL in the art room, but there has to be intentional planning for actual learning to happen. And though I agree with that, right, we also just talked about how getting in line, right, but there has to be the intervention of the teacher saying like, “Hey, we don’t run to the front.”

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Right. But as far as intentional planning, how do you plan for SEL, or social-emotional learning, with kindergartners?

Casey: I took a course this summer where you could do what you wanted in the course to help you be a better teacher. And one thing I did was I mapped out my lessons for each grade level, but I really wanted to make sure I was reaching a lot of different things. I wanted to see, am I teaching something about environmentalism in kindergarten, in first grade, in second grade? Am I teaching literacy? How often am I having women artists in my work? Do I have a lot of African American artists? I was just trying to make sure that I am checking different boxes to give my kids exposure to a lot of things in their learning.

Jonathan: Wow.

Casey: And so SEL was one of the things I did. So I made like a color-coded key.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: You know, art teacher.

Jonathan: I mean, we as art teachers, yes. Color-coded. Yes.

Casey: So, you know. But SEL is green in my color-coding, and at our school we have core values. So they’re positivity, integrity, perseverance, kindness, and respect. So I went through and all my kindergarten lessons where I read a book about that, or we really talked about kindness, or we really work together collaboratively and I highlighted them in green, and a lot of my lessons are green, because kindergarten there’s a lot to learn about how to be a person in the world, and how to manage your emotions and get along with others. So that really, really helped me to make sure that I was doing that thoughtfully in my classroom.

Jonathan: So you basically did like a analysis of all of your lessons.

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: And I love that, because I mean, so oftentimes we just kind of go through the motions. There’s certain things that I always do with kindergarten just because I’ve always done that with kindergarten, but maybe an analysis would help me see that maybe there’s some things I’m missing.

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: Maybe there’s some modifications I need to make. Right?

Casey: Yeah. And I did do that. That, it helped me a lot, and still will help me in the future, because you can’t do everything in one summer, but when you realize, “Wow, I’m really not doing this very much in first grade,” or “I’m really not doing this very much in kindergarten.” It helped me to see it visually. And then I also made everything a Livelink. So I’m like living off of this document and it’s making my life so much better.

Jonathan: Oh. So it started off where then when you click on it, you go to here’s my lesson plan. Here’s a video.

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: Wow.

Casey: Yep.

Jonathan: That’s really exciting.

Casey: It’s great.

Jonathan: That’s really awesome.

Casey: Because I don’t have to find things in 800 different spots anymore.

Jonathan: Well, and I really like that you said you started this with kindergarten, but you’re doing it K through five for your classes. So it’s not like, “Oh, I talked about environmentalism or I talked about respect in kindergarten. We’re good.” Right?

Casey: Right. Right.

Jonathan: I should be doing this at all grade levels.

Casey: Yes. And I was trying to make sure I have things at least once a year. Which it’s not perfect, but I’m getting there. At least I’m aware, so that’s helping. But yeah, that helped me a lot to make sure, and when I see that and I see the lesson, then I make sure I take the time to read the book or take the time to make the connection, because so often you’re like, “They’re coming. Grab the folder. Let’s go. Do the project. Whatever so it’s-”

Jonathan: Make the things. Make the things.

Casey: It just helps a little bit.

Jonathan: No, that’s awesome, because when we start lesson planning, we have great intentions.

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: But sometimes those great intentions kind of fall by the wayside when we’re in the midst of producing, and making, and moving on.

Casey: And life. Yes, exactly.

Jonathan: Well then, of course, other than discussions and learning how to share spaces, there’s also been this resurgence in talking about play with kindergarten and the importance of play for furthering, I don’t know, like artistic, academic, and social skills. So I know that this is an area of passion, really, for you is how do you engage kindergartners with play in your art room?

Casey: I love to play.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: I’m ornery.

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s great.

Casey: So, I love to play. So, that’s the best thing about being an elementary art teacher, in my opinion, is you can be so weird all the time.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: And everybody’s like, “Cool.” Because kids are so authentic, and they’re being weird, and you’re being weird, and it’s just fun. One thing I do when kids learn how to paint, I got this from a teacher in Virginia when I used to teach there, but she’d teach, she said, “Instead of having them worry about, oh, you need to paint inside the lines. Be really careful. Don’t drip on the table.” She said, “Have them train the paintbrushes.” So I train my paintbrush for kindergarten.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: I talk to it. I’m like, “He’s new here. He’s never really painted before. He’s a little wild.” I dip him in the water, and I pet him gently. Then when I’m painting, sometimes I make my hand like jerk, and then I say, “Whoa, whoa, buddy, whoa. You got to slow down.” And just basically be really weird. And all the kids live for it. And then the whole class just looks like crazy town, because they’re all sitting at their tables telling their paintbrush like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hey, buddy. Oh, come here, buddy.” And everyone’s just talking to their paintbrush, but nobody is stressed. Nobody is worried about staying inside the lines. Nobody is panicking about being perfect, because they’re talking to their paintbrush.

Jonathan: Oh my gosh.

Casey: It’s fun. They’re playing.

Jonathan: I love it. What I love about that, too, is initially when I hear play, I go to like, “Let’s roll out the blocks.” Which is totally something we could do.

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Let’s make some games that we’re doing. Let’s have puppets, but play is also just enjoying the living daylights of what you’re doing while being creatively quirky and fun. And I mean, all I want to do now is go back to earlier today when I was painting with kindergarten and be like, “Hey, some of you may have heard of training dragons, but we’re going to train these paintbrushes.”

Casey: Yes.

Jonathan: Oh, it’s so great.

Casey: I mean, you can pretend about anything, really. And especially with kindergarten, they love it. I mean, elementary school, they love it, but kindergarten, they’re hilarious. They just live for it.

Jonathan: Well, and that play, what you were just saying, ties into responsible decision making, which is one of the components of social-emotional learning. It ties into their awareness. All of these things are happening while you’re being goofy along with them, but it’s not like you have to stop and be like, “Okay. Children, we are going to talk about our own self-awareness by giving you a paintbrush.”

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Instead you’re just being goofy and joy-filled with it.

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: I love it. Anything else?

Casey: Well, we do this project in kindergarten every year where they do a self-portrait, and they make themself royal. So, I show them these portraits of royal kings and queens, and we talk about what they’re wearing and stuff. And when I do this lesson, I wear a crown.

Jonathan: Yes, you do.

Casey: And I am the queen, and they have to call me your majesty. And it’s like, I mean, I get so weird and I love a good accent, so sometimes I’m British, and it’s so fun. When they get their Sharpie, when they’re done drawing, I’m like, “I present you with this Sharpie prince whoever, Prince Edward, princess.” And they live for it. While they’re quietly working, I’m like, “Is that my horse running out of the stable?” And they’re like, “What is she talking about?” But still in third grade, they’re like, “Remember when you pretended to be a queen?” It was so fun for them, because they don’t play at school, not as much as they used to. I’m not saying, I mean, some teachers do, but kids need to play.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: And even if they are doing a project, in their mind, they are suddenly a princess in a castle. You can do it all while still just teaching a normal art project just by being weird, having fun, you know.

Jonathan: I think that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about what you’re saying, though, is that sometimes I get very research driven when it comes to social-emotional learning, and I get very serious about like this is such critical work. This is so important. This is why it matters for their development as a human that I forget that it also should be playful. And it should also be about their self-awareness while drawing a self-portrait that also happens to be royal. Right?

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: That also happens to be training a paintbrush so that they have these skills moving forward. That is all part of this really important work, but it’s fun.

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: It’s fun.

Casey: Teaching elementary art is fun.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: And it should be fun.

Jonathan: Well, I love tying art making to reading, and I know this is true for you, and especially in kindergarten, like 100%, I feel like almost everything I do starts with reading a book. Right? Do you have any books that you use to prompt social-emotional learning and art making in the art room, specifically with kindergarten?

Casey: So many. I was actually trying to pull them out and I was like, “This pile is too big. It’s all my books.” Because I feel like every story has a lesson.

Jonathan: Right.

Casey: And if it’s a story for a kindergartner, it’s probably a social-emotional lesson.

Jonathan: Right.

Casey: Some of my favorites though, as I pull out this pile. So I like to read Tangled, which I just read with my students when they’re learning about shapes, and it’s about shapes working together to free all these shapes that got stuck in a jungle gym. It’s adorable. If you haven’t read it, it’s a good read.

Jonathan: It is. It is such a good read.

Casey: I also like to read Mixed by Arree Chung, especially when we’re doing color mixing. I just have my kids, after I read this book, we talk about in the story the reds, and yellows, and blues all kind of divide up. And then they, I think it’s a blue falls in love with a yellow.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: And then they have a little green baby, and then the town loves the green baby, and then they all get back together, and all the people live in harmony again. But we talk about, I mean, really it’s a book about segregation, but it’s on an elementary kindergarten level. And is it okay to exclude someone because they’re a different color? No. It’s a strong message for such a little kid book, but it’s a really powerful book. And I love to read this one and then have them just mix colors the whole rest of the day. Watching kindergartners mix colors is like my favorite thing in the world.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: Because every color is like they discovered it, and it’s brand new, and it’s just so cute listening to them talk that day. I just love it.

Jonathan: Well, and inspired by you, both of those books, and I’d like idea lessons I wrote about for The Art of Education University for an article on teaching the elements of art to kindergarten while also doing social-emotional learning. So I mean, people could check that out, too, to see exactly what we’re doing.

Casey: Check it out.

Jonathan: Yeah. Check that one out. All right. What other books you got?

Casey: Okay. I have the classic, Mix It Up. Have you read this one?

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: Yeah. I just love this one, because the kids have to come touch it, which obviously like COVID times they can fake touch the SMART Board or whatever, but it’s just such a fun, interactive book. I like to play, so of course I like that one.

Jonathan: Yes.

Casey: I always do The Dot. It’s a classic. It’s always what I do very first thing, because it talks about persevering, never giving up. It’s just a good read, and then they can do a simple dot project the first day.

Jonathan: Right, yeah.

Casey: Not too overwhelming. I also have The Bad Seed. When we do sunflower paintings, I like to read this one. I mostly-

Jonathan: Oh, that’s so good. Yes.

Casey: Yeah. I mean, he is a sunflower seed, but mostly I just love this book and I was like, “That’s kind related.” And then I was like, “Oh that’s pretty …”

Jonathan: But that’s important part of this. Right? You could even read this as the follow-up to like painting sunflowers. Right?

Casey: Right.

Jonathan: Like, “Hey, we finished sunflowers” or “Hey, half of you are still finishing. Everybody just listen along as we read about a seed.” Right?

Casey: Exactly.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: The Bad Seed.

Jonathan: Now, have you read The Good Egg?

Casey: I have read The Bad Seed, The Good Egg. I have not read The Cool Bean, but I want to.

Jonathan: But it’s on the list.

Casey: It’s on a list.

Jonathan: But I love also that these things, these food items, right, are becoming these moments to talk about social-emotional learning, and our reactions, or self-regulation. I feel like The Good Egg is my biography sometimes. Right? Yeah. It’s such a great read that I almost get choked up talking to kids about it.

Casey: You just reminded me of something. I put this little picture on my projector, and my guidance counselor does Zones, so The Zones of Regulation. So you’re mad, you’re in the red zone. You’re sad, you’re in the blue zone. You’re ready to learn, your green, and yellow is like silly or worried. And I just drew little circles in each color and put it on my Elmo, so whenever I’m drawing, I can reference those when I need to. Oftentimes I’m like, “Oh, I was in the green zone, and people are talking and I’m starting to be a little bit in the blue zone or the red zone.”

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: But then I can talk about my own emotions, and I think it’s a good way for the kids to see it, and it’s always there, so it’s reminding me to talk about it. Or when things arise between students. So, that’s another thing that I did conscientiously to talk about emotions in the art room.

Jonathan: But I love that it’s always there. And you, as the adult, are saying, “These are the emotions I’m experiencing.” And though we don’t want to put the weight of the world on kindergarten shoulders, it is also a point of awareness to be like, “We impact each other’s emotions.” That is a very real part of life. Right? So, yes, you are not a bad kid. The what’s happening right now in the room is forcing me or is creating an opportunity for me to feel like I am in the blue zone.

Casey: Right. Or when people are talking over me, it makes me feel sad. I mean, that’s a real conversation to have with someone so they can understand. And also at the same point, when a class is, if they’re really boosting me up, I’m like, “You’re really making me feel in the green zone right now.” It goes both ways.

Jonathan: That’s the important part that I think we forget, because sometimes we’re in such a great mood when things are going well, that we either forget to tell the kids, “Things are going so well in here.” Right? Because we’re often quick to say when we are maybe feeling these deemed negative things or these negative emotions, we forget to also be like, “This is so fun. I am loving spending time with you. And this is why.”

Casey: Yes. And I love to say that with kindergarten, especially, all the time, because I don’t know if that’s brainwashing them, but while they’re painting and they’re smiling, like, “Isn’t art fun? Art is so fun. Because it is fun.” And then they start talking about how fun it is with each other.

Jonathan: Yeah. “This is so much fun. Isn’t this fun? Yes. It’s so fun.”

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: Right? Yeah.

Casey: It’s not brainwashing or anything.

Jonathan: No, it’s great.

So, this morning I was asked by someone how I was feeling. And I did. I woke up this morning and I felt hopeful. I just went into this day with such hope, and so I told them that, which of course led to a follow-up conversation. But, what is one hope that you have for kindergartners throughout this year, and then moving forward after this year?

Casey: Well, I hope my kindergartners, as the art teacher, I just hope they like art. I hope it’s fun. I hope when they go to first grade at our school, they get two arts. And I hope when I tell them at the end of the year, “In first grade you get to have two arts.” I hope they cheer.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Casey: Because I just hope that this is a place where they can have fun, and they can be themselves, and they can really learn to love creating things.

Jonathan: I like that hope.

Casey: That’s my hope.

Jonathan: I like that hope. I have a hope for myself, too, after talking to you about it, is that I think for my kindergartners, I oftentimes hope that we learn how to be our selves and we learn how to interact with others, and all of that is so important, especially with my focus of social-emotional learning, but I hope that my students, my kindergarten students, are also silly.

Casey: Yeah.

Jonathan: I hope that they’re silly and those moments whenever they just want a dance break moment, that maybe I hit pause and have a dance break moment with them, too. And then we get back to work.

Okay. I have one more book recommendation for you. Many Shapes of Clay: A Story of Healing is a beautiful book about personal loss, grief, and picking up the pieces of broken clay. Kindergarten can be an absolute joy to teach. Casey shared everything is new to them. Everything is a discovery, but there are also most certainly challenges. To support your efforts with kindergarten artists, with materials, tools, and processes, check out The Art Of Education University’s YouTube series, 1-2-3 A-R-T with host Lindsey Moss.

Social-emotional learning is my passion in the art room and the focus of my limited series podcast, The Art of SEL. You can listen and subscribe wherever you listen to your favorite podcast, like this one. And for that article, I mentioned, it is called 7 Lesson Ideas to Engage Kindergartners in SEL Through the Elements of Art. I do hope you join me next time for another episode of Everyday Art Room, when we will explore the joys of cardboard.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.