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Getting people in touch with their feelings has long been a goal of professional counselors. That goal is making its way into classrooms.
Rachel R. Montoya is an early childhood special education teacher at White Sands School, which is part of the Las Cruces Public Schools district. A native New Mexican, she grew up in Alamogordo. She moved to Las Cruces 14 years ago, and she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NMSU.
She started teaching with LCPS in January 2018. Working with students ages 3 to 5 years. she teaches an inclusion class which includes students with exceptionalities.
Having taught 10 years in various capacities and having owned and operated a childhood development center, she’s familiar with all the traditional methods of teaching young children, but recently she’s began incorporating a feelings-based curriculum into her daily routine.
“The social-emotional learning tools/curriculum I use is called Kimochis,” Montoya said. “When we first received the curriculum, I was unsure how to incorporate it into my usual classroom schedule and management routine. However, after beginning the curriculum in full swing last year, I started to see the change in classroom behaviors and really see how the students were embracing the idea of talking/sharing their feelings each day.”
She said the curriculum is both effective and versatile, is not meant to be delivered the same way across all classrooms.
“This is great because not all classrooms are the same,” she said. “Each teacher will adapt the curriculum to suit the class, students, families and themselves. The curriculum is also flexible, it does not have to be followed exactly. I have changed lessons and tweaked activities to make them my own in order to really help my students engage in the activities. I would say that the curriculum is more of a tool that enhances my classroom in order to meet the social-emotional needs of my students.”
She said traditional learning is not set aside but enhanced by the feelings-based platform.
“Kimochis stresses that all feelings are ok, but the way we behave is not,” she said. “We might have challenging behaviors when we feel certain things, like when we are mad, we yell, throw things, break something or even hurt someone else. It’s amazing to hear a child who normally yells and throws a tantrum when he/she cannot have a toy when they want it, say, ‘I am mad, and I need a break,’ because in your classroom you have been modeling and practicing various scenarios that revolve around these events. It is so satisfying, as a teacher, to see something you are trying to help your students learn comes through in such a meaningful way.”
As she embraces the new learning style, Montoya said she sometimes looks back at her own childhood and wishes it had been available sooner.
The curriculum’s benefit to the children, she said, may be long-lasting and almost certainly beneficial.
“I feel children now are dealing with so much, and we feel they are more adaptable,” Montoya said. “The problem is that we can’t put a definite label on trauma. Trauma is different for every individual, and we can’t exclude children in this conversation just because they are young and they don’t know about the world. We can’t know how much an event is going to affect a person.”
She said factors such as being bullied, a parent leaving, loss of a pet, getting a bad grade on a paper, losing a toy or getting yelled at can be traumatizing for some children, while for others the trigger can be something totally different and more serious, like mental or physical abuse and/or neglect.
“Children are dealing with things we can’t fathom sometimes,” Montoya said. “We may think as adults that we have jobs issues, family problems, financial woes and many other stress sources and not appreciate that our children are suffering from stresses of their own, and that these stresses are causing or could cause some damage. Social-emotional learning in classrooms and in homes, gives children a voice.”
Montoya said incorporating the curriculum into her classroom has been eye-opening personally, as well, and it gives insight into how adults can better interact with the children in their circle.
“It’s difficult to remember, as a teacher, that all behavior has a function, and that it is a form of communication. The child is trying to communicate to the world, and all we have to do is listen. When we listen to what they are trying to say, we can learn all about the behavior and we can start to teach them more appropriate ways to express themselves.”