As an early childhood educator, you have an advantage most teachers don’t—the chance to teach kids at a young age some values that will help them succeed throughout the rest of their lives. Here are some ideas to teach empathy, helpfulness, responsibility, mindfulness, and respect for diversity.
Empathy is all about one thing: recognizing the feelings of others. If you can model empathy for your class by recognizing everyone’s emotions yourself, and teach empathy especially during conflicts, you’ll be well on your way to shaping kind and thoughtful kids. It can be as simple as pointing out, “Doesn’t Johnny look upset that you took that toy from him? Why do you think that is?” Help them understand that both their and their peers’ perspectives and feelings are important (A good children’s book about perspective is Ed Vere’s Max the Brave, in which a cat thinks a mouse is a monster because the mouse tells him so).
Teach helpfulness by encouraging collaboration during cleanup, or by letting kids help you set up the next activity. Showing them how happy it makes people feel when they’ve been helped, and letting them assist you with tasks in the classroom, gives them a sense of accomplishment and usefulness.
Give them responsibilities early to make responsibility a habit. Teach them to clean up their toys, straighten the classroom at the end of the day, throw away their trash after snack time or lunch, feed the class fish, and clean up things they spill—and don’t forget to show your appreciation for their hard work! Tell them they’re doing a good job as they do it to for further reinforcement, and be consistent—they need to push their chairs in at the end of the day every day, not just when they feel like it.
Mindfulness is awareness of yourself and the world around you. Mindfulness exercises can help calm kids down, provide a relaxed transition between activities, teach focus, and raise awareness of themselves and their surroundings. Yoga might be fun to try, to teach kids balance and awareness of their bodies as they feel different muscles stretch. And a breathing exercise can be a great transition into nap time—let them place a stuffed animal or toy on their chest when they lie down, and have them rock it to sleep with the rise and fall of their chests with their breaths.
Respect for diversity is also an important value to teach from a young age. But don’t limit it to the holidays and the differences between Christmas and Hannukah—use all year to teach songs or read stories that involve different languages and cultures, and keep your room stocked with culturally diverse toys or dolls. Involve the kids by asking about family traditions, both around the holidays and day-to-day, and help them see the similarities and differences. Make sure you use the correct pronunciation of everyone’s names, and if some children come from families with a different language, you and the class could even learn a few new words.