Children need to be calm and able to manage their emotions if they’re going to learn, but they can’t do that without tools to help them handle their emotions – especially the kind of yucky emotions that can really disrupt a student’s day or even a teacher’s day. 

In today’s episode, Jess Moorhead, a teacher from Memphis, TN, joins the podcast to explain some of the ways she helps her students develop socially and emotionally. Listen to the episode to learn how Jess lays the groundwork for her students during the first two weeks of the year, then continues to set the tone daily to help her students develop the strategies they need to verbalize and manage their feelings. 

Listen now or enjoy the transcript below!

Originally released July 5, 2023

Topics Discussed in This Episode

  • [00:00:40] Jessica’s background
  • [00:01:55] Jess’s dogs
  • [00:02:40] Strategies for social and emotional development in the classroom
  • [00:04:45] How Jess handles the first two weeks of the year
  • [00:06:33] What happens after investing the first couple of weeks in social skills
  • [00:07:35] Setting the tone in the classroom daily
  • [00:11:45] Where children’s yucky feelings can come from
  • [00:15:16] Normalizing kids’ feelings and giving them strategies for managing them
  • [00:17:14] Making those strategies work for students
  • [00:19:07] A situation Jess had with a child doing group work
  • [00:24:05] Moving from one strategy to another when the first one doesn’t work
  • [00:25:25] Techniques to help kids calm down
  • [00:29:23] Takeaways for teachers to help children work on their feelings


Jess Moorhead


Monica: Hello beautiful people. Welcome to Teaching with CLASS podcast. Today, we are on season four, episode four. We are going to learn tips that you can implement in your classroom right away. I'm your host, Monica Pujol-Nassif. With us, we have Jess Moorhead. She is a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. Welcome, Jess.

Jess: Thanks for having me, Monica. I really appreciate it.

Monica: Would you mind telling us a little bit about you?

Jess: Sure. Like you said, I live in Memphis, Tennessee. Not only am I a teacher, but I'm also a mom to a three-year-old. He's adorable and talks about some big feelings there at the age of three. I have a wonderful husband, two dogs. I've been teaching now for, going into my 12th year.

For the first eight, I was self-contained in a second-grade classroom. Now, the last few, I've been in third grade. I was in inner-city Memphis. I was in the heart of inner-city schools and a low socioeconomic status like families, lower income.

Now, I am at a much different school. A lot of diversity, which I absolutely love. I have a little bit of everything in my room. I had a little bit of everything. That's not the way you should say it.

Monica: Thank you. Jess and I were talking about we are both dog lovers, so we connected right there.

Jess: Yes. I have two of them. They're getting old. I call them my lazy boys. They come up. As soon as you walk in the door, they're going to greet you, love you, and then you probably won't ever see them again.

Monica: Jess is here today to help us acquire new skills, new strategies when children have those yucky feelings. Even my beautiful teachers have those yucky feelings. What are some strategies that you can use to support their social and emotional learning in your classrooms?

This is a hot topic. We know that. We are going to start the conversation. She's so kind and generous to come and share what she's learned working with children and how to help them. That's going to be my first prompt. Could you please tell us how you are so good at where you are?

Jess: I will tell you, it didn't just happen overnight. It's something that has taken a lot of just trying. I'm putting myself out there, figuring out things that work for me. When I first started teaching, I didn't even realize how important social-emotional learning was.

You always hear, think of the whole child. I don't think I truly knew what that meant myself as an adult. I didn't realize how important it is to be consistent with that, how developing children and teaching them those skills and those strategies, and what things look like and what things feel like, how empowering that is for young people and even adults, too.

I find myself having a lot of conversations with families, too. It took time. It took time to get here and trying things and figuring out what works for me, figuring out what works for my students.

Monica: Excellent. It works for you as a teacher. We're going to come back every time what works for your students because every year, you get a new group of children with a new set of needs, characteristics, and strengths. Every year, you have to reinvent the strategies, but you have a very good foundation that you know how to start and how to build on that. Let's start with that. Let's start with, how do you help build the social and emotional climate in your classroom when you first get started?

Jess: The first two weeks of school, I don't even start curriculum. We focus on teaching children about how their brain works. We talk about our hopes, dreams, and setting the foundations with that. From there, the next week, my children create their own class rules. I want them to take that ownership and have that conversation what's important to them when we come back to that drawing board.

We also talk about the growth mindset. What does that look like? What's a closed mindset versus a growth mindset look like? Just really setting that intentional purpose at the beginning of the year, where we're building like, how do we talk with one another? How do we do that in an appropriate way? How are we being kind, even when we disagree?

Like I said, I don't start with the curriculum. A lot of times, it's just teaching kids how to talk to each other. I find that a lot of times, kids don't know how to come in and just hold that conversation, especially with so much screen time these days, or also parents. Parents aren't having conversations with their kids the way that we used to have conversations.

How do we respectfully disagree with people? How do we want to add on to people if you hear something without interrupting? Also being a good listener and making sure that you're hearing what other people are saying so that you can intentionally add on to it. That's just what I do at the beginning of the year to set it up to where they take that ownership before even getting into the curriculum.

Monica: I always say, that's an investment. When you invest those two weeks into these skills, what happens the rest of the year?

Jeff: From there, you're just setting them up. They're starting to have that culture in the classroom and that climate, where they're taking that ownership. Each time they come together, even with our discussion protocols, they set the expectations for that.

Every time we come to talk, you have your talking points. You're being kind. You're giving kind feedback. You're using your accountable talk steps when talking. You're setting that expectation. You're not managing behavior as much because they're taking that ownership of it. You're not focused on that negative behavior.

Monica: That is so valuable for teachers out there listening to this podcast. That investment of two weeks will pay off the rest of the year seeing them enjoy every day, learning, and being empathic to everybody. It takes those first two weeks. I want you to talk to them briefly about, what do you do every day to set that tone just to remind them?

Jess: I intentionally, throughout the week, it's not a lot of time, but 10 minutes every day. Some days 15, sometimes less. It might be 8 minutes. But every single day during the week, I start off with, I call it my town hall. I know other people come to carpet time, they have an opening circle, or it's been called so many things. I intentionally set my day every single morning for the first 10 minutes. Each day, what works for me is I have a purpose for each day.

For example, every week, I have some kind of life skill, or I have something that we're talking about that we're focusing on for the week. I'll introduce it, and I'll have a question. We go around our town hall, and we just talk about this question.

Every Tuesday, we come back together. I go over whatever that skill is. I either teach it, we watch a video. It could be something about being a buddy, how do you stay organized, or what does it mean to be frustrated. We have some short activity with that.

On Wednesdays, I call it Get Weird Wednesdays, but I'm always teaching kids strategies and tools. Even as an adult, if you have limited tools or limited strategies on how to get out of yucky feelings, I call them, when you see those big eruptions, so it's big feelings where kids are yelling, screaming, or crying and breaking down, it's because they have those limited tools to go to. Every Wednesday, we learn something new, and we try something different. We can talk more about that.

On Thursday, I call it my Transformation Thursdays, where I leave that day for meditation, yoga. We might even have conversation around one of the feelings that we're working on for that week. It just leaves it open to whatever it is.

That's what I do every day. I intentionally set the day where we are talking about these things. They're taking that ownership. They're being reflective in it. It just stays with them the rest of the day like, all right, this is it, I can do this.

Monica: That's beautiful. I bet that gives them a better day. The brain is ready to learn. And it gives you as a teacher a better day as well.

Jess: Right. Before we move on to the next thing, we always do some checks like, all right, let me see what you're feeling today. Stan Miller said, if you're happy, you're ready to go. Then I want you to stand. Maybe you didn't sleep great last night, or you're not quite 100%, you're not in the green, you can kneel.

If you just had a horrible night or horrible morning, sit on the ground. That quick little time check, too, or behavioral check helps me as the teacher gauge like, okay, where are they in their feelings? All right, now, you know where you are in your feelings, let's be reflective of that. Hey, take a look around.

If you have a friend sitting, they might need a hug. Maybe ask them how they're doing today. I might pull them at some point during the day and be like, hey, what happened? Everything okay? Do you want to share something with me? Can I help in any way? 

Also, it lets them know like, okay, I'm sitting today. I might need to take a couple extra deep breaths, I might need to do some box breathing, or I might need to body drum today a little bit to get me back in a good place, get out of these yucky feelings.

It helps them not be reactive. A lot of times, that's what you feel. Even as adults, we're that way. Something happens, and then you automatically react. You don't give yourself the time to internalize and think about your feelings. My biggest thing is getting the kids to take that ownership and to be reflective in their feelings.

Monica: I don't want to forget either branch of the last piece you said. Let's start with, where are these yucky feelings coming from? You just said, maybe they're tired, they didn't sleep last night. I know it's an endless list of reasons where those feelings could come from. Can you name some of them?

Jess: Kids these days see so many things, and they're experiencing so many things. It could be just a bad night's sleep. It could be that they were at grandma's house last night. It could be family issues. It could be traumas. Some of it could be that they're seeing a lot of things on the computer that we didn't see before.

Honestly, what I found this past year with my particular bunch, they just didn't know how to talk to each other because a lot of school over the last few years has been done virtually, so just teaching them how to talk to each other and understanding these yucky feelings. I don't know. Does that answer your question?

Monica: Absolutely, because you're mentioning simple things like maybe they were somewhere else sleeping last night, and now they're either missing the family or missing home.

Jess: They didn't have breakfast.

Monica: They forgot something in the house, and they came to school without it.

Jess: Maybe mom screamed at them on the way to school. The way that we may talk to children is not the way that children are being talked to at home. 

Monica: Right. The principle of trauma, the universal principle is, okay, we're going to assume that everybody has gone through some kind of trauma. Above all, we're not going to make it worse.

Jess: Exactly.

Monica: When they come to the classroom and your teacher sees this, you get to this point of something happened. That's why these feelings [...].

Jess: I also find that conversations aren't being had. Young children, you think they know what happy in that is. They don't know how to differentiate between their feelings. I'm finding that kids just like, oh, I'm mad. Okay, well, are you really mad?

I always teach them like, your feelings are like a thermometer. When you're green, you're happy and you're calm, and then it goes up. You go into the yellow. The red is you go all the way. It's like the cartoon, where you have steam coming out of your ears.

I really spend time talking to them about the different feelings we have and how they look and sound differently, so that you can really start talking about how you're feeling. Maybe you're not really mad, maybe you're frustrated. Maybe you're just irritated right now like somebody's irritating you. That's different from being angry.

Irritated or frustrated, you may just be in that yellow. It could be a simple tool or strategy to get you back into that green. Green is not always happy. It's just calm, where you're not reactive.

We talk about those big yucky feelings, too, which is where you're angry, or you're so mad that steam has come out of your ears, like when you're stuck there. The biggest thing is not being stuck in those yucky feelings, but coming up with strategies and tools to bring us back down to those feelings of calm to get us out of those yucky feelings.

Monica: Yes. It's normalizing that we will get to those levels of their yucky feelings. The key is, as teachers during those first two weeks, and then everyday consistently and intentionally, giving them those strategies so that they can get out of that space. We're teachers. We're human beings.

Jess: Yes. Like I said, it doesn't have to be a lot of times. Just 10 minutes every day, set that purpose in the morning, around that. I heard you say normalizing it. Absolutely. Even when I'm in my feelings as an adult, I will talk about it.

You see them in the movies. All of us, there's been that time. Especially when I was a younger teacher, I would just start yelling. In the last few years, I don't even think I've ever yelled at a student, to be honest with you. It's me emotionally becoming more mature.

Just normalizing those feelings right now, they'll come in. Right now, I'm really frustrated with you boys and girls. I need a minute. Let me go. I'm going to go sit at my desk. I need to go take a couple of deep breaths. Normalizing that and modeling what appropriate behaviors look like when you're trying to come out of those yucky feelings.

Monica: Exactly. I hope you teachers are identifying with this. It's okay that we have those feelings. We just have to learn to regulate ourselves and model how to get out of them, talking it out, saying it. They're seeing you. They say, oh, she gets angry, but she doesn't hit me.

Jess: No, not that. No, I want to keep my job.

Monica: How do you make sure that the strategies work for your students, that they stay with the theme and make work?

Jess: Over the last 12 years, I've told you I've worked with seven- to nine-year-olds, so young kids. What I do is I have them set intentional goals. At the beginning of the year, we pick strategies or their toolbox is limited, so to speak. What can you do when you're in a yucky feeling? Let's commit to three things. Let's set goals for ourselves. 

Throughout the year, every quarter, we come back to it. Sometimes it can be in writing. Sometimes it can be in drawing, like drawing form. Also, sometimes it just could be conversations that we have. It's a plan today where we're reflecting on, hey, what strategies have you tried or checkpoints throughout the year? 

We've learned a lot of new things on Get Weird Wednesdays. We've learned a lot of new strategies, a lot of new tools. What can you commit to trying one new thing, just having that reflective mindset, and then coming back to it? Are the things you're using working? What's not working for you? Throughout the year, I just always have them go back and reflect on it.

Monica: That's so powerful to get them to reflect on the strategies they are practicing. If they're not working, but then it's the key. You are there to guide that conversation, to facilitate that reflection. Especially at this age, younger children need the adult to be guiding this conversation, and then things start coming together.

Jess: This just made me think of a situation I had this year. To give an example, it was maybe February, March. I had a student come up to me and was, hey, Ms. Moorhead. When I'm in group work, I get stuck in those yucky feelings, and I feel like I'm not a good group member. I can't get along with my group. I just get stuck. This isn't working for me. Can we have a meeting about it? I was like, oh, yeah, I've noticed. Yeah, you're not getting along with your classmates. This isn't working.

The funny thing is—I kid you not—that night, I got an email from a mom. Hey, Ms. Moorhead, my child came home. It's constant every day. I'm not getting along in group work. Can we have a conversation about this? I was like, absolutely, let's have a conversation about this.

If we're going to meet, I want your child there. Your child needs to be there. I want them leading the conversation. I'm going to send my planning sheet home. I want us to set three goals because it's not me not getting along with classmates, it's not you. They're like, well, I'm so sorry this is happening. It's not you. Your child is getting stuck, so we need to come up with strategies that work for your child.

We sat down, and the kid is, I'm just not a good group member. They can start getting negative, that fixed mindset. No, I just can't do it. That's not going to work. It's not going to work, you have to do it. Part of being in a classroom, part of being in. As you get up, you're going to have to grow up, you're going to have to go to work. You're going to have to deal with people that you don't necessarily want to work with sometimes.

When we get stuck, what can work for you? I had to sit there, and this child, we had to come up with strategies. Strategies for this particular child who doesn't like to be super verbal, was pulling out pictures of their dog or something like that. I just let them take some. I was like, yeah, we can put some photographs in your folder.

When you start getting in that yucky feeling, you can pull out that picture of that pup-pup and look at that pup, sure. Or doodling, or trying a pressure point while you're sitting there getting frustrated. If they're just yelling at them and having that reactive feeling, maybe hit that pressure point, take your deep breath, and then try responding after that.

Monica: This is very necessary to hear. These are a set of strategies that you share in a group. This is what we're going to try, this might work. But there's a percentage of the children in your classroom who might need a more individualized plan. This sounds like it.

This specific boy, he recognized his struggle making friends or getting along with others, and he came to you. He is not there to not hear what you're saying. What would you say? What advice would you give the teachers listening when we have children in the classroom that maybe have different levels of functionality, maybe at the end of the spectrum, or maybe there's some other kind of disability?

Jess: It can still work. It just takes what you said, individualization. Sometimes it takes a different strategy. It may look a little different. For those particular students, it's about trying one thing. If it doesn't work, that's okay. Try something else.

We tried sentence starters. One thing that's really important to you is you want to be able to add on to conversations. Okay, let's practice that. What does that look like? What does that feel like? Practice with me. Practice with your friends.

With the sentence starters, try maybe starting with something that's not necessarily curriculum or something that is in their actual work, but maybe something with their personal lives. If you know that they really love Minecraft, let them start by just introducing it that way where it's not scary. It's something they're excited about.

Before you respond, you can't have the conversation. Part of it is actually listening, and then you have to add on to that. Try different things with them. Maybe throughout the year, they get stuck on that.

Sometimes maybe you have to have an individual conversation with them, like a student-teacher conversation. Set goals for them, where they're actually pulling things that they like. What I find is that I just say, hey, these are things I want you to try, then they may not take ownership of it because it's what I'm putting on them.

Monica: Absolutely.

Jess: I guess it's okay to try things. If they work, wonderful. If they don't, that's okay.

Monica: They say something else. It's almost like when we do that, although we're talking about social and emotional skills, if he doesn't work, well let's brainstorm. Let's evaluate, why didn't it work? What else can we do?

This is even a cognitive process. It's not only emotional and social, it's also cognitive to come up with, okay, what do I have to adjust that is going to work? You do it with them. That ownership is so important is what I'm hearing.

Jess: It's so funny to just say it like this, but it's emotional intelligence. When you have intelligence, you have to learn. You have to read, you have to study, you have to try things. Emotional intelligence is the same thing. It's trial and error sometimes. It's reading, it's having conversations, it's modeling. It's learning things.

When you say it like that, it sounds so silly. It's like, oh, duh, I know, right? I don't know, it took me a while to figure that out. I don't know if I should say that, but I did. I would have to say that the teacher I started off as, is not the teacher I am today.

Monica: Thank you, Jess. Do you mind giving us one specific strategy or technique to help them when they're up here to help them calm down? What is one thing that has worked for you?

Jess: Okay, when you're new in a yucky feeling. I'll give you examples of what we do. These are fun. Some of them are fun. Some of them, when you come into my room, Get Weird Wednesdays are so much fun. We try a lot of different breathing. It could be counting backwards. Counting, that's a great one. It could be taking a deep breath.

There are different types of breaths you could do. One of the ones that I find that they love as kids is called dragon breathing. It seems so silly, but you take a deep breath in, and then it's a really loud exhale. It's like, [...]. It's just so much fun.

We have a box breathing. That's one of our favorites. You think about a box. At first, we'll visually draw it with our fingers. But eventually, it just becomes a visualization in your brain.

As your box is going up from the bottom to the top corner, you're breathing in. Then as you're going across, you're holding. As you're going down, you're releasing that breath. Then as you're going back across, you're holding. You just keep doing that until you come out of that yucky feeling.

Eventually, you see it in your brain. You're drawing up the box, holding it across, bringing it back down. It's just different ways to get your brain thinking about something else long enough to control your yucky feelings. When you're in those yucky feelings, think about your body. You're tense. Your shoulders are typically up. You're holding that breath.

We talk about what this feels like and what this looks like. When you're angry, you're here, and you're tense. What are different things that you can do to eventually release that and bring yourself back down to that? Like I said, green isn't always happy. Just as long as you’re calm, and you're in a place where you're not being reactive.

Monica: Behavior is actually my specialty, and I'm learning so many specific strategies that are different. Maybe teachers out there listening have tried strategies, all these ones. Oh, let me try that one. That one might work for this one child. It might work for the majority of the children. Thank you so much.

Will you give us one simple sentence starter, something that teachers can start saying to a child or help the child say so that they can learn about their feelings, how to monitor them, and how to step ahead in an action that is beneficial for themselves, for the children in the classroom and even the teachers?

Jess: One that I use is, right now I'm feeling and I need. The reason why is because, then you are verbalizing to somebody around you. Maybe it's I need space, maybe it's I need a minute, or maybe I need a hug. I'm feeling and I need, that's the one that I use.

You could just use any other sentence starters of practicing how to have conversation with people. There are tons of those out there, lots of them. I want to add on, I respectfully disagree. The list goes on.

Monica: Do you mind if when I'm working with my teachers directly, I give them that one? I'm feeling and I need. I love it. Thank you, Jess.

Jess: You're welcome.

Monica: Let's start summarizing what's happening. Let's give our teachers three takeaways, three things that they can take, implement immediately, to help their children check on their feelings, get out of those yucky feelings, and have a better experience, a better interaction in the classroom with teachers and with their peers.

Jess: I've really been thinking about this. Some takeaways that I would say is one, be consistent and come up with some kind of plan. You know the saying, on Monday, I do this, on Tuesday, I do that. The plan is more so for me and also for my students, so they know what to expect, but also the consistency part of it. Kids thrive on a schedule, and they need that. They need that time. It just sets the intention and the purpose for the day. So one, plan and consistent time.

My second one would be to give tons of tools and strategies. The more tools and strategies you're giving these kids, how I kept talking about trying things and seeing if it works or not, the more tools you give them, the more successful they can be.

My last one would be to have the students take ownership of it. Have them set their goals. Have them revisit those goals. Also, have them reflect and rate themselves on things. Like, yeah, I'm really great with this. I don't feel good about this. This doesn't work for me. Have them take that ownership.

Monica: Excellent. Thank you so much. Thank you for your time being with us. I'm sure that teachers out there are so excited to hear something that resonated, and they're going to go try tomorrow with their children or later today. Thank you.

Jess: I'm just really excited to be here today, Monica. Thank you so much. I just love this kind of work. It's just so passionate to me, and I love it. I'm excited to share what works for me and my classroom.

Monica: I just want to repeat what you said before, the teacher you were in that beginning 12 years ago is not the teacher you are today. You've grown observing your children, learning from them, learning from their behaviors, and then you have come up with these strategies. You have researched and learned. You have applied, which is exactly what we are trying to inspire teachers to do.

Jess: Isn't that funny, too? That's what we ask our students to do.

Monica: Exactly. Thank you again. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Teachers of the world you can find today's episode and transcript on our website, Thank you architects of the brain for sharing your love and wisdom with the children of the world and for being here to add to your box of wonders. See you next episode. Bye.