Welcome to a journey into the world of emotional intelligence and the transformative power of art in early childhood education. In today’s episode of Teaching with CLASS®, we are joined by Lenika Flores, a passionate advocate with over two decades of experience nurturing young minds.
Lenika’s background spans from classroom teaching to educational coaching, and today, she offers invaluable insights into how art can be a conduit for children to explore and express their emotions.

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Kate: Hi! Welcome to Teaching with CLASS podcast. The podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classroom. I’m your host Kate Cline. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about where art, feelings, and class can come together in your classroom. We’re joined by Lenika Flores, an experienced early child educator, coach, and leader with a deep passion for art as a vehicle for expression and connection in the classroom. She will share ideas for you on how you can set the stage for children to grow in so many ways like supporting their opportunities to explore with art. Are you ready to explore with us? Let’s get started.

Hi, Lenika.

Lenika: Hi, Kate.

Kate: How are you today?

Lenika: I'm very excited to be here. I love art, and I feel honored to be invited to talk to you more about this topic because I am very passionate. Thank you.

Kate: That is amazing. I'm really excited. Let's just dive right in. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What brings you here to talk to us about how we can use art in the classroom, managing our feelings, and things like that? Tell us about yourself.

Lenika: Yes. I have been in the early childhood field for 23 years. I was, many years ago, a teacher. I was a center director for a state funded program. I had my own family child care program, which was an amazing experience because I was able to serve families in the area of Chula Vista, San Diego. That was just an opportunity for me to get close to the community and learn more about myself and my own philosophy of childhood. That was a great experience.

I also work as a coach. I love facilitating workshops for early childhood educators. I am currently working as a resource teacher for the school district. I am studying my master's degree in social emotional learning, which is amazing because it's so foundational for young children to be able to develop meaningful relationships with families as well. I'm very excited to learn more about social emotional intelligence.

Kate: That's awesome. You are a lifelong learner, and you're here to share interesting things with us. Tell us about art. Where does your interest in art and using art in the classroom come from?

Lenika: My passion about art started many years ago when I traveled to Italy. I attended a one-week conference where I learned the power of art. As you know, Reggio Emilia, it's an approach where children take the lead. I learned that art can be powerful and can transform children's view of the world because children portray what they are learning through art.

I got very passionate, and I started implementing art in my classrooms. I noticed that when I started implementing art many years ago, children were not engaged in art. They will do like 5-10 minutes at the most, and then they will leave. I thought there's something I'm missing.

When I started letting the children select their own materials and children be very creative and become autonomous and independent, I noticed that children could engage in art from 20 minutes to an hour and sometimes even more. I think that it's very powerful to give children the time for them, not just the time, but also the independence to lead their own interest.

I think that it's very powerful to give children the time for them, not just the time, but also the independence to lead their own interest.

Kate: Yeah. I am so fascinated by Reggio Emilia also. I have never been so fortunate to go to Italy to really experience it, but through traveling exhibitions and things like that. I totally know that to see the world through the child's eyes as they create the art, that expresses their points of view and everything, it's incredible what they can do with that kind of support.

When you were talking about that, I got really scared. I'm like, oh, no. I felt like, how can I create that? They have a special atelier. People who are dedicated artists support that. How do I, as a regular teacher, do that? I heard you started talking about materials, children's freedom to choose, and things like that. Can you tell us more about, if I don't feel like a real expert in art, how can I support that in my class?

Lenika: Yes. I feel like teachers, we learned that we are teachers. We want to teach children. We want to get them ready for kindergarten. Many times, I think that we rush and we feel very committed with parents to prepare the students. Sometimes we forget about letting children explore, letting children discover by themselves, letting them move, letting them stand up, and then come back to the table, sit down, and put their thoughts together of what they want to do and portrait.

Many times, we just forget how children process learning and how it's important for them to be able to have that independence and at the same time feel empowered. For example, let's get inspired on flowers. I bring real flowers to the table. What colors would you like to choose, to select? Sometimes they get paint. I have paint on the table, but they want to grab markers.

I let them grab markers. Sometimes they want to get tape, scissors, cut flowers, and just express themselves in unique ways. As teachers, sometimes we want them to make something out of an example and make it sometimes the same. We direct activity.

For me it's more about observing and being more like a facilitator and asking them questions. Okay, I feel like you're very excited about tape, you want to bring other things, and just facilitate their learning. I have truly experienced that. When we as teachers let them discover art by themselves, they are really going to connect with art and develop the skills they need to be prepared, but we need to take a step back as teachers and let them explore and create.

Kate: Yeah, so we can take the pressure off. As an adult, we might be coming out at it like, what are they producing? What are they making here? What's it going to be at the end of this experience? It's more about the experience than what comes out on the other end. I heard you talking about preparing the environment to inspire them, bringing things in to the classroom to look at, to explore, to think about, things like color, texture, and things like that, that will then spark some interest or thought, those kinds of things. What are some other kinds of things that you might bring into the classroom to inspire children to explore and create?

Lenika: Yes. Something that I think is important is Concept Development, really connecting children with the real life experiences, what they are going through. I feel like when I invite them, for me, it's an invitation. Not all the time they feel creative. Now all the time they feel ready. Sometimes it takes for some children to wait and get inspired because it's really something that has to come from them that they can come and join us.

For me, it's connecting their thoughts and ideas to real life experiences, to make it really meaningful for them. If we are talking about flowers, do you have flowers in your garden? What is your favorite flower? Have you helped your mom water the flowers? Do you have a garden?

I feel that when children feel appreciated and value their thoughts, ideas, and their life experiences are being taken into consideration, they are going to engage even more. Everybody, when you talk to them, now everybody wants to join and wants to tell their story through art.

Kate: When you're connecting on a personal level, you have to really know them well to know what's going to spark their interest, try different things. Not everything is inspirational to everyone. Each child might be a little different and need something different to spark that interest. You have to know about them, invite their ideas, hear what they're talking about in order to know, oh, I need to remember that, I can bring that in next time or something like that.

That's really exciting to think about children as the inspiration. Children are the inspiration for what you're providing so that they can be inspired to interpret the world and what they're going through with their art. Earlier, you were talking about your new exploration of social emotional learning and your own educational endeavors in that direction. How are you seeing the link between art and children's feelings, big feelings, small feelings? How can we bring those two things together?

Lenika: I noticed through observation, something that I'm very concerned is that children are exhibiting more anxiety and depression symptoms in the classrooms. We as teachers are having this conversation because we see it happening. Some children are isolating, they are having more difficulty sharing, taking turns, just relating to other children. I'm concerned, and I feel like art is very powerful to heal and also to teach children because sometimes they don't know how to express.

Through art, we can teach our children emotional intelligence by doing activities that can encourage them to express. 

They don't know how to identify their feelings. Through art, we can teach our children emotional intelligence by doing activities that can encourage them to express. Sometimes they cannot even express in words, but they can express through their art. I noticed that I could even make a journal of the children's experiences by displaying their art because what they were going through, they could express it through drawings, through different medium.

That could be an outlet for them because many times, they are going through difficult experiences at home, and they don't have the space. We as teachers, we are not our therapists, but we can create these opportunities for them to relieve anxiety, to learn about their feelings. It can be very difficult because some children might be experiencing traumatic experiences. I notice in the classrooms now, when I go, some children cannot even engage in a conversation. But giving them that opportunity to express those feelings through art, it's amazing. We can create the spaces. I believe that we can make a big impact on our students.

Kate: Sometimes they open up just when you're sitting there with them, and they're talking and thinking through things. I can think about a situation of finger painting and things like that, where it's really a big sensory experience. When they start to feel comfortable, they just start talking about things and letting you know what's going on in there. It might not have anything to do with what they're physically doing, but they're processing their thoughts and feelings at that time.

What comes to your mind when you're sharing any specific situations, kids that come to mind, or something that would help any listener know like, oh, okay, I get it, this is what I might expect to have happened on this one?

Lenika: I have experienced some children do art every day because it makes them feel calm. It makes them feel relaxed. Some other children don't feel capable, and this is something that I really want to support those students that feel like they don't have the skills. For me, to be able to tell them, encourage them to try, it's okay. Sometimes it takes time to develop those skills. You can do it, and just be there and support them.

Whenever they feel ready because again, it's not about rushing them, because we feel like, oh, the mom wants to see an art picture on the wall, it's for us to support them when they feel they are ready. Like you just mentioned, sometimes it's just the relaxation that comes when we are not rushing them, when they are selecting their own materials, when everybody's quiet, so relaxed, you have the backup music, and they are engaged in learning.

I remember one time one of my students said, you know what, teacher, when my mom and my dad fight, that makes me feel so sad. I could feel her emotion. That opened up the conversation because another student said, my mom and my dad fight all the time too, and I cry. But everybody was so respectful, and everybody was opening up to their own emotions, how they feel when their parents fight, if they don't fight.

For me, that was very meaningful because many times,they don't even realize it, or they can hardly understand this. For me, to give them that space, I think that we are honored as teachers to provide these opportunities.

Kate: Yes. Like you said, what an honor when a child shares a piece of their heart with you like that. I've always got my class lens on, so I'm hearing so much about that Emotional Support like helping children feel safe to take risks, whether it's with the thing they're creating, to share information that that will be accepted and valued, giving them autonomy and regard, choices that they're making for experiences that they're having, and those Positive Climate moments of really enjoying time together, connecting, and all that. I'm hearing so much.

You even brought up Concept Development. That is amazing. I just love a few tips from your perspective in the sort of classroom organization area. If we could think about like, okay, I'm gathering these materials, I'm going to trust children to use them, how do I set some clear boundaries around this because I don't have an unlimited budget? I don't need them to dump all the glue all over or whatever the situation might be.

How do I allow for that creative exploration and still have some parameters of behavior or the purpose of what we're doing here in terms of instructional learning formats? You know where I'm going with this. What are your thoughts around that?

Lenika: Yes. Thank you for bringing this up because the more I see it, the more I believe that when you give children autonomy, when you give them a safe place, when you are loving, caring, responsive to their needs, children are going to feel more relaxed. When they feel safe, then you can have your clear expectations, but children are going to respond better to you if you have that foundation. When you have that close relationship to children, they're going to respond to you because they know that you respect them.

When they feel safe, then you can have your clear expectations, but children are going to respond better to you if you have that foundation. When you have that close relationship to children, they're going to respond to you because they know that you respect them.

When you put those expectations, for me it was simple. It's about caring about each other, respecting each other. If you drop the paint, if you get dirty, that's okay. You can clean yourself when we are done. I feel like children know they are so smart. They understand that you have expectations, and they are going to follow those expectations because they respect you as a teacher.

Something else that I noticed, the less rules that we give them, it's more likely that they are going to be responsive, that they are going to be caring, loving. I'm not saying to not give them rules, but I'm talking about, no, you cannot use the scissors, you cannot use the markers. I see it a lot in the classroom still like, no, you can only grab these colored markers, we are not using pencils right now. Then children want to fight you back because you give them so many things, so many instructions.

The instruction for me is let's be respectful, respect the materials, but take your time, grab whatever you need, stand up, sit down. It's not all about sitting down doing the art activity. It's for them to feel calm, relaxed, and that they have autonomy.

Kate: Yeah. We don't have to harp always on the rules, rules, rules, or how to protect them from themselves or whatever. We teach them how to use the scissors and how to use these materials so that they last a long time and things like that. Is there anything I haven't asked you yet that you really wanted to share with us today?

Lenika: The last thing I just wanted to share is just, again, to invite teachers to be thoughtful when you implement your art activities. Really see the power in art because children need those space. Children need to be able to express what they are going through. I think it's part of the trauma informed practices to be able to give children the opportunity.

Art is healing. We know this by studies because it decreases the stress levels on children and on adults. Let's give children that opportunity. Let them enjoy. Let them lead their art experiences. Thank you for listening.

Kate: Yeah, not so fast. I just want to go back. What came up when you were talking about that is I feel some adults are very comfortable expressing themselves through art, others are not. From whatever experiences, they feel not comfortable. What I'm hearing is that even for adults, you said, for adults, too, it's a way of processing our emotions. It's a way of processing our life experience and all that.

I heard you say, we don't have to be the art therapist, we can just provide these opportunities for children. Do you think that educators get something out of these art experiences alongside children when they're with them in these moments, not just watching doing it along with them? What are your thoughts about that?

Lenika: I think that just observing and being with the children during this art experiences is also for the teacher. I think it makes you feel better in a way that you feel more calm, more relaxed just by looking at them, enjoy what they are doing and expressing their thoughts. Also, it's a process. You notice that every time they do an art activity, they improve not just in their fine motor skills, but expressing the art. It's more detailed. 

At the beginning, it looks very abstract. But the more they develop those skills that we are so concerned about, the preparation for writing, this is the pre-writing skills. This is the pre-reading skills. When they start writing letters and the different forms have now a meaning, this is when for me it's like, wow, I see the improvement. I feel like as a teacher, I feel very proud of the students and proud of the work that we are doing.

I can show the parents and tell them, look, I have this documentation. Look at the first picture. Now you can see, where is he at, the improvement that I have seen. This is going to be foundational for kindergarten. This is the preparation.

Kate: Yes. So many things come out from just simple experiences in the classroom. It's amazing. One of the things that we are really trying to focus on right now is thriving, children thriving and educators thriving. One of the things that I took away from that is how inspiring it is as an educator when you see your children growing and learning. The thriving is on both ends, not just the child, the educator thrives also.

To finish up our time here together, I have one last question for you. If you could talk to an educator straight like heart to heart, little one message you wanted to share with an educator to affirm or encourage them, what would you say?

Lenika: I feel like at this point in my career, I see teachers who are filling motivators for different reasons. This field can be very demanding at times. We might be feeling like we are failing because I notice when I talk to teachers that we are probably struggling with students with difficult behaviors, and we might feel stress and burnout. But I think it's important that we take care of ourselves too, like teachers.

I know as teachers, we do this with the heart because we love what we do. We really want to support the families and our children. But in order for us to be the best that we can, we need to take care of ourselves. We need to do art as well. We need to take breaks, breathe, and come back again. We are humans, and it's okay if we feel stressed.

Sometimes we don't want to admit it, but it's okay to feel stressed. It's okay to feel tired and just give yourself that opportunity, acknowledge, and come back even stronger and better for our students because many times, they have more time with us than with their parents. For me, it's important for teachers to keep this message with you and take care of yourself.

Kate: Yes, beautiful. Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing everything that you shared today about art, the importance of all of the exploration, and sharing your heart about teachers taking care of themselves. Yes, thank you so much.

Lenika: Thank you, Kate.

Kate: Wow. Lenika’s passion for supporting children’s art exploration is truly contagious. Are you inspired to give it a try like she suggested? She said start with what you know about your children, what they like, what they’re interested in, what they experience everyday, and gather some materials, art materials that you want them to explore, maybe some things in nature, things they see around them everyday. Then, relax and step back but stay close by because you want to be able to listen, respond and be amazed by what they can create as they have the freedom, the autonomy to express themselves through art.

Educators who thrive, who know, create environments where children can thrive. So remember, take care of yourself because what you do truly matters. Thank you for joining us today. You can find today’s episode and transcript on our website teachstone.com/podcast.