Attempting to Teach Personal Development to Kindergartners

I'm a kindergarten teacher for an English academy in Korea.

They are six years old, and last week I planned a lesson to teach them stress management. But it wasn't just stress management - it was personal development concepts distilled for kindergartners.

Am I crazy? Is this going to work? 
Will 6 year-old kids care about this?
A lot of questions went through my mind when I got this lesson idea, but I had to try.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
— Albert Einstein

Brendon Burchard is my favorite person in the personal development space. I have four of his books and they've all had a big impact on my life. One of his big ideas is to "bring the joy."

I firmly believe in bringing the joy to every project, every social interaction. I have it posted on the inside of my front door.

Recently, Brendon made a short excerpt of one of his training videos to put on Facebook ads to help promote his new book. The lesson was about bringing the joy, and it came at the perfect time.

I had a lesson coming up in our "Health and Fitness" book about managing stress. I also have a student who would benefit a lot from learning how to manage stress better.

So an idea was born - adapt the "Bring the joy!" lesson to my kindergarten classroom (a.k.a. my moment of temporary insanity).

Like I said, I had some doubts, but I wanted to try.

The student in question is MJ. This little girl is so smart, so bubbly and giggly, she is absolutely wonderful — until something doesn't go her way. Then she puts her foot down and refuses to participate. She throws a fit, she whines and starts accusing everyone of all sorts of unfair things.

She draws her line in the sand and she is virtually impossible to reach until she calms down.

The offense? 
She was chosen third to read. 

She always wants to be first, and she's usually okay with it, but sometimes she blows up. This is grossly unacceptable. The kid is super smart, so I've been busting my ass trying to get her social/emotional skills up to par for her first year of elementary school. I want her to shine like she ought to.

Techniques I've tried

Some things have made a really positive impact on the classroom culture. MJ is much better than before and everyone else has a lot fewer fights about stupid things.

1. Kindness letters

One of our first "rules" is to practice kindness. We write letters of compliments or thanks to each other and put them in a pouch to take home on Fridays. The parents like it, the kids like it.

Without a doubt, my emphasis on being kind to each other has made a difference in our classroom.

Only trouble is we have gotten out of the practice of writing the kindness letters because our curriculum is so full. It's hard to carve out time for free writing.

2. Scripts

I took MJ aside one day (when she was in a good mood) and explained that I am going to pick her last to get her lunch. All week.

I gave her three scripts, because I realized she is totally unequipped to communicate properly when something doesn't go her way.
I wrote notes saying things like, "Teacher, you picked me last, so can I be first tomorrow?"

She dutifully carried the notes around when we were lining up for lunch. I picked her last, and she approached the lunch table, looked at the cards...
I leaned in closer, made a show of looking from her face to the cards.
Face, cards.
Lean in closer.
Face, cards...

She giggled, grabbed her lunch and scurried away without saying anything.

I shook my head. What on Earth is so hard about asking to be first next time?

Then two days later she was complaining how tired she was of the cards, never having said any of the scripts.

So much for that idea.

3. How to say sorry

I made a poster, "How to say sorry."

  1. I'm sorry for... 
  2. It was wrong because...
  3. In the future, I will...
  4. Will you forgive me?

After a yes/no, I also encourage the offended to thank the offender for apologizing.

Unfortunately, we haven't had a lot of reasons to practice the steps. (Or is that fortunate?)

That is, until a few weeks ago.

MJ did something rude and made another student cry. She refused to apologize and even blamed the victim.

I've come to realize MJ needs time to cool down before any progress can be made with her, so I did my best to take care of the crying girl and waited for my chance to pounce. I made a point of putting the Sorry Poster in the opposite corner of the room, propped up so everyone can see it. We all knew what was coming.

The first time I heard laughter again, I swooped in.

Girls, can you come with me? I pointed to the poster. They understood.

MJ had an incredibly difficult time maintaining eye contact.
She was like a pendulum, swinging back and forth.

With some gentle prodding, she recited all four steps of a proper apology.

She actually did it!

The offended graciously accepted with a "Yes, I forgive you."

My heart swelled. Our first real apology with the steps!

In fact, that was the first time I had heard MJ apologize (sincerely) for anything.
And she's had plenty of opportunities.


Two weeks ago I had a really hard week with MJ. We broke from our normal routines and she was very fussy for most of the week.

I must have pulled her aside five times to talk to her about her behavior, which is a risky thing to do when you've got 6 other kindergartners who may cause a ruckus while the teacher is not looking.

It's always the same sort of thing. MJ refuses to move her chair to accommodate anyone else, or she insists on being first in line, or she insists she was first to claim some prize.

After a field trip day, there was an incident on the bus. There were 4 seats, and she wanted THIS ONE in the middle. She didn't want to scoot over to the window.

She stood her ground, refused to compromise, and her friends got tired of it. They didn't want to sit with her anymore and took different seats. 
So she ended up alone, pouting, and claiming that "they are bad!"

No, MJ, you pushed them away because you refused to move over to let them sit next to you.

But she doesn't get it.

"When you refuse to work together with your friends, it makes them AND you feel bad. How can you talk in a way that makes everyone feel good?"

I always jump on those teaching moments, but she isn't really getting it.

MJ always shuts down, so it is really hard to reach her in those moments. So I thought I might prepare a "bring the joy!" lesson to piggyback on our "Managing Stress" unit in the book. It's really for MJ, but I figured the other kids would enjoy it and get some value from it.

If I could sneak a lesson for MJ into a regular class, maybe it would be more effective because she wouldn't be in her shutdown/tantrum mode.

The Lesson

I would've liked to make a more detailed plan, but I didn't.

I made a mind-map, followed by a basic lesson plan. I pieced together the lesson throughout the week and discussed some ideas with my coworkers.

What I ended up with was like this:

1. What is stress?

(It's a bad feeling. You get stress when you're angry, tired, too busy, feel like "I can't do it!")
I wrote those on the board.

2. What are the good feelings we would prefer to feel, instead of stress?

Happy, gratitude, joy, kindness, excited, love, "I CAN do it!"

I wrote those to the left and made an arrow.

3. Let's transform those bad feelings into these GOOD feelings!

How can we do it?

  1. Talk to someone (mom, teacher, friend)
  2. Breathe.
  3. Count to 10
  4. Go for a walk

4. Breathing buddies

We laid down on a mat, put a stuffed animal on our stomach, and watched it go up and down while we breathed deep breaths and relaxed our bodies.

5. Agitate the students

I thought after we tried breathing, I would stress them. I told them to put the "Breathing Buddy" back on the desk and get back to their seats, 10! 9! 8! 7! etc.

I gave them a lot of bad news at once: "We have a test next week, we have to do a lot of homework this weekend." I just yelled a little bit, making some clearly false accusations about who made that mess, who stole my marker, etc.

6. Now close your eyes and relax, take 10 deep breaths.

I guided them through it, making audible breaths so they could follow.

Two students followed instructions, and five mostly didn't.

Two said, "Finished!" after I had gotten through only two breaths. Not the most effective exercise, but I talked to the two students who completed the ten slow breaths.

"How do you feel?" Better, they said with a smile. 
Less stressed?" Yes.

Did the stress management lesson work?

For managing stress: Yes, kind of.

For MJ and others realizing they can choose to de-stress at any time? That they can choose whether or not to "bring the joy"?

Nope. That part failed. 


The kids were stressed about which stuffed animal they had, and I didn't properly address that as a "we can reduce stress here" moment. They stumbled at all the points in the lesson that I didn't anticipate.

The laying down and breathing thing didn't seem effective. Not the way I did it, anyway.

I tried my best to lay out the objectives of the lesson.
We are going to learn about stress, and how to manage it. I made sure everyone knew what "manage" and "stress" meant.

But somehow I could have done a much better job focusing them in the beginning of the lesson, helping them to understand the goal and how we were going to achieve it. It didn't seem to resonate.

The kids were at first very enthusiastic about chiming in about times that they have felt stress, and I didn't properly utilize those moments. I let them distract me and become an interruption, rather than a discussion point. I was too focused on building our list of bad feelings and good feelings before we discussed situations we've faced and techniques to deal with it. That was probably my biggest failure.

I should have allowed their personal experience to guide the lesson, rather than stick to my lesson plan. I usually go free-form and respond to what happens in class, and always find a way to steer their outbursts into teachable moments that align with the objectives for each lesson.
I never walk in with a strict lesson plan, so attempting to follow one threw me off my game.

Overall, I failed, but I will return to this lesson.

I told them I would be watching them and pointing out (rewarding) the students that do the best job managing stressful situations. I will be reminding them the techniques we discussed. The 40-minute lesson was not a blockbuster success, but I will transition it into something they can use going forward.

Prospects for Growth

For every lesson that somewhat fails, as this one did, I've had at least two or three that seem to hit home. I've brought my A-game every week for these students. I can't say how much of their growth is attributable to my efforts, but I sleep well at night knowing that I am bringing my whole heart to the classroom every day. Regardless of why it is, they are getting much better.

My kindergarten students are really amazing. I'm quite lucky.

For the most part, they've bought into every system I've presented to them. Practicing kindness, apologizing properly, how to treat each other, fun ways for them to practice sitting nicely and listening, how to line up in an orderly fashion.

I have not maintained every system as well as I'd like, and I'm trying to be more intentional about building time for them — not easy with the rigorous Poly curriculum.

Still, we are finding time to learn how to be good little people and hard-working students, which is more important to me than simply learning English.

MJ is one of the students that has grown the most in 7 months, but she has a long way to go and it's my duty to prepare her for her next stage of life. It's my solemn mission to help her learn that she has control over how she responds. 
I have confidence she will get there.

As for the others, I have some real stars on my hands. Some of these 6 year old kids have incredible physical talents, emotional mastery, reading ability, comprehension, etc.

I try my best to push them every week. Push to be better listeners, kinder friends, more proficient writers and readers, more sincere apologizers, stronger runners... There's a lot to learn in kindergarten. I take that learning seriously because I love my students. I demand of myself that I show up every day ready to serve them.

Hopefully my next off-script lesson works a little better.