Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

A friend who teaches science to kindergarteners through 5th graders in local public school, recently told me how she decided to dedicate time to teaching how to be a good friend.  She went on to explain how her students, mostly from low-income families, would react so harshly and how social interactions tended to escalate quickly.

Although taking time away from academics may be frowned upon by some, emotional intelligence is critical to later success in life.  Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist, has written numerous, well-researched books on children, their brains, and learning.  In Your Child’s Growing Mind, she argues that emotional intelligence is “actually more important in life than school smarts.”

One way to cultivate emotional intelligence is to help children learn how to identify when they are starting to feel out of control or overwhelmed, and then access tools for calming themselves down.  In our school, and at home, we use “Take a Break” spaces.  Please note that these are not for the traditional “time out.”  Rather, these are places where children can go on their own accord, so as to regain some composure or calm.

At The Montessori School of the Berkshires our Take a Break spaces are inspired by The Shining Mountain Center for Peaceful Childhood and include items that appeal to different senses.  Some key components of the Take a Break spaces can include:
  • scent bottles with essential oils (for calming, energizing, or promoting balance)
  • pictures of peaceful scenes from nature
  • textured items (objects from nature, sensory balls, etc.)
  • items like a sand timer or electric tea candle (to indicate a “start” to using the space)
  • objects that provide auditory or visual interest (e.g. sea shells, thumb piano, kaleidoscope, etc.)


To keep the area fresh and engaging, we try to rotate the Take a Break items every few weeks.  We have a Take a Break space for each classroom (either in the classroom or in the hallway just outside the classroom door, depending upon various factors), and I have a space in my office for children who need an even greater distance from whatever is troubling them.

My daughters and I created a cushier version of the Take a Break space for home.  They picked out a neutral space in our upstairs hall where we could nestle in a bean bag, a PillowPet, a blanket, and a basket of some calm-down items.  The tissue box came later, once someone used the space while teary-eyed.

In addition to some books (both for reading and one for coloring), we added scenty pencils, a small bean bag, a sensory ball, as well as some easy-to-make items.

In a slender jar, we added glitter, water, and food coloring, which provides a lovely, calming effect when you shake it.

We also colored rice with food coloring and rubbing alcohol, added it to a ball jar, and hid little items inside.

Finally, we smooshed homemade playdough into balloons, which creates the perfect squish-when-upset item!

Our inspiration for the Take a Break spaces at home came from a Positive Parenting post on a Calm Down Corner and Calm Down Travel Bag.

While fun to make, the underlying purpose of all of the items and spaces is to help children become more emotionally literate.  I’m delighted when one of my children stomps off, shouting, “I need to take a break!”  In that moment she has recognized that she’s on the brink of doing something that she’ll likely regret once she’s calmed down.

Whether at home or school, we can create the spaces where our children can cultivate their emotional intelligence and form a foundation for future success.


  1. Awesome ideas, Meagan! I added your post link to my "How to Prepare a Peace Corner" post at

  2. This is a wonderful post that I certainly will be sharing!

  3. Great ideas. I never thought about putting playdough into a balloon. Love it. I'll have to try that.
    Thanks for great ideas


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