Creating Classroom Values Through Daily Intentions: A Novel Approach to SEL in Early Childhood

By Annabelle Baylin, Karen Levenberg

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At the playground, five-year-old Casey notices a piece of trash on the ground, picks it up, and tosses it into the garbage bin. His teacher observes this simple action, holds two fists together, one on top of the other close to her body, and says, “Integrity.” Casey nods, smiles, and runs off to play. He understands the word “integrity,” and while he wasn’t expecting to be noticed, he feels proud in that moment, knowing that he did the right thing.

Daily intentions, special words of kindness and empathy that can be visualized and physicalized, are introduced during our Morning Meeting and within the mindfulness practice in our pre-K fours classroom. Teachers select intentions, such as integrity, based on observations and values that we want to cultivate in the classroom, establishing a classroom culture with a shared set of values. As Dan Siegel (2018) wrote, “When we train a state of kind intention, we harness particular patterns in the brain that research reveals are integrative—they link widely separated regions to each other, enabling the coordination and balance of neural firing. When we exercise those neural networks of kindness, we strengthen their connections and make those trained states become traits of kind intention in our lives” (p. 88).

While working together as co-teachers in our pre-K classroom, the two of us—Karen and Annabelle—always looked for ways to grow our teaching practice and expand our own learning. In the early days of our collaboration, we brainstormed ways to extend our mindfulness curriculum. Karen had learned a mindfulness practice from Annabelle years before we taught together, which we both wanted to fold into the routine of our day. In this practice, the children would take turns acting as the mindfulness leader of the day. Each day, one child would lead their peers in deep breaths and ring a singing bowl for everyone to follow the sound to silence. This routine became a sacred bookend to our days together and we knew that we needed to keep it in place.

Intentions take commitment on the part of the adults in the room, but it is so worth it!

However, we also felt that we wanted to extend the mindfulness practice and grow the children’s understanding of mindfulness, as there are so many practices beyond deep breaths and mindful listening. As we talked about possibilities, Annabelle suggested leading the children through the process of forming an intention for the day, a word that would guide them to thinking more deeply about qualities of mindfulness in both formal and informal ways. Karen added that perhaps we could focus on a word for a week or two at a time, rather than just for one day.

Thus, the intentions were born. We decided that directly after the child-led mindfulness practice each morning we would discuss the intention. We wondered if by selecting a set of special words we could create a container for values of caring, kindness, and mindfulness that could be internalized by the children for use inside and outside the classroom.

Our full list of intentions includes open, gentle kindness, integrity, gratitude, strong and loving, courage, generosity, persistence, acceptance, graciousness, flexible, and equity. We chose the words based on what we know about child development (beginning with being open, which was important for the beginning of a school year with developmentally egocentric four-year-olds, for example) and on what we wanted to cultivate in our classroom community, as well as what was arising in our classroom (a strong sense of competition and lack of sportsmanship begged for some graciousness).

Since we work with four- and five-year-olds, it was important to embody the word, and thus we developed the following practice: In our classes, after we introduce the selected word or phrase to the children, we devise a motion that represents the word and can serve as a visual and kinesthetic cue for remembering the intention. We always include a definition, an affirmation, or a visualization to accompany the intention that we speak aloud together. For example, when we introduce the intention of open, we demonstrate by opening our arms wide and saying, “I am open to making new friends, I am open to trying a new activity, I am open to playing someone else’s idea, I am open.”

Our intentions are introduced and discussed during our Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting as part of the share. We reflect on the word or phrase, and discuss times when we have put this into practice in our own lives. By the end of the week, children have a much more nuanced understanding of the word and how it manifests in daily life. Throughout the day we notice and highlight how it can look in action. Consider the following two examples:

In dramatic play, a group of four children are engaged in turning hollow blocks into a castle. Audrey tells the group that she has changed her mind and wants to make a pirate ship. Ben listens to Audrey’s idea and exclaims, “I’m open to that! Let’s mash up our ideas and make a castle pirate ship!”

During a casual conversation over lunch, Izzy explains to friends that she really wanted to wear her purple shoes to school but because it was raining outside, her father said she had to wear her rain boots. Izzy explained that despite feeling a little sad that she couldn’t wear her purple shoes, she had to be flexible.

The children in these examples were developing a common language around self and social-emotional awareness, as well as sharing in a felt experience of kindness and empathy.

As we observed this unfolding journey, we saw in real time how children can be entrusted with the ability to understand, express, and put into action complex concepts that evoke emotions and values. By cultivating and internalizing these values within the classroom, students began to utilize this knowledge in the world outside of the classroom. Through the use of intentions, the children’s understanding of classroom expectations went beyond a set of rules and rather was linked to their understanding of what it means to be a good person.

Furthermore, having a clear lens through which we looked at the children’s and our own actions made our days as teachers so much more joyful and uplifting. Throughout the day, we were looking for the positive qualities and had our children doing the
same. The laser focus on a specific value each week helped hone our observation skills and allowed us to notice micromoments of openness, gentle kindness, integrity, gratitude, strong and loving words, courage, generosity, persistence, flexibility, acceptance, graciousness, and equity.

Here’s a sample conversation from one of our Morning Meetings, which took place while we were discussing integrity:

Teacher Sara: Who remembers what the word “integrity” means?
Enzo (raises his hand and speaks confidently): It means doing the right thing even when no one is looking!
The teacher, Sara, acts out a story with wooden peg people showing two children playing ball in the street. The ball hits a car and breaks a car window.
Sara: What should the children do?
Jonathan: They should fix it.
Tilly: They should get hammers and screwdrivers and fix it on the side of the road.
Sara: What if they don’t have tools?
Zach: They could write a note.
Jackie: Just glue it back together.
Sara: None of you said they should run away because nobody saw them. You all said they should find a way to fix it or leave a message if they did not have tools. Does anyone have an example of when you acted with integrity?
Tilly: On my way to school I saw some trash on the street and I picked it up and threw it in the garbage.
Enzo: I cleaned up my room and my parents didn’t even ask me to do it.
Caleb: I let Izzy go before me to sign in, even though I was there before her.
Sara: Thank you for sharing! Tomorrow we will continue the discussion so we can think of more examples of integrity.

Each time we introduced a new intention, we shared it with families via our classroom blog and gave the class’s definition and the motion, as well as examples from our conversations. This supported families in extending our shared language to their homes. Many times throughout the school year, parents told us how the intentions helped their family. For example, one parent wrote:

Victor wanted to use the kitchen sink tap and he’s not yet tall enough to reach the handle to turn on the water. He walked to the hardware cupboard and pulled out a 30-inch bubble level that has open holes in its sides. Victor reached across the counter with the bubble level in an attempt to tap the handle with the end of the level. This wasn’t working. He sighed dramatically and let a long, slow breath out. “I better move over here,” he said quietly to himself. He switched sides of the sink in order to loop the opening in the side of the bubble level around the faucet handle. He pulled and adjusted for at least three minutes and finally turned on the water! Victor smiled the hugest smile and said, “Mommy, I persisted!

As a result of our sharing the language with families, parents were able to understand the value of this work and could reinforce moments like these for their children.

We believe it is critical to integrate this work with the ongoing antibias work in our early childhood classrooms, ensuring that we are proactively engaging children in conversations around topics of social justice. In this way, children are able to put the intentions in the context of larger systems at play. For example, when we discuss persistence, we also talk about “unfair rules” that might get in the way, even when you persist. We talk about activists who persist in the face of injustice to change rules. As social justice educator Jennifer Cannon (2016) wrote, “If we integrate principles of compassion, interconnection, and solidarity along with concrete pathways to enact these principles in service to community empowerment and social justice, then we are birthing a new paradigm in mindfulness education” (p. 406).

Intentions take commitment on the part of the adults in the room, but it is so worth it! We have used the intentions in five classrooms, with surprising and beautiful results every year. While we introduced these intentions with a pre-K classroom, this work could be easily transferable to any age level, as well as to settings outside of the classroom. Depending on your group of children and their age, you might consider other intentions that suit your community better. Older children could help brainstorm the words on which to focus, taking the Responsive Classroom “classroom rules” (Howard et al., 2021) process to another level. While our classroom structure followed a play-based, emergent curriculum, the intentions work could easily be applied to other pedagogies.

What intentions might you set in your own classroom community? In your own life?

See articles references here.

Annabelle Baylin

Annabelle Baylin has taught pre-K through first grade at schools in New York City and upstate New York for 10 years. A born-and-raised Brooklynite, Annabelle holds a BA in mindfulness in education from New York University and an MS in early childhood general and special education from Brooklyn College. Her passions include bringing mindfulness into the daily routines of the classroom, facilitating an emergent curriculum, early literacy, having conversations about social justice with children, and making music.

Karen Levenberg

Karen Levenberg has been an early childhood educator in New York City for 17 years and for the past 10 years has taught at the Blue School in Lower Manhattan. Prior to teaching, she helped initiate early literacy Even Start programs in public schools in administrative capacities. Karen holds an MS in early childhood education from Brooklyn College, an MS in public health from Hunter College, and a BA in studio art/art history from Oberlin College.