Supporting Kindergarten SEL with Kinder-Koffee Breaks

By Thomas Whaley, Kindergarten Teacher


It’s ANY given day, time, or subject. You feel great about the lesson you’re teaching. The children are engaged and participating. It’ll be finished in the amount of time you planned and you have prepared an exciting follow-up project. Then, all of a sudden, what I like to refer to as “The Inevitables” begin to unfold! Sally has to use the bathroom. George and Madison just remembered they need to go as well. Chris needs his shoe tied, so Margaret and Shawn get up to help him. EVERYONE suddenly needs a drink. It spirals and you are left wondering what happened. Just moments ago, the children were so focused…or were they?

When new students enter the classroom, we do our best to establish and reinforce a set of classroom norms to help our days run smoothly. Children work hard to remember to raise hands, help one other, be kind, and sit quietly on the rug, to name a few. But just because they are sitting quietly on the rug does not mean they are hearing you. Staminas are working overtime, and you may have lost a bunch along the way.

Lessons take time to prepare. We follow the steps and implement the curriculum. But what if we allow the students to help orchestrate the lesson? This is what I decided to do.

Introducing Mr. Whaley’s Kinder-Koffee Breaks!

For the last 20 years, I have seldom been spotted without a brimming massive size coffee mug or 48 ounce Stanley camping thermos in my hand. I’m basically a teaching barista. And being a coffee addict, I am always saying “Give Mr. Whaley one sec kiddies, I need to refill my coffee.” When I was trying to figure out a way to help kids remain focused during lessons, it only seemed fitting to introduce the concept of coffee breaks.

I introduced the idea during one of our weekly class meetings. On Monday’s we sit in a large oval and discuss our personal and class goals for the week. On Friday’s we revisit those goals and see if we met them, are still working towards them or need to change them. They loved the idea I pitched: During lessons, Mr. Whaley will ask if any or all of you need a “Kinder-Koffee Break”, 15 minutes, give or take, to talk, stretch, draw, use the bathroom, etc. After the break is over, we dive right back into our lesson, reenergized and ready to learn. They loved the idea, especially since it mimicked my need for coffee refills. We made it our “Team Goal” for the week. We couldn’t believe how awesome the results were! It was Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) at its finest, and as we know SEL is vital in any classroom setting.

Children love being a part of the decision making. In this case it proved beneficial and carried over into many parts of our weekly routine. Instead of children trying desperately to appease me, they were voicing their needs. Before I even had a chance to notice “The Inevitables” beginning to bubble in the cauldron of students, class representatives (they are always four, one from each table), would already be raising their hands to alert me that it was time for a Kinder-Koffee break. It was a beautiful thing to watch unfold. Children were watching out for each other. They became aware of others’ needs and handled their rotating leadership roles with pride. Surprisingly, no one took advantage of the breaks or misused their time because they knew how important it was to them. Their lesson experiences became personal. They owned what they were learning and respected me for respecting them.

Kinder-Koffee breaks become fluid; a natural part of the learning experience. It is very rare that I have to ask students to refocus or participate during lessons because everyone’s social-emotional needs have been met. My children have become each other’s biggest advocates and self-regulators. They are establishing and refining their personal leadership styles while making responsible choices. No one complains because everyone is heard and personal needs are met…

Another perk?

I get to refill my cup.

(Pun intended)

Thomas Whaley has been teaching elementary school for 20 years. He is the recipient of the New York State Elementary Classroom Teachers Association Teacher of the Year. His teaching has been profiled for NPR 50 Greatest Teachers for his work with Latinx students. Thomas lives on Long Island with his husband and two children, Andrew and Luke. He is the author of the novel Leaving Montana and is working on a second novel. Follow him on Twitter at @AuthorTomWhaley.

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