As Early Childhood Educators, we know how important it is to understand emotions – those of the children we teach, and our own – and how they influence behaviour. Teaching children about emotions supports them to gain more control over their thoughts, actions, and behaviours.
Children experience complex feelings just like adults. They get frustrated, excited, nervous, sad, jealous, frightened, worried, angry, and embarrassed. However, young children usually don’t have the vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling. Instead they communicate their feelings in other ways.
Children can express their feelings through facial expressions, through their body, their behaviour and play. Sometimes they may act out their feelings in physical, inappropriate, or problematic ways.
From the moment children are born, they start learning the emotional skills they need to identify, express and manage their feelings. They learn how to do this through their social interactions and relationships with important people in their lives such as parents, grandparents, educators and carers.
WHAT ARE EMOTIONS?
Emotions are a combination of three things, behaviours, thoughts, and physical feelings.
Behavioural aspects: This part is the external expression of emotion; the things you do or don’t do when you express an emotion. If for example, you are feeling worried about losing your job, the action you take might be to consult your trade union, or you might make plans to start your own business. On the other hand, the worry might paralyse you to the extent that you do not do anything! It’s how you act.
Cognitive aspect: This aspect of your emotion involves your thoughts. It is the internal part of emotions – the conscious, subjective part. If you’re worried about losing your job, your thoughts might be along the lines of “I’ll never get another job” (negative thinking). Or they might be “Great, I’ll retrain and do something completely different” (positive thinking). It’s how you think. For children, this is the step that needs the most work.
Physical aspect: This part is the often involuntary physical changes that occur in your body when you experience emotions. When you are anxious, worried, or excited for example, your body releases adrenaline. When you are relaxed and happy, your body releases serotonin. So, depending on your thoughts about the possibility of losing your job, your body will experience a different physical reaction. It’s how you physically feel.
There is no specific order in which the aspects of an emotion occur, but any one aspect can affect the others. For example, what you think can affect your physical response, and can alter how you behave. But how you behave can also influence what you think, which, in turn, can affect a physical response.
BEING MINDFUL OF YOUR EMOTIONS
Next time you experience an emotion – for example anger, joy, guilt, pride – try to identify all the different parts of it. You can start by being aware of any physical signs or sensations: where does the feeling seem to be located? Do you feel an increased heart rate, a hot flush, sweating, tension in muscles, knots in your stomach, a shiver? These changes intensify the emotion. With a little practice, you can learn to be aware of these signs.
Next observe your thoughts. When you are feeling guilt, for example, what are you thinking? When you are feeling grateful, what are your thoughts? What is the voice inside your head saying?
Finally, be aware of how you behave. What don’t you do? What do you do? What actions do you take?
Just doing this exercise itself is being mindful. Not only does it help you to be more aware of your emotions, it can help you to see how the different parts of emotions are connected, how they interact, and to understand how they affect you.
The more you are aware of your emotions, the more you can move out of mind traps: those responses that have become a habit or a default position.
ALL EMOTIONS ARE POSITIVE
It’s easy to think of emotions in terms of being either positive or negative, but in reality, all emotions have a positive intent that serves physical and social purposes.
Physically, emotions protect you and help keep you safe. Emotions enable you to react quickly in situations where rational thinking is too slow. In a potentially dangerous situation, you need to react quickly and emotions like fear and surprise help you do just that. Consider why a child acts out when they are angry. Their body releases adrenaline, sending them into fight mode, where they lash out and hit others, or flight mode, where they lay on the ground and scream or cry.
Socially, emotions like trust, gratitude and love enable you to feel connected and attached to others, and to feel that you are accepted, appreciated, needed and cared for, and that you belong. Emotions help us feel understood, respected, supported, and where it’s relevant, forgiven. Consider children who are still forming bonds with us. Why do they cry a lot when they are upset? They need our social emotional support to build connections.
Emotions such as guilt, shame, embarrassment and pride help you to reflect on, and adapt, the way you behave and relate to others. Trust, for example, leads to sharing and cooperating. Guilt prompts you to put right something you should or shouldn’t have done.
Listen to your self-talk. Accept your emotions for what they are, then honestly reflect on your thoughts and act mindfully.
HOW CAN WE HELP CHILDREN DEVELOP THEIR EMOTIONAL SKILLS?
Have you noticed how children are very good at living in the moment? They are mindful of what is happening right now. They are not running a commentary through their heads about all their past experiences. They are not living a life of regret over what they don’t have or didn’t do. They are not living in the future wishing for a life that may never be. They are here and now. They are building their self-identity through experiences they are currently having.
Being educators means we’ve got a really important role to play in helping children understand their feelings and behaviours. Children need to be shown how to manage their feelings in positive and constructive ways. At Skippy’s, we have a mindfulness program to actively support children, in a simplified way, to understand and gain more control over their emotions.
The following are some ways that we help children to learn about and express their feelings:
Tune into cues - Sometimes feelings can be hard to identify. We tune into children’s feelings by looking at their body language, listening to what they’re saying, and observing their behaviour. Figuring out what they feel, and why, means we can help them identify, express and manage those feelings better.
Every behaviour is attached to a feeling – We strive to understand the meaning and feeling behind children’s behaviours. We can help children find other, better, ways to express those feelings once we know what is driving the behaviour.
Name the feeling – We help children name their feelings by giving them a label. Naming feelings is the first step in helping children to learn to identify them. It allows children to develop an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about their feelings.
Identify feelings in others – We provide lots of opportunities to identify feelings in others. We might ask children to reflect on what someone else may be feeling. Cartoons or picture books are a great way to discuss feelings, and help children learn how to recognise other people’s feelings through facial expressions. We have some great children’s books that support this learning.
Be a role model - Children learn about feelings, and how to express them appropriately, by watching others. We show children how we are feeling about different situations and how we deal with those feelings in appropriate ways.
Encourage with acknowledgement – We acknowledge children when they talk about their feelings or express them in an appropriate way. Not only does it show that feelings are normal and it’s ok to talk about them, it reinforces the behaviour, so they are likely to repeat it.
Listen to children’s feelings – We stay present and resist the urge to try to make children’s “bad or negative” feelings go away. Instead, we support children to identify and express their feelings so they are heard. When feelings are minimised or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways. It is important to support children to feel their emotions and work through them.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HELP CHILDREN DEVELOP THEIR EMOTIONAL SKILLS?
When children learn to manage their emotions in childhood it leads to positive attitudes and behaviours later in life. Children who learn healthy ways to express and cope with their feelings are more likely to:
Be empathetic and supportive of others
Perform better in school and their career
Have more positive and stable relationships
Have good mental health and wellbeing
Display less behavioural problems
Develop resilience and coping skills
Feel more competent, capable and confident
Have a positive sense of self
Teaching children to choose better behaviours does not happen overnight. There is no quick fix, it needs consistency and time to create new understandings and ways of being. By taking these mindful steps, we can boost children’s emotional intelligence, ultimately helping them to positively engage in school and in life.