Fostering Emotional Literacy in young children

Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand, and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner. Children who have a strong foundation in emotional literacy tolerate frustration better, get into fewer fights, and engage in less self-destructive behavior than children who do not have a strong foundation. These children are also healthier, less lonely, less impulsive, more focused, and they have greater academic achievement.

The development of a feeling word vocabulary is considered to be of critical importance in a child’s emotional development because it makes it possible for children to better understand their emotional experiences. The ability to name a feeling allows children to discuss and reflect with others about their personal experience of the world. The larger a child’s emotional vocabulary, the finer discriminations they can make between feelings and the better they can communicate with others about their feelings.

The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill that is not present at birth—it must be learned. And just as there is wide variation in the point at which children start to demonstrate appropriate use of books, begin writing, and recognize letters, some children’s ability to identify, understand, and label their emotions develops at a slower rate than others.

Three variables can underlie a child’s growing ability to label emotions:

(1) the child’s temperament and developmental status,

(2) parental socialization and environmental support, and

(3) the teacher, school and child care providers’ emphasis on emotional literacy.

Indeed, differences in the way adults talk to and teach children about feelings and problem solving are related to children’s abilities to label emotions.

What Can Adults Do?

Adults can play a major role in children’s ability to identify, understand, and express emotions in a healthy way. The following strategies are key in fostering emotional literacy in young children:

Express Your Own Feelings. One way to help children learn to label their emotions is to have healthy emotional expression modeled for them by the adults in their lives. For example, a teacher who knocked over all the glitter can say, “Oh boy, is that frustrating. Oh well, I’d better take a deep breath and figure out how to clean it up.” Or a parent who just got word that she got a promotion at work can say, “Wow! I am so excited about this! I feel proud of myself for working so hard.” Parents, teachers, and child care providers can make a point to talk out loud about their feelings as they experience them throughout the day.

Label Children’s Feelings. As adults provide feeling names for children’s emotional expressions, a child’s feeling vocabulary grows. Throughout the day, adults can attend to children’s emotional moments and label feelings for the children. For example, as a child runs for a swing, another child reaches it and gets on. The first child begins to frown. The teacher approaches her and says, “You look a little disappointed about that swing.” Or a boy’s grandmother surprises him by picking him up at childcare. The boy screams, “Grandma!” and runs up to hug her. The child care provider says, “Oh boy, you look so happy and surprised that your grandma is here!” As children’s feeling vocabulary develops, their ability to correctly identify feelings in themselves and others also progresses.

Play Games, Sing Songs, and Read Stories with New Feeling Words. Adults can enhance children’s feeling vocabularies by introducing games, songs, and storybooks featuring new feeling words. Teachers and other caregivers can adapt songs such as “If you’re happy and you know it” with verses such as “If you’re frustrated and you know it, take a breath”; “If you’re disappointed and you know it, tell a friend”; or “If you’re proud and you know it, say ‘I did it!’” The following are some examples of games young children can play.

As adults our emotional intelligence plays a big part in our ability to model and foster emotional literacy in young children.

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it's an inborn characteristic.

The ability to express and control emotions is essential, but so is the ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Imagine a world in which you could not understand when a friend was feeling sad or when a co-worker was angry. Psychologists refer to this ability as emotional intelligence, and some experts even suggest that it can be more important than IQ in your overall success in life.

People who have strong emotional intelligence are able to consider the perspectives, experiences, and emotions of other people and use this information to explain why people behave the way that they do.

Emotional intelligence is something that develops as we get older. If it didn't, all adults would act like little kids, expressing their emotions physically through stomping, crying, hitting, yelling, and losing control!

Where Do I Find More Information on Implementing This Practice?

Big Life Journal has a variety of emotional literacy resources that will guide you on your emotional literacy journey.  Practical information on helping children develop emotional literacy can be found in journals such as Young Children and Young Exceptional Children. See the following resources for ideas on how to teach young children to identify, understand, and express emotions in a healthy way:

Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Enhancing emotional vocabulary in young children. Young Exceptional Children, 6(4), 18-26.

Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Helping young children control anger and handle disappointment. Young Exceptional Children,7(1), 21-29.

Kusché, C. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (1994) The PATHS curriculum. Seattle, WA: Developmental Research and Programs.

Shure, M. B. (2000). I can problem solve: An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1990). The teachers and children videotape series: Dina dinosaur school. Seattle, WA: The Incredible Years.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1999). How to promote children’s social and emotional competence. London: Paul Chapman.

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