Think of a toddler’s behavior…. they’re happy, they’re laughing, they’re mad, they’re crying, and now they’re laughing again. This of course can happen within the span of 5 minutes.
Unlike adults, most kids are not afraid to SHOW how they’re feeling. However, kids can’t always tell us what they are feeling or why they are feeling that way. The development of emotional intelligence and social skills is something children struggle with as they start to mature. Much to the dismay of parents, “terrible twos, three-nagers, and fearsome fours” are early years filled with tantrums and meltdowns. Often we have hope that a child will eventually just outgrow this phase, but educators are beginning to see this period of development as an opportunity to develop social & emotional intelligence for all children, including special education kids.
Here are several approaches that parents, teachers, and educators can take when teaching kids about their emotions:
Approach 1: Name Emotions
Emotions are powerful forces that impact each and every one of us. A great way to assist in growing understanding emotions is by identifying the emotion with the child. In counseling, professionals use something known as “reflective listening” which entails explaining the emotion to a child who is acting out. For example, if a child is sad because Dad had to go to work on a Saturday morning, you may say, “You are sad. You wanted Daddy to stay home and play with you, so you feel sad!” This understanding of emotions will give them the tools they need to identify varied emotions in different situations.
So whether they are yelling, pushing, crying, or withdrawing- simply reflect it back to them so they can put a name AND emotion to what they are feeling.
Approach 2: Explain That Emotions Are Normal
Since kids haven’t thoroughly learned the social skills needed to keep their reactions under control they are often overwhelmed by these emotions. Therefore, we should not tag emotions as “good” or “bad”, but rather focus on letting them know that emotions are something everyone experiences. By helping them see that everyone feels mad, sad, or scared sometimes, kids will feel less overwhelmed and more at ease. Plus, this will help them build social skills. For example, if a child is “sad” about Dad going to work on a Saturday morning, identify that you were also sad when he left for work in the morning. This way they understand everyone feels these emotions, so they realize that you can relate to them and even lived through the wretched experience!
Approach 3: Develop Strategies for Managing Emotions
As adults, most of us know not to throw a physical tantrum when we don’t get what we want. Though we can’t always control how we feel, we can control how we express our emotions (for the most part), but this of course was a learned skill. When it comes to managing emotions, it’s advised to provide kids with memorable and verbal strategies (rhymes, musical prompts, etc.) For example, you could say, “when you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” Help them verbalize what they can do when they’re mad and what they can’t do by saying things such as, “when you’re mad you can’t hit your brother, but you can stomp your feet or squeeze a stress ball.” Teach them that no matter how mad they feel, it is never okay to turn to physical violence and make sure to provide them with a coping strategy that is not harmful.
Approach 4: Use Pictures & Books
Choose a good children’s book that relates to understanding emotions and empathy and share it with your child or student. This is a fun way to expose special education kids with topics ranging on anything from conflict management to the grieving process. You can ask questions about how the characters may feel in a certain situation. This will teach our kids that others experience the same emotions and that there are positive resolutions to these sometimes-painful points in life. A few picture book authors who are particularly skilled at exploring emotion in print and picture are Kevin Henkes, Patricia Polacco, and Mo Willems.
Approach 5: Integrate Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a tool that can do more than just teach about emotions, it’s also a great tool for independent living skills. Learning to pay attention to different sounds, smells, and sights helps give meaning to our surroundings and feelings. A great way for children (and adults) to practice mindfulness is by sitting quietly and soaking in our surroundings or by sharing what we see and hear around us. It turns out that when we are observant of smaller things, we are more likely to pay attention to bigger things, such as our emotions.
So, rather than teaching kids to inhibit their emotions, we should educate them on the nature of their emotions. What are they feeling? Why are they feeling it? How can the feeling go away? This leads to immediate and long-term benefits. Research keeps confirming just how effective explicit training in emotional intelligence and social skills is for young kids. Studies show that kids who partake in social emotional skills programs have lower levels of aggression and/or anxiety and enhance their ability to problem solve.
The evidence is clear: emotional intelligence is just as important as learning to count to 10!
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At James Stanfield, We Think You Should Know:
Research shows that students need to develop social and emotional intelligence to be successful in life. At Stanfield, we believe that for students with special needs, social skills are a better predictor of success in life than academic achievement. Consequently, our programs integrate VideoModeling and Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Our programs teach students SEL skills, such as the ability to recognize how another person is feeling and how to moderate their emotional response in difficult situations. See the BeCool program as well as others, in the Stanfield library by clicking here!
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.