Supporting emotional learning in early childhood educationNeed help?
Read about ways to promote emotional learning in early childhood settings and check your understanding by answering the questions that follow.
Supporting children’s emotional learning in early childhood
The development of emotional competence is a process that begins in infancy and continues into adolescence, with children gradually gaining capacities for identifying and regulating their own emotions, as well as for responding to the emotions of others. In early childhood, the areas of the brain responsible for self-regulation and self-management are at an early stage of development, making adult support necessary. Regular practice and use encourage the development of these neural areas, while a lack of opportunity to practice self-regulatory behaviours may mean that these areas do not develop well. Children’s emotional competencies can vary from day to day before they are able to consistently regulate their own feelings and behaviour, and may worsen as a result of fatigue, stress, or distress.
Daily events and routines can offer multiple opportunities for emotional learning. Teachers need to both make the most of natural and spontaneous opportunities for teaching emotional skills, as well as offering relevant and meaningful occasions for practising these skills. Two important areas of learning are emotion knowledge (or emotional literacy) and emotional regulation skills.
Coaching children in emotion knowledge
Emotion knowledge involves the ability to perceive and label emotions, which is a crucial foundation for more complex skills such as empathy. Young children often experience intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anxiety, and anger, and they first reflect on and come to understand their own emotions, according to the meaning attributed to them within their social and cultural contexts, before generalising these understandings to the emotions of others.
Improved levels of emotion knowledge support children to better understand their emotional experiences, and communicate, discuss and reflect on feelings, as well as to better understand the causes and consequences of particular feelings. Emotion knowledge helps children to develop skills in self-regulation with increased awareness of their own emotions, and engage in more successful interactions with peers, inhibit aggression and increase prosocial behaviours and empathy.
A child’s developmental level, temperament and verbal ability can affect their ability to label and understand their emotions, but parents and teachers also have influence in terms of how they talk about and teach children about emotions. Emotion knowledge coaching involves:
- Acknowledging, affirming and empathising with all emotions as natural. Be available to help children to notice and understand their emotions as they occur, and use emotions as learning opportunities to discuss feelings, intentions, and the impact that behaviours have on peers, which is associated with children’s understanding of emotion and ability to imagine how other people are thinking and feeling.
- Deliberately using and encouraging emotion-related language to label and explain feelings. Offer prompts such as ‘It looked like you were feeling disappointed’, and talk about your own feelings and responses – for example, ‘That is frustrating. Hmm, I’ll have to take a deep breath and figure out what to try next’. Learn words for emotions in children’s home languages. Teachers and caregivers’ use of emotion language is found to predict children’s emotional regulatory competence.
- Intentional, well-informed teaching about emotion. Create a list of the emotion words you want children to learn. Teach children how their brains and bodies react to particular emotions, such as increased heart rate or a fluttery feeling in the stomach. Use resources such as visuals and picture cards that show emotions. Sing songs (try using a range of emotion words in ‘If you’re happy and you know it…’) or play musical emotions (demonstrating a specific emotion when the music stops) and emotion charades.
- Encouraging children to try to read the emotions of their peers, and think about what they could do to support their peer when they are sad or lonely, for example.
- Using stories, particularly fairy stories (which have particularly exaggerated emotions) to discuss how characters may be feeling and what they may be thinking. Puppets or small figures can be useful to explore the stories and reflect on the feelings of the characters without actually taking on the emotions.
Coaching children in emotional regulation skills
Emotional regulation involves children learning how to manage their own feelings, but also their reactivity to the emotions of others in line with the expectations of their cultural community. Inhibiting an emotional response and adopting an entirely different one is a challenging task, and young children take time to develop skills in self-regulation because the relevant areas of the brain have a relatively slow maturation. Researchers suggest that the executive function skills required for appropriate responses to social and emotional events develop somewhere between 3 and 9 years old, and some children experience more intense feelings than others due to temperament. This means that young children do not immediately have strategies for managing intense feelings and can be impulsive, distractible, prone to emotional outbursts, and behaviourally disorganised, as unregulated emotions impair thinking and interfere with important skills such as attention and decision-making.
You can scaffold children’s self-regulation skills in the same way that you might scaffold a child learning to count: by modelling self-regulation, providing hints and cues, and encouraging children to be more independent of your support over time. This involves observing children to assess their current skills in regulation to provide the right level of support, and withdrawing support as children become more capable. All children will develop differing strategies to control their emotions and require different responses from teachers.
Emotional regulation skills increasingly enable children to calm down when upset, angry, or overexcited, and to use language to communicate feelings and avoid emotional outbursts. These skills also promote children’s self-efficacy beliefs about their abilities to cope with diverse situations: when children believe that a stressful situation is manageable they are more likely to attempt to use problem-solving and coping strategies, but when they perceive a situation as out of their control they are more likely to use emotional strategies such as crying. Emotional regulation skills also allow children to better persist at and focus on tasks, engage in problem-solving, control impulses and delay gratification. Emotional regulation can be supported through:
- Modelling and role-playing ways in which you regulate your own thinking, attention, emotions and behaviours in front of children, which offers children ways of thinking and acting to imitate in order to manage difficult feelings such as disappointment or frustration.
- Intentionally teaching strategies that can support children to manage their emotions more appropriately, such as asking for help, moving into a calmer physical space, deep breathing, or replacing negative thoughts (‘I’m no good at this’) with growth mindset thoughts (‘This is difficult but I just need more practice’). Use visual tools such as a ‘feelings thermometer’ to show feelings and develop awareness of how emotions escalate, as well as visual reminders of strategies to try when this occurs.
- Developing spaces, activities and resources for calming down, such as quiet retreat spaces with soothing music, pillows, cushions, and favourite storybooks. Alternatively, children might prefer more active approaches such as dancing, singing, sand or water play to soothe themselves. Offer channels for emotional expression such as music, dance, arts and other creative activities.
- Extending sociodramatic play to give children opportunities to set and follow rules for play and to practise self-regulation in processing and regulating (often intense levels of) emotions to suit the play. Children who have the ability to regulate emotion in pretend play also are found to have better regulatory capacities in everyday life.
- Preparing children for upcoming events that are likely to create stress for the child or trigger strong emotional responses.
There are also specific strategies that are appropriate to use during moments of heightened emotion:
- Communicate acceptance of emotions alongside a confidence that the child can manage them and not get overwhelmed, while empathising with how difficult and tiring the experience of strong emotions can be. It is important to be comfortable with children’s intense emotional expressions, as any aversion you have to emotional expression can be unconsciously communicated to children. Never ignore a crying child, or any display of negative emotion, which is likely to create a lack of trust (for children who are observing as well as the child who is upset) and is associated with negative social and emotional outcomes, including extended emotional outbursts and negative social behaviours.
- Co-regulating infants’ and toddlers’ distress or helping them to regulate emotion, which helps to establish patterns of emotional regulation in children’s neural circuits. Research suggests infants can be supported to regulate distress when parents or caregivers use expression and tone of voice to mirror the infant’s distressed state then calmly slow down and quieten their voice to lead the infant back to a calmer state.
- Encourage children to communicate their need for help when feelings become overwhelming, and helping children to express and verbalise emotions rather than acting them out physically. The expression of emotions is a first step in regulation.
- Give physical comfort such as hugging, holding, patting or rubbing on the back and offer gestures and simple directions to help children to regulate their emotions and behaviour. Gently touching a child’s back can cue them to relax while soothing touch and soft voices cue infants into self-calming skills. Avoid trying to teach or reason with children when they are upset or experiencing intense emotion as when the limbic system, the part of the brain connected to emotions, is activated, it competes with the areas of the brain responsible for cognition, making it hard to think effectively.
- Once the child is calm, discuss strategies for managing their emotions to use next time, making positive suggestions and expectations for how the child will handle another similar situation in the future. Remind children ‘it’s okay to be angry, but not okay to hit. You can try walking away, or taking a few breaths. After that we can work together to help you to solve the problem that makes you angry’. Acknowledge children for making decisions that avoid lengthy or intense emotional reactions, appreciating that this is very difficult for them.
It is important to take note of the different types of coping patterns children use. Passive coping strategies (avoiding or denying problems), as opposed to constructive coping (problem-solving) or emotional venting (releasing emotions), can lead to problem behaviours such as explosive and aggressive outbursts. It is important that children are encouraged to confront problems, even if not always in a constructive or calm way, as this enables them to express feelings and gives them opportunities to learn better strategies for managing emotions.
Click here to read the referenced version of this research review.
In this video, Karen Mackay describes how teaching teams can focus on promoting the development of emotional competencies in the children they teach.
About Karen Mackay
Karen has over 20 years’ experience in early childhood education across a wide range of roles including teacher, leader, professional development facilitator, and manager. In her current role, Karen coaches and mentors student teachers. Her passion for social and emotional competence developed from recognising a real need for kaiako to have a wide range of strategies to support the diverse learning needs of tamariki. This led to engaging in a teacher-led innovation with a teaching team who explored effective teaching strategies that foster the social and emotional competence of tamariki.
Supporting emotional learning in early childhood settings
There’s lots of different ways that you can weave emotional competence learning through tamarikis’ interest, but it’s about the techniques that we’re learning: are we actually giving tamariki feedback about their learning, and their emotional competence? Are we commentating, saying oh, I can see you’re feeling a little bit worried here – you found that wētā, but then you kept trying, and you kept looking at it, and I could see that you’re feeling really excited about what you had found. So, yeah it’s about being quite intentional in your approach, and always keeping that emotional competence at the forefront your thinking.
What kinds of activities and interactions have you found most effective in building children’s emotion knowledge and skills?
I think it’s really important as a team, to start with, to have conversations about the types of emotions that kaiako will weave through their korero with tamariki. So, it’s from also talking to whānau, as well, and finding out from a cultural perspective, or just what’s important to them, in terms of emotional language, and then from there, developing some visual prompts around the environment, both inside and outside, because teachers have got so many things that they’re thinking about in terms of tamariki learning throughout the day that it’s good to have those prompts. So, those prompts don’t need to be anything excessive: it could be images of different types of emotions, obviously not from children that you’re working with, but those that you can find on the web, and things like that, and just to have them around the environment. It will prompt teachers to use that emotional language, or prompt them to ask those questions, so tamariki are thinking about their emotions throughout the day.
Other things are looking at the resources or a range of resources that you have within your setting, and that might be looking at books, whether there’s a range of books around emotions – thinking about legends, Māori legends, and the importance of thinking about emotions as you korero with tamariki around those books as you read them. Also thinking about things like music, so say, for example, you might introduce the classical music when you’re painting, so that you can think about the different tempo, and have those conversations around, oh, how are you feeling through this music? Does it make you feel excited, or do you think they might be feeling a little bit hoha – a little bit frustrated? That music sounds a little bit angry, or it sounds really happy. Have those conversations while you’re listening to the music.
Also things like having mirrors, so tamariki can have a look at their face as well, as they make those different emotions. That’s something fun to do, or they can draw, for older tamariki, drawing images of themselves, and their different types of emotions. For infants and toddlers, what I’ve seen done really well, is having the images in books, and having them on the wall – having them so that they can be interactive for tamariki, and so that kaiako are having those conversations, sitting alongside them saying, oh, that person looks like they’re feeling a little bit sad today – a little bit pōuri – what could we do? It’s about the types of resources that you have, is really essential.
How do you assess children’s emotion knowledge and skills?
Having a korero as a team about what the development of emotional competence looks like, and that’s accessing research to support that conversation, and then thinking specifically: how well do we know our tamariki and where they’re at, in terms of their emotional competence, and that’s involving whānau in that korero, as well as using observations to inform that knowledge, because from there, having that understanding really helps kaiako to notice, recognise and respond to the progression of learning that is happening around emotional competence.
So, this might include using different types of observations. I think, in New Zealand we use narrative assessment, through learning stories quite regularly, but things like event-recording, so that you can capture say, how often a child is self-regulating might be something a parent has brought up, that they’re noticing quite big emotions, and so you want to talk about the ways that they are actually self-regulating, or it might be that kaiako are actually finding that they want to delve a bit deeper into what is happening for a child in terms of their self-regulation, whether they are able to self-regulate through their favourite activities, but new experiences, they find that a lot more challenging, so, you can find those sorts of things out through using a range of different observations. It could be duration to see how long they’re engaging in those self-regulation kinds of techniques or abilities, or it might be how often things are happening. So, it’s really about using a range of different types of observations to gain depth and understanding and knowledge as kaiako, and also to be able to show the progression of that emotional competence.
How do you support children to learn to regulate their big emotions?
The big emotions, kaiako can find that quite challenging at times, and I think the best thing to do is actually validate every emotion, and support tamariki to understand that it’s okay to feel angry or frustrated, or worried – that we ensure that we’re not using language like say, ‘oh, you’re okay’. That’s a habit that I think we get into in society, to say, oh actually, you’ll be okay. Well, the child isn’t feeling okay. They’re feeling really upset or they’re feeling really angry, so validating that emotion is really important.
Another key element that I’ve seen work really well is having a plan. So, as kaiako, you’ve actually got a plan of when you start to see these emotions coming through early on, that you pick up on what the trigger points are for each child, and you can bring … support the child to calm their body, and start to relax, and start to regulate at that point, rather than waiting till those emotions are so big that it feels overwhelming for the child. So, if you do have that consistent plan like, this is what they look like when they’re starting to become out of sorts, then, you can actually support them to calm again. That’s really important, I think, in Covid times, as well, because many early childhood settings have lots of different relievers coming in, so it’s important that you have that consistent plan for tamariki, so that they can access that plan, and they know what to do. They’re picking up on those trigger points for children, so that they’re not actually being, or getting to that point that they’re feeling so overwhelmed, and they don’t know what to do with themselves or they don’t know how to calm themselves.
The other technique that I’ve seen that works really well, is practising calming techniques. So, what I used in a centre with a team, was that we learned lots about atua Māori, because often children find it really difficult with emotions, because they’re so intangible, but Māori atua brought that tangibility to the conversations. So, what we would do is we’d actually practice say, our Tāwhirimātea deep breaths when we were feeling calm, so that, say, the emotions started to bubble up like Rūamoko, these are the conversations that we would have, that they could actually calm their bodies then, and it might be that we’d have that trigger point and say, oh, remember your Tāwhirimātea breaths, and the child, because they had practised when they were calm, they were able to actually start to regulate themselves at that point. So, there’s a range of different strategies that you can have, but I suppose, going back to the key point is having a consistent approach and plan as kaiako, is really key.
How important are teachers’ emotion knowledge, skills, and general wellbeing for supporting children?
There’s two parts to this question. The first part is, as kaiako, having a deep understanding of emotional competence, and effective strategies. So, that’s having a kete of strategies, but also, going back to understanding what works for each child, because each child is going to be quite different. So, say you might have a social story that works for one child, but where another child, you might have – they need, say a weighted blanket, or something to support them. So, I think, for teachers, knowing about emotional competence and knowing what works for each child is key. The plan again, is really key: knowing what you will do in different situations – as a team, how you’ll support each other. Coming together as a collective group is really important, and so that someone might see that you are feeling overwhelmed as a teacher in that moment, and they will tag-out, or come over and support you.
Also, looking after yourself: knowing what your trigger points are as a kaiako, and that could change on a different day, but having techniques to support you to self-regulate. It might be that you have deep-breathing techniques, or it might be that you – I’ve heard a teacher talk about how they engage in yoga with tamariki, to actually regulate their own selves as much as the children. So, it’s knowing yourself well. Also, your own wellbeing in terms of the busyness of the day, and having those moments where you have time out, or that you look after yourself in terms of water and food, because I think, often kaiako tend to go for those sugary foods that give you that big hit, but that will also result in that coming down, as well. So, at those moments, it’s thinking about your own overall wellbeing, and then you are able to be the best kaiako that you can be for tamariki.
For a glossary of the te reo Māori terms that Karen used in her interview, click below:
Atua Māori: the Māori gods
Hoha: angry, annoyed
Kete: a traditional woven basket, although the word may be used metaphorically to refer to a basket of knowledge
Korero: to talk, discuss, or have a conversation
Rūamoko: the Māori god of earthquakes and volcanoes
Tāwhirimātea: the Māori god of wind, storms, and the weather
Wētā: a species of insect native to New Zealand