In this part we focus on the development of children’s emotional competencies, which involves the ability to recognise different emotions in oneself and in others, to regulate one’s own response to emotions, and to respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
The aims for this part of the course are to:
- Learn what emotional competencies children need to develop
- Consider pedagogical strategies for supporting emotional learning
- Develop awareness of your own beliefs and attitudes towards emotion and self-regulation, and how these impact on your capacity to support children’s emotional states
This will involve:
- Reading about how to support the development of emotional competencies in children
- Watching a video in which Karen Mackay describes ways in which she and her teaching teams have supported and enhanced children’s emotional competencies in early childhood settings
- Reflecting on your own beliefs and attitudes towards emotional expression and strategies for self-regulation
- Inquiring into emotion language use in your setting.
There will also be an opportunity to discuss your findings about emotion language use in your setting with fellow course participants on the online forum.
Revisit your learning so far
What features of the social and emotional climate of an early childhood setting serve to support children’s social and emotional competence?
Read about ways to promote emotional learning in early childhood settings.
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.
Watch a video
In this video, Karen Mackay focuses on 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 ECE 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.
One of the things Karen emphasises is the importance of assessing the emotional learning resources that children have at their disposal, as well as intentionally planning how emotional learning will be addressed within ECE settings. This means carefully considering the books, games, images, music, and activities available in the setting that promote emotional learning, assessing the emotion language that you and your team consistently use with children, and thinking about how emotional learning can be incorporated into children’s existing interests and passions.
As well as this, Karen suggests that teaching strategies for emotional competencies might include commentating about emotions and self-regulation techniques, such as when you describe the emotions that children might be feeling, or notice the ways that they are calming themselves. You might also give children feedback about their self-regulation strategies, or the way they empathised with the way a friend was feeling. She also briefly describes the practice of writing social stories, which are stories that describe and model appropriate ways to handle particular situations. In relation to social and emotional competence, they can be used to offer children strategies for self-regulation in response to common scenarios which elicit strong emotions, or to describe appropriate approaches to handling a particular social situation or social problem.
Karen also discusses how important it is to have knowledge about what emotional competence looks like, and to be assessing the development of emotional competencies in children’s learning. Assessing emotional competence may require a range of observational tools, so, for example, rather than use narrative assessments or learning stories, teachers may draw on event recording (for example, recording every time a child self-regulates), or duration recording (for example, recording how long children spend at activities to help them regulate, or how often they use a given strategy to regulate themselves). Assessment activities should help teachers to know each child well, what their triggers are, and what works for them in terms of helping them to regulate.
Karen offers some good advice for supporting children who experience big emotions and have some difficulty managing these emotions. This is something we will return to in Part 7 when we look at how to support children with challenging behaviour. Karen suggests that it is important to develop a plan to help children which states what their triggers for big emotions are, what kinds of behaviours indicate that an individual child is starting to get distressed, and what helps them to start to calm and regulate. It is really helpful if teachers can spot difficult emotions before they escalate and become overwhelming for children.
Finally, Karen also makes some good points about taking care of our own emotional needs as teachers. This might mean having an agreement for self-care with your teaching team, and being able to ‘tag out’ of a difficult situation by swapping with a colleague when you need to. It might mean being aware of your own triggers, and having a few techniques to regulate yourself at the ready, as well as generally taking good care of yourself so that you aren’t fatigued, hungry, or thirsty while trying to deal with complex emotional situations.
Self-awareness of your own emotional experience, needs, and preferences can help you to build stronger relationships with all children and better support their emerging social and emotional skills. Your own emotional awareness and recognition of your beliefs about emotional expression are really important in the creation of positive emotional climates. Use the following questions to reflect on your beliefs and attitudes to emotional expression, and your strategies for emotional regulation.
- How was emotion managed in your family? How free were you to express feelings and how were you supported to express emotions? What kinds of role models did you have in terms of emotional expression?
- What triggers more intense emotions for you? What kinds of situations are likely to generate strong feelings? What strategies might you use to self-regulate in the context of your teaching work?
Relate your learning to practice
In this part, we ask you to extend your inquiry into social and emotional learning in your setting by examining children’s emotion knowledge and learning. This time we want you to devise ways to assess the emotion words that teachers and children use and understand. You might undertake some focused observations, or structure opportunities for children and teachers to generate emotion words (identifying emotions in a book or drawing different emotional expressions, for example). When you have a list of the emotion words that you have heard used, choose a set of emotion words that you’d like to teach and reinforce, to extend children’s existing knowledge. Create some simple resources (images or simply a list of key vocabulary) to display in your setting to prompt teachers to use the extended emotion vocabulary.
In this part of the course, we learned that:
- Children require regular practice as well as support with self-regulation of emotion during early childhood because the areas of the brain required for this are not fully mature. Children may lack strategies for managing intense emotions, and their unregulated emotions are likely to lead to emotional outbursts, impulsivity, and disorganised behaviour.
- Children need to learn emotional literacy (knowledge of emotion language) and emotional regulation. Both spontaneous and more structured opportunities for learning emotion knowledge and skills are important.
- Emotional self-regulation can be modelled and scaffolded for young children.
- When children are experiencing intense emotions, there are specific strategies teachers can use to support them.
Which emotion words were most commonly used in your setting? Were there some terms used that surprised you? Which words do you want to introduce? Share your findings and reflections on emotion words with your fellow course participants on our online forum.
Watch a webinar with Karen Mackay and Dr. Tara McLaughlin which describes how Karen and her team inquired into social and emotional learning at BestStart Palmerston North.