Feeling Understood?

Feelings are often a part of our lives we don’t talk too much about.  Adults tend to discuss “the basics” with their children: sad, mad and happy, but the more nuanced–though equally heartfelt–emotions tend to get left out of the discussions. Adults have the ability to deal with the emotions we feel, and we have grown to move through our emotions and into practicalities so well that we sometimes forget that children need to learn how to do this. Many of the preschool programs in the Hopkins School District use a classroom curriculum called “Second Step” to encourage empathy in children. When a child has empathy she is able to recognize and relate to how another person might be feeling.  She is also able to recognize her own emotions and how they are affecting her behavior.  With this knowledge the preschool child can begin to manage the intensity of her more difficult–or laughingly wonderful–emotional experiences.

The Hopkins early childhood staff recognize the importance of discussing, recognizing and managing feelings.  They have shared the classroom practices they use during their day, and have offered suggestions for helping you build empathy in your own children. Remember, children do not come prepared to deal with their own emotions or the emotions of others; they need to learn these important skills through practice and careful instruction in the same way they will need to learn their numbers or learn to read.

Recognizing Feelings in Ourselves and Others
The teachers in the preschool classrooms spend a lot of time identifying and labeling feelings in others. The teachers use the “feelings cards” that the Second Step curriculum includes in order to do this.  For instance, each card has a child with a facial expression and the children discuss what emotion that child might be feeling.  Some of the emotions that are identified through this method are: frustration, disappointment, worried, disgusted.  When we as parents look at our children’s daily experience we can easily see that our children are already feeling these emotions and it is a gift to them to have a label for what they are experiencing. The children will be able to recognize the feeling and have a name for it and will be able to talk about it.  This is a very important beginning step in building empathy and in being able to manage feelings.

The cards that the teachers use are one tool that help children understand the facial cues associated with a certain emotion. However, this labeling can be done through any medium while at home.  While reading a book together, stop and talk about the faces of the characters and build a discussion around what your child thinks that person feels, based on what their face looks like. Another way to address the skill of reading facial cues is through siblings. There are a long list of instances when one sibling’s face is very clearly showing an emotion, and it would benefit brother or sister to understand what message is being sent!

The teachers of the preschool classrooms also use a mirror to help children identify emotional facial cues.  The student is asked to look in the mirror and recognize what her face looks like when she is happy, or sad, or frustrated. This helps the child recognize her own emotions and see the effects of that emotion on her body. Classroom teachers often see that this “feelings mirror” is used independently by children who like to make exaggerated faces in an effort to learn for themselves what their own anger or joy might look like.

Honestly Discussing Feelings
Feelings cards can help students identify their own feelings in another way.  The children are asked to choose a card that describes how they are feeling during that moment. The skill of understanding what is being felt can build to the skill of discussing what needs to happen to feel supported. Teachers often comment on the empathy that tends to build as children discuss their feelings with each other.  If a child labels herself as sad, the other students begin to take an interest in why that student feels that way, and what they can do to help the student feel better. When a student says she is happy, the other students are interested in learning more so that they can share in that joy.

Parents at home don’t need to use feelings cards in order to practice this skill in their children.  When a family is comfortable with their feelings vocabulary, then discussions can happen naturally about what emotion is being created from different situations. Parents need to be models of this behavior.  Children are constantly listening carefully to what is being said by the adults in their lives (a fact we are all too aware of when we let something slip!) and they are constantly learning through imitation of our actions. Because of this, parents are teaching empathy when they talk about how they felt during their day. We can mix natural situations with a bit of teaching when we are discussing our feelings.  If there was a situation that made us really happy, it is great fun to talk about the situation and why we are happy because of it, and we can simply slip in some of the facial cues and bodily nuances we feel when we are happy.  For instance: “When I went to the cafeteria for lunch today, they had my favorite cherry pie slices, and I was so happy about it because I just enjoy having a sweet treat after lunch!  I could feel myself smiling so wide and I felt like jumping up and down, that is how happy I felt.”

It can be a lot more difficult to discuss feelings of sadness or anger when our children are nearby.  However, when the words we choose are appropriate to the age of our children, we can model emotional management during these experiences as well. “Today I found out that my friend at work is moving away to another state.  I am so sad about it and I even got tears in my eyes when he told me about it.  I will really miss my friend.”  We often feel as parents that we can protect our children by not talking about the more negative emotions that we feel. This may backfire if we don’t realize two things: our children pick up on our emotions whether we talk about them or not–they can read our body language and our actions and these speak volumes–and they feel these negative emotions themselves and need help finding ways to normalize the emotion and manage it in a healthful way.  We as parents are the main messengers for what we expect our children to do around every emotion.

Teachable Moments?
The teachers in our preschool classrooms find many opportunities during the course of the day to teach empathy.  One method they use is through stories.  Often, talking about emotional reactions when everything is calm and emotions aren’t already running high allows the teachers to discuss strategies for managing emotions when the moment actually arises.  Teachers use stories which discuss emotions and problem solving strategies for emotional situations. Teachers also use puppets or stuffed animals to “act out” situations that might arise during the preschool day.  Once the puppets have discussed a strategy for dealing with a problem the teacher will ask the students to role play what they have just seen in order to practice the strategy.  In this way, the teachers have prepared the students to meet a challenging situation when it occurs in the classroom.  One example of this method occurs around helping children learn to take turns.  The teacher would read a book about taking turns, and then have puppets work out a situation involving taking turns.  Lastly the teacher would have the children themselves practice the helpful phrases a child could use if a school mate is choosing not to share.  With this amount of discussion and practice, when the actual situation arises in the classroom the teacher can refer back to the children: “What did we decide we would do when your friend is not sharing, what did we decide to say?”

This seems to be a very long process for helping children learn empathy and learn strategies for dealing with their own emotions.  However, it is important to remember that as adults we have come to see many of our actions as obvious under certain situations.  Children do not yet have the social practice to deal effectively with these situations.  They need the practice, the instruction and the modeling in order to help them integrate empathy into their lifestyle. Nothing is yet obvious to a young child.

There are some teachable moments that we cringe to even think about.  Remember, they happen to every parent even though it is so difficult to feel any comfort in this when it is your child in the middle of the local grocery store falling to the floor wailing. Even in public, we are teaching our children how to manage their emotions.  We are teaching them what we feel is appropriate behavior, and appropriate consequences for the behavior that they choose. Children will use different strategies to get the results they would like, and if a strategy of outpouring emotion tends to achieve the goal they have in mind, then the strategy will continue to be used. If a parent decides that the teachable moment in these sorts of situations results in a quick exit from the store with no positive result coming to the child, the child learns that this strategy is not effective. We are teaching our children how to handle their own emotions in the way that we react to their emotional behavior. When dealing with these sorts of emotionally charged teachable moments, remember that all the other parents in the store are feeling only sympathy for you–because they themselves have been through the same experience!

Classroom teachers understand that all the students in their classroom are learning social behavior.  Teachers have a great amount of patience for each child, whether they regularly push boundaries or they tend to easily follow the rules. This is because the teachers are very aware that every child in their classroom will at some point misbehave.  The way that children learn social grace is through trial and error–with a heavy dose of error!  We as parents can remember not to take it personally when our children act out emotionally or otherwise.  It is always beneficial for parents as well as teachers to take that step back and assess the situation with a cool head, realizing that this is simply a teachable moment, and whatever we as the adult do in the situation will provide the lesson that the child learns in this instance. For this reason, parents are always encouraged to take the lead in helping their child deal with an emotional situation or help their child work through an issue that is arising so the child knows that consistently she will be assisted in learning about her social world and the expectations that arise from it.

But I Said I Was Sorry!
Classroom teachers have moved away from the simple act of saying sorry when two students are involved in a hurtful situation. Saying sorry can be a clear message from one child to another that there is regret in what was done, and a hope that the injured party is all right.  When over-used, however, it can also result in simply a quick ticket out of the situation.  If you notice that your child is saying sorry quickly just after deciding to do something inappropriate, you might consider working a more empathetic approach into the apologetic reaction.  Classroom teachers are generally more interested in the act of fixing the situation.  The teacher often asks a child “What can we do to fix this, what can we do to help your friend to feel better?” Maybe the answer is “Say sorry” and that is a respectable answer.  However, sorry doesn’t actually change or fix the situation.  Maybe a hug from the wrong-doer would help, or a picture that she draws.  Maybe it would be helpful to pick up the toy that was thrown across the room. Maybe it is simply most helpful to give the injured party space in order to feel better.  The discussion would center around what can be done by the child who caused the sadness. This is helpful for both parties because the child who made the mistake very often feels bad about letting her emotion getting the best of her and stepping over the line.  If that child walks away with the thought “I helped her feel better” then she can understand she has the power to help others feel better as well as feel unhappy. That is pretty powerful stuff for a preschooler!

Simple stories can teach so much about our emotional world.  When you have a quiet and cozy moment with your child, you can sometimes use the opportunity to tell a story that will fit into your family’s idea of empathetic behavior. One of the ways of telling a story is to talk about your own childhood.  Children are thrilled to learn the details of what it was like for you to be a smaller child.  Talking about situations with friends, or emotional experiences that you have had (being sure to alter the tale to suit the developmental level of your child) can help your child to see that what she is experiencing is something that has happened before.  Hearing about how you handled situations clearly shows her how you expect your child to handle situations. Storytelling really helps a child understand the values of her family.

Another way to incorporate storytelling into empathy skill-building is to tell a story with a main character that mirrors your child.  These are often called “Annie Stories”.  The main character in these stories mirrors your child and the experience she is having.  For example: “One day Annie had to wait for a long time for her father to be ready to take her to the park.  She felt so impatient because the day was so sunny and beautiful and it didn’t seem fair that she had to wait.  Annie sang songs while she waited, and started to play with her dolls.  By the time her father was ready to go to the park, she had decided to bring her dolls with her because she really enjoyed the story she was pretending with them.” Simple stories about the experiences your child is already going through will provide lessons about strategies and expectations your family has for appropriate behavior around emotions.

The library has fantastic resources for books about feelings and empathy.  Here is a list of books recommended by the early childhood staff:

  • How Are Your Peeling? by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
  • Glad Monster, Sad Monster: a book about feelings by Ed Emberley and Anne Miranda
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
  • The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
  • When Sophie Gets Angry…Really Really Angry by Molly Bang
Empathy is a major building block of successful relationships. Parents help to build the skills our children need by teaching them to read the facial cues of others as well as recognize and manage their own emotions.  Sometimes we as adults struggle ourselves to handle emotions in a healthy manner, but the gift we give our children when we take this task seriously can reap many rewards in the form of resiliency, confidence and social grace.


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