Helping Children Identify Their Emotions

Key Takeaways:
  • Identifying emotions helps children communicate their feelings and provides them with tools to feel confident expressing themselves.
  • Encourage children to notice their physical and behavioral expressions of different emotions.
  • When children are aware of their emotions they can practice more effective regulation strategies.

Emotions can be confusing and overwhelming for adults, so just imagine how it must feel for a young child. Children feel a vast array of emotions daily, sometimes experiencing quick shifts between each one. On top of that, children are realizing that they can have multiple feelings at the same time. It’s a lot!

“Big” emotions (e.g. anger, sadness) can be particularly challenging for children who don’t yet know how to communicate and manage their feelings effectively.

Encouraging children to label and describe their feelings, both in everyday moments as well as during times they’re experiencing difficult emotions, can help children build emotion awareness.1 However, it is important to keep in mind that discussions about big and difficult emotions happen best after your child has had time to decompress!

When children have a greater awareness of their emotions and a vocabulary to communicate their feelings, they have the tools to tell you how they are feeling, which allows them to seek help and work on emotion regulation strategies.1

So the next time your child feels upset, they might recognize the sensation of a faster heartbeat, tenderness in the throat, and increased body temperature — and think to themselves, “I’m feeling angry.” This awareness can lead to action, seeking comfort from an adult or taking some time to cool off.

As children build their emotional literacy, they develop confidence in the way they experience their own emotions and learn that feelings can change.2 As children grow older, their understanding of emotions evolves with time.

What does identifying emotions look like at different ages?

3-4 years

  • Labeling distinct emotions, like “happy” and “sad.”
  • Using language to describe their feelings, “I feel happy when I pet the cat.”
  • Exploring that they have different ways to express different feelings, “I stomp my feet when I’m mad and I laugh when I’m happy.”
  • Trying out a variety of ways to show their feelings, and noticing how others receive and respond to those feelings.

4-5 years

  • With adult support, identifying which regulation strategies work for them, and beginning to practice them independently.
  • Understanding that feelings can change or have different levels of stimulation, (e.g., the feeling of frustration as opposed to anger).
  • Exploring the idea that you can feel more than one feeling at the same time.

5-6 years

  • Beginning to understand more complex emotions like worry and trust
  • Expressing that their feelings change throughout the day.
  • Identifying appropriate ways to express their changing emotions in different contexts.
  • Increased confidence and autonomy in choosing regulation strategies and communicating emotions.
Here are some ways to help your child assess their emotions:
  • Model emotion awareness in your own life. 3 When your child sees you experiencing feelings, name them: “I’m feeling really sad that we can’t visit Grandma right now. I really miss her.”
  • Help children understand the connection between body language, facial expressions, and emotions by specifically pointing them out. 3 For example, “I can see that you are hiding behind me and covering your face, are you feeling scared?”
  • When you’re playing pretend or telling stories, have the characters express a range of emotions and play out different scenarios. 4 Role play and storytelling are excellent ways to learn about and practice emotions!
  • Let your child feel their feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly. 5 Try not to convince them that they’re “fine,” when they’ve expressed (possibly very loudly, and of course in public), that they are not in fact fine. Let them experience and process their emotions. Afterward, have a conversation about appropriate ways to manage their emotions in the future.

May 2, 2021 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

Learning Music Can Grow Your Kid’s Mind AND Heart

Even before babies are born, they are listening to the sounds that surround them and learning music, and by the time they are three years old, their brains have made a thousand, trillion connections, says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, the chairman of the Peabody Preparatory’s Early Childhood Music department at Johns Hopkins University. 

“Music does, almost without a doubt, improve cognitive functions — it makes you smarter,” Eric said. “But the bottom line for me is that music just makes us human, makes us the artful, beautiful people we are.”  

Eric said being exposed to music and music education in the early years is a powerful tool that can build multiple parts of the brain, all at once. It can help children to develop fine motor skills; memory; problem solving skills; math and literacy skills. It can also boost social and emotional skills, including perseverance, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. 

Dr. Rasmussen teaching music to a group of young children.
"But the bottom line for me is that music just makes us human, makes us the artful, beautiful people we are."
Eric Rasmussen

For parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators, the good news is that “learning music” doesn’t mean teaching children to count and name the musical notes. Formal instruction like that, Eric said, “gives the brain information and completely bypasses the ear.” Instead, parents, caregivers, and educators should foster “musical interactions” with children that use the ear (and the whole body) to promote meaningful learning. 

5 Ways Parents and Caregivers Can Encourage Brain-Boosting Musical Interactions:

Eric shared five ways parents and caregivers can create brain-boosting “musical interactions” with their children:

  1. Sing to your baby without words“Turn diapering into a song: ‘Doop-a-doop-a-doop-ba-doopity-doop,’” Eric advised. He said he encourages parents to talk in “Motherese,” a sing-song voice that is naturally musical, and to take away the words to create “songs” to share with babies throughout the day. 
  2. Sing to your toddler without words“The brain can’t do music and words at the same time,” Eric explained. “You have two competing things going on.” He said most children are better able to focus on the musical elements of songs without the words. So pick your favorite song and sing it without the lyrics to your child. 
  3. Turn conversations into musical interactions. Turn your regular conversations with your child into musical interactions by focusing on patterns. When you point at a bird flying in the sky and say, “bird, bird, bird,” it’s almost like a song, Eric said: “It’s like feeding your child a little, tiny snippet of a melody.”
  4. Play music and sing to your child. Depending on the type of learner you have, listening to instrumental music or music with words might help them focus and learn more! So, turn on the music and play together to learn about music itself, and, later, the meaning of the lyrics.
  5. Get out your scarves and shakers to encourage your child to move to the music. “Movement may be more fundamental to music education than everything else put together,” Eric said. “Music gives rise to the understanding of rhythm, and rhythm is more fundamental to music than melody. Every melody has rhythm but not all songs have melody. What gives rise to understanding of rhythm is movement.” 

Play the music from Noggin’s Big Heart Beats Album!

May 2, 2021 by Noelle Yoo 0 Comments

How Journaling Can Foster Community During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

As a third grade teacher at an independent school in Boston, I knew that my school was doing all it could to prepare teachers for the 2020-21 school year. But in the summer of 2020, I was constantly feeling stress, anxiety, and frustration. After being remote for several months, I wondered: Will I feel safe going back into our school building? Is it possible to build a community over Zoom? How will we make sure everyone will follow the health and safety guidelines? What about all the kids in schools that won’t be able to reopen? 

The beginning of the school year always marks an exciting new journey for students, and I wanted to create the same enthusiasm for the new school year that I always had. I didn’t want to bring my negative emotions into my time with the children. I needed to be there for them so that they could feel a sense of normalcy. Now, I laugh that I thought hiding my emotions would help create normalcy.

There was nothing normal about this year.

In the same way that vulnerability in a time of unpredictability is scary and uncomfortable for adults, I quickly learned that the children in my classroom were experiencing those same feelings of worry, fear, and concern. 

What makes children and adults different is that children don’t have the same tools as adults do to process emotions. 

The physical distance we had to keep, not being able to see each other’s faces through masks, and the rigidity and time-consuming nature of the health and safety rules while instituting an important level of safety were obstacles for community building.

Journaling together was one way that my students and I combatted the stress of the year and built community in our third grade classroom, against the odds.

Every day, my co-teacher and I set aside 15-20 minutes to play calming music, sit with our journals, and write with the kids. 

The purpose of this time was empowering students with strategies for calming their bodies and minds, and showing them how a journal can be used as a mode for expression and reflection. As I wrote, I used a document camera to project my own journal.  One day I created a comic strip about what I did over the weekend and the next I wrote a poem about how I miss seeing my grandparents. There were no rules. Want to write a poem? Awesome. Want to draw a picture? Amazing. Need to take the day to just think? Great choice. 

How we set up this space for children has been an important element of its success. The factors that have made this time engaging and meaningful are that the children are encouraged to use real life and prompts to inspire their authoring; they are free to create with or without a set structure; the time is passion-oriented and student-directed with teacher support (Bruyère & Pendergrass, 2020). 

We closed out our journaling time with a share-circle. Sharing was always optional. Some kids chose to share every day. It took other kids time, watching their peers share for weeks before wanting to share. Share-circles offer children an opportunity to build confidence in their writing, reading and even speaking abilities when sharing orally. They help to establish a sense of community and offer the chance to share important home-school connections as well as learn new things about their peers, developing deeper, more authentic relationships with classmates (Routman 2004; Hall 2014).

This year, the transformation and healing that journaling and share-circles brought to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a community, was empowering. In a time and space that can feel so isolating and uncertain, this became a daily moment of community and unity.

Here are a few steps that you can try to encourage journaling in your classroom or home:

  1. Find two journals or make your own (fold and staple several pieces of paper together). If you’d like, spend a day decorating and designing your journal with your child(ren) with whatever materials you have available.
  2. Find a calm space you can write (or draw) together with your child(ren). 
  3. Consistency is important. Set up a consistent time to sit down for 15 minutes and write together. It can be daily, weekly, before bed, at breakfast — whatever works for you. 
  4. Offer a few minutes at the end to share with each other. Keep it optional and communicate expectations for feedback. It can be helpful at the beginning to model what it looks and sounds like to share something personal. 
  5. Keep it open and have fun!

May 2, 2021 by Veronica L Tapia 0 Comments

Parenting with a Big Heart

This week, my four-year-old daughter, Abigail Rose, told me that her best friend had punched her at school. I asked if she had told her teacher what happened and she said yes, and that he had gotten in “big trouble” for what he did. 

Rather than being pleased her friend had been disciplined, my daughter was sad about it.  

“Mom, I asked Ms. Valerie if his time out could be over because he already said he was sorry, and I already forgave him and he’s my friend,” she told me. 

My big-hearted baby girl is growing up so quickly and I am so proud of so many of the choices she makes every day:

choices to be kind, gracious, loving, and compassionate. No one is even allowed to kill a bug in her presence because she says that God put her in this world to help care for all creatures, big and small. 

So, how did I ever get so lucky? Truly, I don’t think luck has anything to do with it.

Children, from the earliest age, begin to absorb everything around them. The things they see, feel, hear, and experience in their earliest years of life become a part of who they are and who they will one day become. Our children may not remember every moment of their early childhood, but what they will always remember is how we made them feel. How I treat them now is how they will grow up to treat others.

My Abby is incredibly sweet and a wonderful little human, but she is also sassy and spicy and she gives me a run for my money! 

I see so much of myself in her and whenever she is giving me a hard time, I try my best to react in love because I know that on my hardest days, I need a little extra love, too.

When she cries because it’s clean up time and the floor is literally covered in toys to the point where you can no longer see the carpet underneath, I validate her feelings and we clean up together because I know how it feels to be overwhelmed. When she is on edge right before her dance recital, I try to remember that she has a tummy full of butterflies and I let her know that it is okay to be nervous and that I’ll be there to support her, no matter what. I live by the golden rule with my children, always keeping in mind how I might feel in their shoes. 

My second child, August Rain, was born with a neural tube defect that completely turned our world upside-down. He had a major spinal surgery at four months old, multiple hospitalizations, and a variety of challenges that we faced together as a family in his first two years of life. 

There were times I held my daughter as I cried over her baby brother and I would explain that Mommy was feeling sad and scared and that everyone feels those things sometimes but what’s important is that we talk to someone that can help us to feel better, that we cry when we need to and that we don’t try to hide how we feel. I do not hide my heart from my children, I share it with them. 

I see now how those experiences have left life-long impressions on my daughter’s heart. Last week, I had a mini meltdown at my computer when August interrupted me for the 500th time while I was busy working and I just couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. 

Abby came up and said, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m here to help you feel better.” Oh, my heart. 

Becoming a special needs mom has made me even more passionate about my mission to spread kindness by raising kind kids. 

I believe that the best way to raise kids with big hearts is to parent with a big heart. We lead by example and it can be incredibly challenging to be that role model of grace and kindness all the time but when we see our babies growing into these amazing, compassionate little people, it is absolutely worth it.