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Emotional Literacy

Dear Elizabeth,
My daughter throws tantrums if she doesn't get her way instead of telling me how she feels. Iím concerned because sheís going to kindergarten next year. How can I help her?
Nicole Diaz
Dallas, TX
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Emotionally literate kids get along better with others
  • Express your own feelings to model good behavior
  • Use words to label your childís feelings
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin, Ph.D
Ann Corwin, Ph.D
Parenting Consultant
Emotional Literacy
Sometimes children have a really hard time understanding their feelings, and that really is what emotional literacy is. Emotional literacy is one's ability to be able to label an emotion or a feeling first, then be able to understand what that feeling is, and lastly to be able to express it appropriately.

Emotional literacy is learned. You actually accumulate different feelings at different developmental stages, at different ages. You donít have all of your feelings when youíre born, of course. Itís one of those things that you do have to learn. You donít just all of a sudden know what your feelings are because youíve turned 7 years old.

Model Appropriate Behavior
One of the hardest things for parents to do Ė but one of the most appropriate things for them to do Ė is to actually observe yourself and how you respond to your feelings. When your child says heís scared, you can say, "Well, Iíve had that feeling before, too." It validates it for the child, but also if we model how weíre feeling, then kids watch us, and it really helps them. They imitate us. There are a lot of different techniques. Writing it down sometimes is extremely important so they can actually see concretely what the feeling is, too.

Help a Child Understand Emotions Before Kindergarten
When a child is not emotionally literate before kindergarten, it can be really confusing for the child. If you donít know what your feeling is and you donít know what to do about it, then that confusion makes them scared. What happens is before kindergarten, youíre accumulating all your feelings, and by the time you get to kindergarten, they now need to be applied to a social situation. You become socially emotional Ė thatís a big shift for kids. Theyíll learn better in school if they understand how they feel when the teacher may set boundaries, such as not playing on the playground. When they are emotionally literate, they will be able to think, "Well, I know what that feeling is, and I think now I can learn to apply it in a social situation." So itís crucial that they learn it before kindergarten.

How Colors Help Children Express Themselves
Kids are concrete thinkers. They think in black and white, so when you associate a color with a feeling, itís easier for them to know what youíre talking about. For example, usually when we say, "Iím feeling blue," most people know Iím kind of sad. With yellow, itís very easy to say, Iím feeling silly. Iím just shaking my sillies out, or Iím yellow like the sun. Itís really bright, and it makes me smile, and my teeth show. So colors can really help children understand that.

Red can convey, ďIím felling kind of mad and I donít like the way things are going.Ē Before a child actually loses control, they can come and just pick up the red card to signal ďIíve got a feeling that Iím not sure I know how to control. I donít know what to do about it.Ē So colors can give them something that they can touch, they can feel, they can see, and then help them identify and express their feelings.

When to Help Children Understand Emotions
I would begin with colors and labeling emotions in the first year of life. You can absolutely do that with a child. We all love teaching colors to our kids, so you start with colors. This is the blue block or whatever. Why not just say, "And this might be, you know, feeling blue. What happens when you feel blue? Well, I put my chin on my chest when Iím feeling blue, and then I lift my head up, and I blow out the breath to the ceiling, and then Iím all done being blue." So you can express that to your child as a parent way before theyíre actually going to express it back to you. Youíre modeling the appropriate behavior so theyíre used to it.

When youíre a child and you donít have the words or you arenít able to write it down or you donít understand your body language very well, then youíre going to use your body to express your feelings. Your emotional system is the strongest part of your brain -- it overrides everything. So youíve got this powerful emotional response to everything in your life, all the way through every developmental stage. It doesnít matter if youíre in the first 5 years of life or if youíre 55 years old, so the more that you can understand it, the less you have to use aggression. Remember that aggression comes from a child whoís scared and is thinking, "I donít know what this feeling is, and I donít really know what to do about it."
Child Care Provider Comments
Gino Colchico
Gino Colchico
Father of two
To help expand our sonís vocabulary of thoughts and feelings, we like to use open-ended questions. Open ended questions are always better than simply asking a simple ďyesĒ or ďnoĒ type question. We are always asking what he thinks about things, especially if he brings up the subject matter and is asking for our feedback. We repeat what he says back to him to let him know that we understand him. We read every day with him and try to be particularly expressive with the characters and storyline which we think has had a very positive impact on his intellect, critical thinking and ability to communicate. We often discuss his feelings about the things we read.
Ginny Aragon
Ginny Aragon
Child care provider for 34 years
Ernesto can act out aggressively at times. We are trying right now to get him to be more open with his feelings instead of acting impulsively. We will ask him, ďAre you happy?Ē ďWhat are you feelingĒ ďAre you sad?Ē Sometimes itís difficult to get him to express his emotions.

When he eventually enters kindergarten, he will be around a lot of kids with a lot of personalities. If he goes in prepared how to respond to children that may be mad or aggressive, he will be able to keep a cool head and not get so upset. He will be ready to go in and pay attention and be more focused.
Tondra Gardner
Tondra Gardner
Licensed child care provider for two years
I had a situation recently where I had five kids digging in the dirt for worms. A child was sitting across the yard and he said, ďNobody wants to play with me!Ē I had to remind him about his body language Ė his arms were folded, he was scowling, his eyebrows were furrowed. After I mentioned this, he improved his body language. I also acknowledged his frustration, and helped him to express himself in a calmer way. I am always trying to get them to put themselves in the other childís shoes. This helps them express how they feel and how to be empathetic.

Mood Cards Featured Activity:
Mood Cards
Emotional Literacy Featured Video:
Emotional Literacy
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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