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Building Emotional Intelligence: Helping Children Understand Big Feelings

When we think about the transition into kindergarten, we often emphasize children’s academic and intellectual readiness for elementary school. And while these skills are important, there is another kind of intelligence, emotional intelligence, that children also need in order to be successful learners during early childhood and beyond.

Research studies confirm the connection between early emotional intelligence skills and positive academic outcomes. As summarized in an NAEYC article about emotional intelligence, “Children with higher emotional intelligence are better able to pay attention, are more engaged in school, have more positive relationships, and are more empathic…They also regulate their behaviors better and earn higher grades.”

Understanding Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence enables us to think about feelings as we analyze situations. It comes into play when we recognize and regulate our emotions and when we support emotional regulation in others. Emotional intelligence skills help us form relationships, navigate adversity and learn new skills.

The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Child Development

For young children, emotional intelligence describes the foundational skills that equip them to connect with others, form friendships, handle challenges, and learn new skills.

According to an article from the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, emotional intelligence has three major components, described below.

  1. Knowledge. As children begin to recognize their feelings, they become more in tune with their emotions. They learn to identify what caused their emotions and can begin to recognize the way different interactions, experiences, and situations can make them feel.

  2. Expression. This describes a child’s ability to not only recognize what they are feeling, but to also communicate their emotional experiences to others. In early childhood, this might come through verbal expressions such as “I’m excited to go play outside!” Gestures are another important expression of a young child’s emotions. Examples include giving another child a hug when they are happy to see them, or stomping their feet when they are angry.

  3. Regulation. We use emotional intelligence skills to regulate or manage our feelings. With the support of their caregivers, children can learn to develop strategies to regulate their feelings and emotions. This becomes easier with experience, and as children mature.

How Educators Can Support Development

Prioritizing emotional intelligence in curriculum planning is an important way to support young children as they develop the skills that will help them transition successfully into kindergarten. Below are examples of ideas you might try to help the little ones in your care understand emotions and build emotional intelligence skills.

Acknowledge and Label Feelings

If you notice a child in your care experiencing a big feeling like anger, frustration, or even excitement, talk with them about what they are feeling. If children are verbal, ask questions about what is going on to better understand their experience and encourage them to talk about their emotions. You can help children identify and label their emotions, by giving voice to those feelings through observations like: “You’re feeling disappointed because we didn’t get to play the game that you were hoping for,” or “We’re all so excited because we get to go outside and play!”

When we acknowledge what children are experiencing, we validate their experience and let them know that we understand what they are going through. Additionally, when we use words to describe feelings, we introduce an emotional vocabulary that helps children build relationships and recognize the feelings of others.

Offer Strategies for Managing Big Feelings

For little ones, big feelings can sometimes be overwhelming. As educators, we nurture early emotional intelligence when we help children navigate and manage their feelings. An article from Practical Outcomes in Early Childhood Education reminds us that, “While all emotions are completely valid, not all behaviours and actions are acceptable,  so children (and adults) need to have strategies in mind to express their feelings in a safe and appropriate way.” We can teach children simple tools and actions they can turn to, such as taking deep breaths when they are overwhelmed, or stomping their feet when they are angry. You might find the following strategies helpful for the children in your care as they learn to navigate their big feelings.

  • Find a quiet place. It can sometimes be helpful for children to take a break and move away from the person, place, or thing that is overwhelming them. An article from Primrose Schools advises that taking a break shouldn’t be treated as a punishment; instead, it should be “a chance for the child to regain some composure and equilibrium” in which they can “color, read or play until they feel a little bit calmer.”

  • Take deep breaths. Encouraging young children to focus on their breathing can be a helpful tool for them to use when they are feeling overwhelmed. In fact, a new Stanford study found that taking just a few slow, deep inhales and long exhales can significantly reduce young children’s stress levels. This one-minute video from Stanford shows how we can help children learn to focus on their breathing by pretending to smell a flower when they inhale then exhaling as if they’re blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.

  • Use humor. In a G2K article from the archives, we shared how laughter can be an especially helpful tool when children are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Being silly can be a great way to diffuse tensions and lighten up the mood. You might read a bedtime story in a silly voice, or put the child’s blanket on your head. Humor can help everyone cool off after a moment of frustration.

Model Emotional Intelligence Skills

As educators and care providers, we can model emotional intelligence skills for the children in our care. Children learn a lot by watching grown-ups to see how they interact with each other and how they respond to different situations.

An article from NAEYC’s Developmentally Appropriate Practice series explains that “Emotions are an integral part of a teacher’s job and have an impact on teacher effectiveness…as well as on children’s behavior…Early childhood teachers need high emotional intelligence to cope with on-the-job stressors and to serve as positive role models for the children in their care.” The article provides some specific recommendations for early learning providers who want to tune in to their own feelings so they can be more effective communicators:

  • Be sure to pay attention to how you communicate. Think about how you talk with children, parents, family members, and colleagues. Consider your tone of voice, facial expression, choice of words, volume, and body language, and how these can be affected by your feelings or mood.

  • At the end of each day, while you are packing up your things, take a moment to reflect on how the day went. Think about things that went well and things that could be improved: Was there a part of the day that was particularly difficult for you, or for the children in your care? How did you respond? What did you learn? What might you do differently next time?

  • If you are working in a center with other classrooms, take some time to visit them and observe. Note positive and negative ways that the teachers react to situations and use your observations to reflect on your own classroom.

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