We all understand what literacy is - the ability to read and write. But there is another kind of literacy that is equally important. It is emotional literacy - the ability to identify one’s own and others feelings.
Let’s be honest. Feelings get a bad rap. We associate emotions with weakness and childishness. Nobody wants to be labeled a “cry baby.” We learn from a young age that some emotions are acceptable (happy) and other emotions are not (anger). As parents, our comfort level with the range of emotions our children express is powerfully influenced by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages we took in during our growing up years. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University notes:
“The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and manage successful interactions with other people is key for later academic performance, mental health, and social relationships...From birth, children rapidly develop their abilities to experience and express different emotions, as well as their capacity to cope with and manage a variety of feelings. The development of these capabilities occurs at the same time as a wide range of highly visible skills in mobility (motor control), thinking (cognition), and communication (language). Yet, emotional development often receives relatively less recognition as a core emerging capacity in the early childhood years.”
From a preschool point of view, young children benefit from parents and teachers who value and support emotional development. This is a HUGE topic that we can’t possibly cover here. But here are a 3 bite-sized tips.
Use feeling words and teach them to your child. Focus on these four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid, scared.
“You are happy about going to the park.”
“I can tell that you are afraid of that big dog.”
“You are angry that it’s time to go to bed. I understand that it’s hard to stop playing.” Learn more about this topic here: The Power of Acknowledgement
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
Connect a child’s facial expressions and body language with how they are feeling. God designed our bodies to respond physiologically to the world around us. The reality is that often our bodies know our feelings before our minds fully understand. You can look at someone’s face and body language to get clues to how they are feeling. Happy clues: mouth smiling, cheeks pushed up, eyes not open wide. Sad clues: eyes looking down, mouth turned down, head down. Looking at pictures books together and using facial/body clues in characters of a story is a great way to connect this. Here’s a preschool friendly booklist: Books about Feelings
“In your anger do not sin.”
Allow feelings and at the same time, coach children to choose appropriate behavior. Our feelings can help us discern what’s happening in and around us, but we don’t have to allow them to determine our behavior. Author, Lysa TerKeurst wisely points out: “Feeling are indicators, not dictators. They indicate where you heart is in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to dictate your behavior and boss you around.”
Instead of focusing on trying to get your child to not be angry, sad, or afraid, teach your child what they can do they experience these feelings. Here are some things a child can do:
- Take deep breaths to calm down
- Get a drink of water
- Take a break from playing with a friend
- Ask an adult for help
- Use words to say how you are feeling
- Walk away or walk around a bit
- Ask for a hug
- Think of a different way to solve the problem
- Do something that makes you feel better
Find more practical advice here: Teaching Your Child to Identify and Express Emotions
Did you know that emotional literacy is directly related to empathy? Research shows children with higher levels of empathy are more likely to be: accepted by peers, socially skilled, less aggressive, emotionally supportive to others, and academically successful.