Three Strategies to Help Empower Children with Their Feelings

Last week I talked about how adults sometimes have to re-learn how to feel their feelings in order to consciously connect with their thoughts before they can take responsibility for them. In that blog post, I talked about how teachers sometimes reinforce within children that they don’t have any control over how they feel by making them say sorry or blaming them for upsetting others. They are sometimes quick to shut down children’s feelings e.g. “Don’t cry, you’re ok!” when a child is sad or “Stop that, you’re too loud!” when a child is squealing with joy. I thought this week would be the perfect time to take a look at how we can help children recognise that their feelings belong to them and to empower them to choose what they do with them. Sharing our thoughts out loud can help children to see why they and others are behaving in the ways that they do – IF we have already gone through the process ourselves to make sure we are regulated. How can you co-regulate a child if you don’t know what you are thinking and feeling? Emotional regulation is a lifelong skill that needs lots of practice before you can fully gain control over the actions you take – so let’s start in an early childhood classroom in the block center.

The example I used previously was of a block tower being knocked over in the block center. The first thing to remember is the act of the tower no longer existing is a neutral circumstance in the world. At one point in time it was four blocks high, and at another point in time it was only one block high (technically there were two times it was one block high!). The act of the tower falling down does not become a problem until a human being has a thought about it. I have witnessed many children in classrooms build up towers with the goal of then knocking them down! The difference here is that the children whose goal it is to knock the tower down all agree that the plan is to demolish the tower. Their thoughts might be, “This is really fun!” or “I like doing this with my friend!” The human mind has created these thoughts and therefore created feelings of happiness, excitement and maybe even a little anticipation as the final block gets placed on the top of the tower.

When the tower is being built by a child whose thoughts are more along the lines of, “I want to build this tower higher than me! I want to build it to the moon!” and then another child comes along whose thought is, “I want to knock that tower over, it’s going to make an awesome LOUD noise! It’s gonna be so fun!”, all that is happening is that two humans are having two conflicting thoughts. That’s all. No, really. Stay with me on this one. It’s only a problem when we add moral judgement to the child who is planning to knock over the tower. Dan Hodgins talks about making moral issues out of developmental issues in this podcast with That Early Childhood Nerd, Heather Bernt-Santy, and it is so true! We jump to thinking things like “She is so mean! I can’t believe she would want to ruin that other child’s tower”, or even at the other end when we judge children as being ‘good’ or ‘well-behaved’. Our own adult human minds have a thought, which then creates a feeling. Then we act on our feelings and depending on what those are we either condemn or praise behaviour. In the example I am using today, this sends a message to the tower destroyer that they were wrong to have the thought and that their feelings matter less than the other child. It sends a message to the wider audience of other children in the room that one child is ‘bad’ and the other is ‘good’. It also sends a further message to the child who built the tower that they can’t handle the feeling of upset, that they will always need someone else to step in and rescue them. Are those the messages we really want to be sending?

So, what can we do instead? To help everyone take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and actions we need to check-in with our own thoughts FIRST and make sure we are not approaching the situation with our own judgement. As adults, we have the capability to create a pause between our thoughts and feelings. Children developmentally find this harder to do, which is why they can be so reactionary when circumstances in the world occur. It is our job to give them alternative thoughts so they begin to have different feelings about their classmates behaviours. Our own thoughts are often based on our own experiences in the past, especially the voices we heard in our childhood. We are our own point of reference, which can often lead us to be blinkered in viewing all the sides of other people involved in a situation. When discussing children’s feelings we need to be cognizant of three things: making accurate statements, being curious and remembering the end goal in mind. Let’s continue on with the block tower story as an example.

Making accurate statements
This might sound like, “The tower is now one block tall.” or “The tower is no longer standing tall.” Both of these statements are true. Everyone in the world would agree that these are facts, the true circumstances that exist. When you read those sentences, can you notice the difference in your body in terms of what you might feel compared to if you read this one – “Sally knocked over Johnny’s tower.” This might be a fact, Sally may have indeed knocked over Johnny’s tower – but how much weight are you putting on this statement that then might create some sneaky extra thoughts like, “I can’t believe she did that.” or “She is wild today!” If you can think the thought “Sally knocked over Johnny’s tower” and it feels like nothing in your body then you are treating the event as a neutral, factual circumstance. This is the goal with making accurate statements. Think of it as if you were a fly on the wall and just describe what you see as the facts of the situation.

Being curious
When it comes to making statements about how the children are feeling, we are essentially using our own emotional intelligence to gather clues – maybe we hear an angry voice, notice tears or a smirk. All of this is up to our interpretation – a fact might be that a child is crying, but until we decide if they are happy or sad tears the statement “Johnny is crying” is accurate. If we believe that Johnny is sad and that’s why he’s crying, we can add in a qualifier like, “Johnny seems sad. He is crying.” The key word here is ‘seems’. This is something I learned from Conscious Discipline and this tiny shift is so powerful. If you ask Johnny, “Are you feeling sad?” then he might just nod his head in agreement. A more nuanced approach would be to say, “Johnny, you seem sad. You are crying. Your shoulders are slumped down, like this. You are wiping your tears away with the sleeve of your shirt, like this.” By being curious about what Johnny might be feeling, you give him opportunity to assess what he is actually feeling as well as help Sally (and any other onlookers!) to recognise what someone who is feeling sad might look like. Labelling the emotion that Johnny is feeling helps to give children the vocabulary they need to express themselves – “I am feeling sad.” This is an important note to make as we don’t want children to say, “I’m sad.” This gives the impression that sadness is consuming them and that’s all they are as a person. It might sound dramatic, but this outer talk eventually becomes inner speech – what do we want children to be thinking about themselves when they feel sad? Do we want them to recognise that they are having feelings of sadness right now, in this moment? Or do we want them to believe that they are a sad person that exists in the world and that cannot be changed? And what about Sally? “Sally, you seem excited to knock over towers today.” or “Sally, you wanted to knock over the tower that Johnny built.” Getting curious with Sally’s motivation can help Johnny to think new thoughts about Sally – maybe she didn’t want to hurt my feelings after all! She just wanted to play!

What’s the end goal?
In many of my trainings, play and well-being alike, I often get participants to create a habit of remembering what the end goal is – the bigger picture. If Sally and Johnny were playing in the block center and a tower is knocked over, what’s the end goal with their play? Is it to stop the play and have a time out and have Sally go play somewhere else? When you read that your first thought might be, “No, of course not!” but for a lot of practitioners they do this and don’t connect it to it being a diversion from the end goal. Our end goal needs to be for children to recognise their own feelings, recognise feelings in others and to create a community where we value each other and allow space for all feelings to exist. When children recognise this, they can start to explore what thoughts they are thinking that create these feelings – in themselves and others. If your goal is for everyone to play together happily with zero problems or conflict, you are expecting something that doesn’t exist in the real world. Life is 50/50 and it always will be. There are times when we want to be sad and times when we would like to happy. Johnny can be sad about his tower falling down. Sally can be happy it fell down. The goal is to figure out how to help both children understand each other’s motivations and how they can co-exist together. What would that look like? How can both Sally and Johnny get their individual needs met without being judged?

You may have noticed that all three of these strategies to help children with their big feelings are really actually helping the adult with their feelings. That is the key to having educators in your classroom who are able to manage when children have big feelings. They are able to access these skills to regulate themselves before they even try to step-in and co-regulate the children. When you make statements instead of judgements, get curious and think about what the end game is you are able to begin bridging the gap between thoughts, feelings and actions. You start to create a bigger pause, and provide children with more optional thoughts to take on for themselves. You also increase the skill for yourself when you create that gap – and this can apply to any relationships you have, in and out of the classroom!

How will you use these three steps – making statements, getting curious and keeping the end goal in mind – in your work with children? How can you use these strategies to help children take ownership of their feelings so they become empowered in their actions? Imagine if every child learned early on that they could choose what to think on purpose in order to change their feelings. Remember to stay playful with this process and let me know in the comments what you are now thinking about!

Want to explore children’s behaviours with your team? Hire me for your next professional development event where we will take a deeper dive into what is going on in your classroom and figure out what we can do about it!

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