by Sara O’Brien
Social-emotional development is defined as skills children develop that allow them to interact with others (e.g., playing, responding to adults and other children) and to express their emotions (e.g., anger, happiness, joy). At Bernie’s a large part of a teacher’s day is focused on this area of growth and we feel that it is one of the most important skills to have before heading off to Kindergarten and on through adulthood.
Guiding social-emotional development is no easy task. Children have little experience with how to cope with the big feelings they have and it can feel very overwhelming for them and for the adults that care for them. It is the caregiver’s job to help them work through these emotions without dismissing the feelings they are having. This means that we have to be able to recognize the feeling and help children name them and only then can we work with the child to find an appropriate solution that suits the child within the limits we have set. This work of emotion coaching can begin at a very early age.
For our youngest pre-verbal children it may just be verbal acknowledgement of a look on their face or a sound they make; “you feel frustrated that she took your toy” or “you were surprised by that loud noise”. The more in tune you are the better you will be able to predict how they are feeling.
For older children you may be more of a guide, “you look upset, can you tell me what happened?” and let the child lead the conversation. The older the child the more able they are to work toward a solution allowing them to feel strong and capable.
Viewing social-emotional development as you do all other areas of development (motor skills, cognitive skills, etc.) helps us work with the child to be accepting of all feelings and set appropriate boundaries. This gives them a better understanding of their own emotions, what the emotions mean and how to cope with them.
For more information on emotion coaching (a term coined by Dr. John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (1997)) we’ve attached some additional information including the benefits and the 5 steps of emotion coaching.
What is emotion coaching?
Much like an athletic coach teaches children how to play a sport, emotion coaches help children deal with the emotional ups and downs of daily living. Emotion coaching parents recognize that feelings are a normal part of life. They accept their child’s expression of feelings; even negative ones, such as anger or sadness. Emotion coaching parents view feelings as an opportunity to teach their child about the world of emptions and to build a closer relationship with their child.
How will emotion coaching help my child?
Emotion coaching can help your child understand his/her own emotions. Your child will learn to trust his/her own feelings to regulate the expression of his/her feelings and to soothe him/herself when upset. Emotion coaching can also help your child with problem-solving and to feel good about him/herself.
Research has shown that emotion coached children tend to relate better to peers, have improved attention spans, and do better in school that children who have not experienced emotion coaching. This understanding of emotions has been called “emotional intelligence.”
How can I become an emotion coach?
There are five steps to emotion coaching:
1. Be aware of your own feelings and your child’s feelings.
Become aware of your own feelings (both positive and negative) and learn to label those feelings. Remember that negative feelings such as anger and sadness are a normal part of human emotions. By expressing such feelings in a way that is respectful of others, you are teaching your child how to do so. If you find yourself feeling out of control when expressing negative feelings or believe that you are at risk for hurting you child, you should seek counseling to help you better deal with your emotions.
Learn to read your child’s subtle emotional cues. Observe his/her facial expression including eye contact, curve eyebrows, lines on forehead, tenseness of facial muscles, and shape of lips. Notice his/her words, tone of voice and other vocal sound, or the absence of words. Recognize your child’s posture and gestures. Listen for themes about feelings in your child’s play.
2. Recognize feelings as an opportunity to teach your child and to become closer to your child.
When you acknowledge your child’s feelings, you are helping your child learn to identify and label his/her own feelings and to feel understood and comforted. Comforting your child teaches him/her how to self-soothe. This process helps your child realize that s/he can turn to you in times of distress. It also increases two-way communication between you and your child, strengthening your relationship with your child.
3. Listen empathetically to your child’s feelings
Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Tune in to what your child might be trying to say with words and body language. Try to put yourself in your child’s place and wonder about what s/he might be feeling. Position yourself so that you are at your child’s level (i.e. stooping, kneeling or sitting on the ground). Reflect your child’s feelings in words. If you think an explanation is needed for some event, give it after reflecting your child’s feelings.
4. Help your child label his/her emotions.
Even very young children can begin to identify and label feelings. Try to use words that describe a specific feeling and state it in a tentative way:
“I wonder if you’re worried about something.”
“It seems like you’re sad.”
“I bet that makes you feel kind of proud.”
“You look a little unhappy” and wait for child to respond.
“Gee that would make me feel kind of jealous.”
“You sure look happy today!”
If your child rejects the feeling you identify, wonder about some other emotion. Remember that children can experience more than one feeling at a time.
5. Set limits while helping child to solve the problem.
After you have reflected your child’s feelings, let him/her know that certain heavier is not acceptable and help him/her decide what s/he might do instead. Focus on your child’s behavior rather that his/her character.
“I know that you’re angry that you can’t have the cookie, but you can’t call me names. What do you think you can do instead?” Offer child options, if s/he can’t think of any. It is also helpful to give your child two or more choices. Limit choices to two for very young children.
Emotion Coaching Parents:
Are aware of and value their own emotions;
Are aware of and value their child’s emotions, including negative feelings;
Can recognize their child’s subtle emotional cues;
Do no become upset when their child expresses unhappy feelings;
Can be with their child while s/he is upset i.e. feeling sad, angry or fearful;
View their child’s negative emotions as an opportunity to teach their child;
View their child’s negative emotions as an opportunity to become closer to their child;
Listen to their child’s expression of feelings;
Do not minimize child’s negative feelings;
Do not tell their child what s/he should feel;
Reflect their child’s feelings by using words that help their child build a vocabulary for emotions;
Set limits while helping their child find acceptable ways to express feelings;
Help their child learn ways to solve problems.
Adapted from Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (1997). The heart of parenting: Raising emotionally intelligent child. New York: Simon & Schuster.