The importance of talking with children about feelings

The situation: Four-year-old Michael was misbehaving. The teacher, Mr. Carpenter, was speaking quietly to him, helping with feelings the young boy could not express verbally.

caring-teacher-1622554-1280x960_freeimages_Heriberto Herrera“Michael, if you are missing mommy and feeling sad, we can talk about her, think about her and make her a picture,” Mr. C said. “You can miss mommy and still feel like a big schoolboy who can manage and be safe.”

Nearby, Alex had been watching this interaction out of the corner of his eye while building with blocks. Unexpectedly he lashed out at Julia, who was working next to him, knocking over her building. Julia yelled,” Alex is mean and being bad!” Alex appeared unconcerned about what he had done and continued building.

The assistant teacher, Ms. Dowd, approached Alex and Julia, hoping to find out what happened. Frustrated, Julia described the incident. Ms. Dowd turned to Alex, wondering why he would do such a thing and not apologize.

She asked, “Are you angry at Julia?” Alex refused to speak, then teared up and put his head down. It was only when Mr. Carpenter approached that he looked up, longingly, ready to speak.

He reached out to Mr. Carpenter and sighed, “I wanted you to help me with my missing-mommy feelings the way you helped Michael.”

The lesson: Every early childhood classroom should include the “language of feelings.” Addressing behavior (what a child is actively doing) is different from addressing feeling (what a child is experiencing on the inside).

As adults, we tend to focus on the doing instead of the feeling, because it seems easier. It takes a little extra time to help a child listen to the feeling voice inside, and find a constructive way to express that feeling voice.

We might think we know how a child feels, but often the child surprises us.

Alex’s actions seemed angry and unfeeling, but inside he was longing and hurting. His teachers might have thought he acted out because he wanted “attention,” but Alex needed some kindness and compassion.

He did not know how to express his lonely, missing feelings. He saw Michael receive comfort and consolation from Mr. C, and Alex wanted the same for himself. What a good idea to want to feel comfort from a compassionate person you trust.

Learning points

  • Help the child figure out ways to express feelings safely: Use words, get a hug, take a walk,
  • spend some time calming down.
  • Praise the child for using words instead of acting out (yelling, tantrums, hurting others).
  • Help the child with difficult feelings while you are calm.
  • Use the “language of feelings” in your classroom.
  • Label specific feelings: happy, sad, jealous, mad, excited, surprised, lonely, hurt, scared…
  • Trust that when the child knows the words for feelings, he or she will use them – though it may take practice.
  • Upset and anger directed at a child creates more upset and anger.
  • Remember, the adult is always the model for the child; you are the model for your student.

Image courtesy of Herrera

Cross-cultural test of anti-bullying program

trinidad-w-bell-0716While team members at The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development were preparing this summer for the first broad-based rollout of “My Mad Feelings,” a bullying prevention curriculum for children as young as 4, Clinical Director Kimberly Bell was giving the program a cross-cultural test at a school in Trinidad and Tobago. While the test was informal, the results, she said, were strongly positive.

While most anti-bullying programs focus on adolescent children, the origins of bullying can be recognized at a much younger age – when children first go to school or child care, and are learning to advocate for themselves in a social setting.

When angry, scared or otherwise bothered, young children “share” the way they feel by grabbing, hitting or saying hurtful things –acting out the feeling so others feel it too.

This is normal behavior, and it signals a developmental readiness to begin learning how to express themselves verbally instead. Otherwise, their behavior makes others angry and invites disciplinary action, creating a downward spiral in self-esteem. By adolescence, these behaviors may become habitual, and are recognized as bullying. (Learn more about My Mad Feelings here.)

“My Mad Feelings” is classroom curriculum for children age 4-7 to support the emotional learning process. It’s being taught in all preschool classes in the Shaker Heights City School District for the 2016-17 school year – the first time the program is being used across an entire public school system.

But as that effort was being prepared, Bell put it to use in July with a class of 5-year-olds at the Naomi Chin Kit Memorial School in Pt. Fortin, on the island of Trinidad. Bell was invited as part of a free dental clinic by volunteers from the dentistry programs and social work programs at Buffalo State College and the University of Buffalo.

Conditions for the cross-cultural test were less than optimal. While the program is designed to be taught in 12 lessons, Bell had only four. So she worked in advance with Victoria Todd, author of the curriculum, to select which sections to teach.

It’s also intended for small-group discussion, not a full classroom.

Bell observed the class before beginning the program, and said typical behaviors included impulsiveness, difficulty managing big feelings, and finding words to express feelings. She also noted a general confusion between the emotions of anger and fear.

“Their culture contains a drive to obtain limited resources, so concepts like waiting in line and taking turns don’t come naturally there,” Bell added. She described “a mad rush and a lot of crying” when crayons were placed on the table for coloring. One boy, unhappy with his picture, cried inconsolably because he didn’t think there would be any extra paper so he could start over.

“Even in the toughest possible conditions, these children responded like they were hungry for it,” she said. “After the last day, when we said our goodbyes, I’ll be darned if the two children with the biggest behavior problems weren’t sharing equipment on the playground, pushing each other on the swing. They were actively identifying feelings and seeking help in problem-solving.

“In the end, it was very clear the basic tenets of what we do at Hanna Perkins are universal,” Bell continued. “You get a tremendous response from young children when their feelings are acknowledged and when you help them give voice to those feelings.”

“The teachers were hesitant at first to believe a non-authoritarian approach was going to work. But the little 4-year-old who spent the first two days crying, screaming and running away came in on Day 3, put his backpack down and prepared for class. That’s when the teachers came to me and asked for a copy of the “Mad Feelings” teaching materials, so they could continue the process.”

Since the experience, the school director has traveled to Cleveland to observe operations at Hanna Perkins School. She is working to raise funds for teachers to travel here to receive formal training on the “Mad Feelings” curriculum.

Following is a video about the experience. Brief discussion of Bell’s work with My Mad Feelings begins at 7:10.

An alternative to punishment for misbehavior

boy closeup-conscience_ Serge Bertasius Photography_freedigitalphotosThe Situation

Five-year-old Thomas sat in his chair at morning meeting. During the “Days of the Week” song, Thomas rocked in his chair to the music. He knew it was against the rules because it wasn’t safe; chairs tip over easily. But when no one seemed to notice or comment on it, he did it again. Still, nobody paid attention.

When morning meeting ended, the children were free to choose an activity. Thomas chose puzzles, his favorite. But when he couldn’t get the pieces to go in correctly, he picked up a piece and threw it across the room.

His teacher was surprised. “What’s wrong, Thomas? You seem angry. You usually love puzzles,” she said.

“You’re mad at me,” Thomas said.

“I’m not mad at you,” his teacher said. “But I don’t understand why you just threw that piece of the puzzle. Could you be mad at yourself? Or maybe trying to get me to be mad at you?”

Thomas face turned red, but it took a few more moments of conversation before Thomas finally admitted, “I rocked in my chair at morning meeting,” he said, “and no one saw me do it.”

“That must have given you a bit of a bad feeling inside,” his teacher said. “I’m glad you told me about it, and if I had seen it, I would have asked you to stop. But that was a small mistake. And Thomas, you know that you don’t have to wait for me or someone else to see when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. You can stop yourself.”

“I’m not sure I can stop myself,” said Thomas.

“It takes practice,” the teacher said. “And I can help. Everyone in our class is working on helping to understand how their inside helper works.”

The Lesson

Instead of scolding Thomas for throwing a puzzle piece, the teacher understood that his behavior was out of the ordinary and must mean something. She also knew that children in the 4½ to 5 ½ age-range are just learning about their conscience – the part of the personality that helps children learn to do the right thing. In fact, she had been using the term “inside helper” when talking about it with the children.

She spoke kindly as she attempted to understand the meaning of Thomas’ behavior. This allowed Thomas to learn something important without the shame of being disciplined. It also allowed the teacher to be trusted as someone who could help Thomas – rather than simply being the grownup who doles out punishments.

Learning Points

  • Children’s behavior has meaning; try to determine the meaning of a particular behavior.
  • Rather than shaming and punishing for misbehavior, guide children as a trusted advisor. Over time, this helps them learn to put their angry feelings into words – effectively giving them the chance to choose desirable behaviors rather than acting out every emotion.
  • Help children to understand that what they notice about themselves is important; they don’t have to wait for a teacher or parent to notice.
  • Help children to listen to their own inside helper. And generalize the importance of listening to one’s inside helper or conscience to all children in the classroom.
  • Help children practice this important skill.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/

The ‘inside helper’: Helping young children make good decisions and use their conscience

training wheels_1431529-639x745_ned horton_freeimagesThe situation: Five-year-old Abby pushed her way into the preschool line. She had been waiting all day to show her teacher how well she could ride a bike with training wheels.

“Hey, you’re pushing in front of me and that’s not fair,” cried Jack. “I want to get outside too!”

Abby started to cry: “Now I’ll never be able to show Mr. Martin how I ride a bike, because they’ll all be taken!”

Mr. Martin approached the children and asked what was going on.

“Abby pushed me so she could get a bike, but I was here first,” Jack complained.

“I just wanted to show you that yesterday I learned to ride a bike with training wheels,” Abby confessed.

“Abby, what a wonderful new skill you learned. I would like to see it.” Abby sighed with relief that her teacher knew what she wanted. “But Abby”, he added, “you know the rule about waiting your turn and not pushing in line.”

Mr. Martin turned to the class and thanked them for waiting while he and Abby figured out what to do.

“Abby, how do you think you could solve this problem?” he asked.

“Don’t let her go outside,” said Jack; Megan chimed in, “Make her apologize!”

“Well, those are not kind ways to help Abby,” Mr. Martin responded, “and I think she can decide what to do, because she knows about good choices. Abby can listen to her inside helper.”

Abby looked at Mr. Martin and said, “I know what to do; I need to go to the end of the line. But I want a bike. Can you save time for a turn on one for me?”

“Now you are listening to yourself and you are making some good choices,” Mr. Martin responded. “Of course we can save some time for you on a bike. OK, let’s straighten out this line and get outside!”

When they were outside Abby approached Jack and told him she would work hard to make a better choice next time and not cut in line again. “Thanks,” replied Jack as he ran off to play.

The Lesson: Abby knew how to use her conscience and needed the opportunity to use it to help her with problem-solving. She just needed a little time and the kindness of her teacher to look inside herself and find a kind solution.

Reprimanding her or depriving her of privileges would not help her listen to the kindness of her conscience. When children receive primarily harsh or punitive consequences, they develop a harsh conscience, which they turn away from in times of trouble.

Given the opportunity and adult support, Abby came up with good ideas. If her teacher had given in to the temptation to just take over, she might have been deprived of this opportunity for further conscience development, increased self-esteem, greater confidence, and a feeling of mastery. Lucky Abby; she had a teacher who understands that children need to develop this important skill – and who made it his job to give her the chance, even while juggling the busy transition to outside time.

Learning points

  • Children ages 3-5 (and older, too) want to do the right thing – even though sometimes their behavior seems otherwise.
  • Adults need to help young children make good choices and use their conscience – or inside helper. Children are not born with this ability.
  • Adults model good decision-making by using love, kindness and understanding.
  • Teaching children to make good decisions by yelling, punishing or humiliating is ineffective. These approaches make them feel angry, unsure of themselves, and develop a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.
  • We all want to be treated well and to feel good about ourselves. We want the same for children.
  • Modeling kindness, support for learning, appropriate behavior, clear expectations and loving
  • praise for good decisions will help children achieve a feeling of well-being.
  • Modeling good decisions will also help achieve a feeling of well-being.
  • When children have a feeling of confidence and well-being, they can use their conscience to make good choices.

Image courtesy of Horton

A strategy for talking with children so they’ll listen

preschool-class-activities2-1-1439482-639x958_freeimages_anissa thompsonThe situation: Mrs. Parker called out to her preschool class, “It’s almost time to clean up and go outside to play.”

It was a cold snowy day and the children needed to put on warm clothes.

Laura looked up and said, “No, I’m not going.” Paul screamed, “I didn’t get my turn on the easel.” Rebecca ignored the direction, and two boys, Jason and Robbie, started running around the room chasing each other.

Mrs. P raised her voice. “It’s time to finish what you are doing and put on your coats!”

William, who was struggling to put on his snow pants, fell backwards, crying that he needed help, while Jennifer teased him that he was a baby to cry about his pants.

Mrs. P’s pleasant, productive classroom had suddenly turned to chaos.

The lesson: As every preschool teacher knows, at any given moment there is a great deal going on in the classroom. Early childhood teachers feel pulled in many directions at once. The most skillful teacher seems to have the ability to attend to the needs and desires of each child. What an amazing skill to have naturally or to acquire.

On this day, the activity that created trouble was to transition to outside play. It was tempting and seemed most efficient to give verbal direction to the whole class. Sometimes early childhood teachers miss the idea that the transition itself – in this case to put on outdoor clothing – can be an activity worthy of note on a lesson plan.

If she had thought about it this way, Mrs. Parker might have given an alert or direction about the transition individually to each student – just as she would when working on any other challenge or skill.

This allows each child an opportunity to respond with anything that might be on the child’s mind – possibly uncovering obstacles to a smooth transition. She might hear, “I need to finish my puzzle,” or “Mrs. P, my coat is hard for me to zip by myself,” or “Oh, I can’t wait to go outside and show you how I can shovel snow!”

Children can listen better and respond more appropriately when they have a connection with the teacher, even a momentary one. This approach takes time, but what a good use of a few minutes in a preschooler’s day.

Learning points

  • Look directly at the child.
  • Encourage the child to look at you, rather than demanding it.
  • Use a gentle, quiet voice.
  • Use an understanding voice.
  • Make some physical contact: Hold a hand, touch an arm, offer a hug.
  • Model good listening by paying attention to what the child wants to say, even if you do not agree. It always feels respectful.
  • Use feeling words with the child.
  • Praise the child as much as you can even for doing simple things that are expected, such as hanging up a coat, cleaning up, getting dressed and following rules.
  • Smile at the child; it’s contagious!

Image courtesy of Thompson