Emotional Literacy or Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify and express your feelings as well as identify and express the feelings of others. Just like walking and talking these skills are developmental and must be taught and practiced. This skill is also a prerequisite to emotional regulation, successful interpersonal skills and problem solving, thus one of the most important skills learned during the early years. (Denham, 1986)
This emotional development happens gradually and is usually linked closely to children’s language development. The desire to express thoughts, needs, and feelings with others motivates children to develop and use language.
The development of speech and language includes…
- Receptive Language, which is the ability to comprehend language and includes listening to, recognizing, and understanding the communication of others, and is developed first.
- Expressive Language is the ability to express wants, needs and feelings using words, phrases, or sentences. It also includes gestures and facial expressions.
Once children develop enough language for simple communication, they can simultaneously begin to build their emotional vocabulary. Learning feelings words are easy to teach because your facial expressions will go along with the words to aid in the connection in the brain. For example, when you say “happy” your face is smiling, laughing and your voice will sound light. This vocabulary can be taught directly in isolation or incidentally through play and activities.
As children develop vocabulary it is critical to introduce them to general emotion words (happy, sad, mad, etc) and then a variety of shades of meaning for emotions (excited, furious, embarrassed, etc). Labeling children’s emotions allow them to begin to identify their internal state, which is fundamental in them beginning to learn to regulate their emotions. Being aware and verbalizing that they are “angry” is an important step before teaching children to regulate themselves or calm down in place of throwing a tantrum.
It is also important for adults to empathize with the feelings of children. This is how they will eventually learn to empathize with the feelings of others. They can learn to read physical features and body language as well as the tone of voice to determine how someone is feeling. So when a child is sad, the adult can say things like “Your head is down and your mouth is frowning, do you feel sad? What made you feel sad?” This follow up reinforces that usually a feeling is created by a happening or situation, or person.
Older children can learn that they have a choice in how they react to situations to empower them to not let situations or other people determine their state, but that they can choose their feelings and emotional state regardless of what may be happening around them. What a gift THAT is!!! There are probably many adults who would benefit from learning that lesson as well! 🙂
According to Joseph & Strain (2002), for emotional vocabulary to effective adults must first spend the time necessary to build positive relationships with children. This is the foundation necessary to maximize influence to build emotional vocabulary…and ALL learning!
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning is a great place for parents and teachers to access strategies and materials. Among other useful resources, there is a book list for feelings, emotions and relationships. Click the link under the picture to get the free 6 page PDF list!
In conclusion, the importance of devoting planned attention to teaching emotional literacy cannot be overstated. Children do not come already wired with it. Denham (1986) finds that we may expect fewer challenging behaviors and more developmentally sophisticated and enjoyable peer relations. What a wonderful world this would be if everyone was socially and emotionally regulated! We have the power…one child at a time!!
Denham, S.A. (1986). Social cognition, prosocial behavior and emotions in preschoolers. Child Development 57 (pp 194-201)
Joseph, G.E. & Strain, P.S. (2002). Building positive relationships with young children. (Click HERE for the article)