In this second of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects Founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can support children’s emotional regulation by labelling the full spectrum of their emotions. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found here.
Labelling the rainbow
Labelling emotions from an early age helps promote an individual’s ability to regulate their emotions. Knowing what an emotion is, goes a big way to helping a child to address it. This might sound a little strange – why do you need to be able to put a word on something you feel – surely feeling it is enough? But actually our internal feelings are quite confusing and the act of labelling helps us to distinguish what is going on. It is not that the word has some magical powers, it is simply the sorting process that is useful. Consider how you actually FEEL when excited, frightened, or like you might be getting a stomach upset. All three are a low level burbling in the pit of your stomach, how do you know which is which? Children often FEEL without knowing that what they are experiencing is a feeling, an emotion, rather than a physical bodily response.
Knowing what your emotions are, and being able to label them, is a vital first step in working out what is going on with them and how to manage them. Yet at a time when we expect a child to be able to name seven colours of the rainbow, we mistakenly think we make life easier for them by making their emotions binary: they are either happy or sad. Their emotions are just as real to them as the colours they see in the world around them, being given names for them helps them to understand them and to process them. A label for an emotion also means you can collect understanding from places outside of yourself, for example when you hear a story about a person who felt embarrassed, you can link what you learn from the story to your own life and situations in which you feel embarrassed. Words are powerful tools in emotional regulation.
Ways to label emotions
- You can label emotions with words, spoken or written.
- You can label emotions with toys showing particular emotional states, for example you may have a toy whose face can be manipulated to show different expressions.
- You can label emotions with symbols, diagrams or photos. Symbols and diagrams can be harder for a child to translate, photos of themselves genuinely (not mock acting) expressing the emotion will be much easier for them to understand and more accurate in their representation.
- You can label emotions with the tone of your voice or with sounds, you might even be able to use objects-of-reference or figurines displaying different emotions.
Objects-of-reference are often used with children who have profound physical and cognitive disabilities. Objects are chosen to represent key things important in that child’s life, for example a seat-belt buckle might be used to indicate that they are going in a car. For a child who struggles with particular emotions – for example, often becoming sad or angry – a representational object could be chosen and handed to them when they feel that emotion. In time, reaching for said object could become their way of expressing their distress rather than through means that are sometimes self-injurious.
How to use educative emotional expression
You can use your labelling of a child’s emotions as a miniature opportunity to teach them emotional regulation. This is a very neat trick – and done consistently – will both demonstrate your empathy with that child and let them feel understood whilst simultaneously teaching them how to regulate their emotions. Little and often is often the best approach to teaching tricky things like this. Whilst a good story about emotions, such as “The Colour Monster” by Anna Llenas, or “The Jar of Happiness” by Alisa Burrows can provide a great opportunity to reflect and consider emotions in the safety of the book corner, it is unlikely that young children reach for the insights gained in such a setting when they have that toy snatched from them, or are bumped to the floor by an overly-zealous peer. Here’s how to do it:
- Label their emotions as they experience them, try to always make this your top priority. So instead of “stop kicking the stairs”, say “You are feeling angry” and save your instruction for further down the line. Remember children do not necessarily know what they are feeling so it is our job to recognise and to label their emotions for them, and go for the whole rainbow of emotions – not just happy or sad.
- Try to match their emotional state as you label it. For example the example above you would say “You are feeling angry” in a tone that matched the anger they were expressing. This will help the child to feel understood. Of course, I am not suggesting that you get angry with them yourself, simply that your tone empathises with their emotional state. Don’t say ‘angry’ in a cutesy way, angry is not a little butterfly or a pink feather – “ANGRY” is a monster, is gritting your teeth, is a big roaring word as you say it. You are not being angry with them, you are demonstrating that you feel their anger with them. Angry, said as “ANGRY” generates a greater empathetic connection than “angry” said in a sickly-sweet way.
- Once you have labelled their feeling in an empathetic, connected tone, quickly begin to demonstrate emotional regulation as you give your advice. For example: “YOU ARE FEELING ANGRY” said in an angry tone.
“You do NOT want to FEEL this way” said in an urgent tone.
“You are trying to get rid of your anger by kicking the stairs” said in an informative tone.
“But it is not working” said in a compassionate tone.
“Try ______ instead” said in an optimistic tone.
The magic of mirror neurons
As you grade your expression, you give the child a guide for their own emotional regulation. Show the transition in your facial expressions too. We all have mirror neurons in our brains that enable us to feel a little of the emotions we see in others. By providing strong input for their mirror neurons you give them a little of your emotional state. Our bodies have a range of ways, of which mirror neurons are just one, in which they connect with each other. Your emotional state will directly and physically affect theirs – slow your breathing to slow their breathing, exude the calm you want to create. Get tense and frustrated and you will find yourself in a room full of very trying children. You may have heard the phrase “You create the weather in your classroom” – well I’m here to say it is true. The biggest hurdle we face in teaching children emotional regulation is regulating our own emotional responses!
It is important to match their expression to form the connection at the start and then gently blend it into an emotion that will be better for their wellbeing (and yours). For example, if a child is crying, you might begin talking to them showing a high level of distress in your own face; “You are very sad,” and then let this fade and your muscles relax, “but I am here with you” and introduce a smile that grows. “I will help you to feel happy again” – big smile.
Label the rainbow as you see it
As you would do with colours, take time to point out and discuss emotions as you encounter them in daily life. They do not always have to belong to the child – recognising emotions in peers will help them to understand their own emotions and to become empathetic and considerate towards their friends.
Try to avoid labelling particular emotions as bad or good – that is reverting to the binary expression we are trying to escape. We do not want to teach children that they are only acceptable to us when happy. Feeling the whole spectrum of emotions is normal and healthy. What we are looking to teach is not suppression of emotion, but regulation and appropriate response. Enjoy the rainbow!
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.