Emotions are often very extreme in young children. We’ve all seen the dramatic responses that children can have to the most simple of things.

It can be extremely exhausting and trying when a young child shows a very extreme reaction to something that seems so insignificant to us, such as the colour of their cup. As their carers, we have to recognise that these details mean the world to the child. Children don’t have the same levels of responsibility and stresses that we have in our lives, such as paying bills, meeting our children’s needs and meeting deadlines at work. At any one point in time, the colour of a cup simply is the most important thing in that child’s world right now (lucky them!). They haven’t yet developed the maturity to distinguish how important something really is, and they don’t have the regulation strategies necessary to act calmly when something doesn’t go their way. These emotions need time to develop and mature.

There are three sequential steps that children need to go through to help develop their emotional understanding.

  1. Recognise what different emotions look like in others.
  2. Recognise emotions in themselves.
  3. Begin to deal with their own emotions.

The list below offers some strategies for helping young children work through the steps above.

  • Get children to recognise feelings in others. Look at characters in books, people in magazines or people on television. Ask children how these people are feeling. “How can you tell? Why are they feeling that way?” It can help to have a set of emotion pictures available to see if any children can match an emotion picture to the person in the picture.
  • Now start using similar strategies to get children to recognise how they are feeling themselves. “Can you remember a time that you felt sad? Excited? Angry?” Ask children to show how they are feeling with the emotion card. It’s great to have a display in your setting that allows a child to show you, visually, how they are feeling. There are some great books available to help children begin to  recognise their emotions. I love Trace Moroney’s “When I’m feeling….” series.
  • Talk about the physical features of some emotions. “What happens to your body when you are worried? Some people feel as though they have butterflies in their tummy. Some go red. Some might get tummy ache or feel sick.” Making children aware of this gives children more clues to help recognise the emotion in themselves.
  • When you see a child experiencing an extreme emotion, help them to label it so that they understand what is happening. “I can see that you are feeling angry”. Get them to display their emotion  on the chart or show them the emotion chart. Ask them: “can you tell me how you are feeling?” This gives children a way of communicating their feeling with you if they don’t have the confidence or words to tell you what they are experiencing.
  • Empathise with how the child must have been feeling – “it must have been really scary for you when you got angry. I feel like that when I am angry.”
  • Give children the tools to deal with their emotions by providing them with calming activities such as bubbles, sensory play or music.
  • Put in strategies of how the child can help themselves when they are angry. You need to discuss this with them when they are calm. Have a plan in place and explain to the child that it is not wrong to be angry, but it is wrong to hurt someone else when you are angry. “Let’s see if we can come up with a better plan”. Perhaps they could go somewhere safe to let off steam when they need to. Let them know how you are going to support them.

These ideas will all help develop emotional understanding in your setting. As always, communication is key. Anything that you can do to encourage children to communicate their feelings is going to  provide them with a huge step towards developing their emotional understanding and helping them on the road to good mental health.

About the author

Gina SmithGina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.



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