You may have heard of the phrase, ‘Making a mountain out of a molehill’ – referring to people overreacting and situations escalating. This so easily happens at home, and for many of us, in work too. For example, you notice that the cups haven’t been washed in the staff room again. You stayed late yesterday washing up and even made a note reminding everyone to tidy up after themselves, but to no avail. The cups are there… again!

In a magazine quiz, it would say, do you:

  • Make it VERY clear how unhappy you are and refuse to go in the staffroom in protest?
  • Moan and grumble but not confront anyone directly;
  • Ignore the cups – they’re just not worth the hassle;
  • Explain that you understand how busy everyone is and yet the staffroom cups are getting you down so you want to find a way of sorting it so that everyone is happy and ask to spend a minute talking through some solutions in the next staff meeting.

Some of these responses would escalate the situation and possibly lead to more bad feeling, most would leave you feeling really bad and not resolve the issue, but option d) would acknowledge the feelings of all involved and, hopefully, lead to a resolution.

This last option is using an emotion coaching style of response which is based on the work of John Gottman. An emotion coaching style considers the emotions that underpin behaviour and responds in the moment, acknowledging feelings and finding a way forward by setting limits, and problem-solving if appropriate. It accepts all emotions, but not all behaviours, seeing behaviour as a form of communication (Digby et al., 2017).
Gottman’s research found that parents responded to their children in 4 distinct styles: disapproving, dismissive, laissez-faire and emotion coaching. He proposed that most parental responses do not take into account children’s emotions but using an emotion coaching style accepts all emotions as valid whilst at the same time acknowledging that how we behave as a result of having these emotions may need to be supported or discussed. For example, it’s OK to feel cross when your brother takes a toy away from you, but it’s not OK to hit your brother and snatch it back.

Although his research centred around parents and the home, we can use this approach in our settings too. For example, imagine that a child has spent a long time drawing a picture and then at snack time, a full cup of milk is spilled all over it. It would be easy to respond in a way that dismisses the child’s feeling: “Don’t worry about it – it doesn’t matter. We don’t cry over spilt milk...” or even respond in a disapproving way, “Oh no – what did you think you were doing? I told you to move your picture before snack time.”

Neither of these responses are helpful to the child at that moment and both offer no empathy, so sometimes we might respond in a slightly more empathetic way saying something like, “Sorry about that” from across the room but this laissez-faire response offers no guidance or support to the child. So, in using an emotion coaching response in this scenario, the adult offers both high levels of empathy, and guidance, so that the child has their feelings acknowledged and at the same time feels supported about what they need to do next. “You must feel really upset, you spent a long time drawing that picture. Let’s find some paper towels and mop it up and then when it’s dry we can colour it in together.”

Questions you could ask to support your children emotionally:

  • What helps the child to feel calm?
  • What makes them excited?
  • What makes them anxious?
  • When do they feel confident?
  • Who do they like to be with?
  • What are they frightened of?
  • When might they feel cross?
  • Which adult are they most securely attached to?
  • Do they have any objects or special toys that might help them to feel secure?
  • How can you support this child and respond sensitively to their needs?

This last response validates the child’s feelings and offers them emotional and practical support. In our settings we are really good at following the child, keeping their interests and needs central in our planning. But we also need to cater for the emotional needs of our children too. If you think about your key children, do you know what makes them feel excited, or is there anything that they are anxious or worried about? Does anything frighten them or make them feel cross? What helps them to feel calm? Including these sorts of questions into our settling-in procedure can help us to better get to know the children’s feelings and emotional responses.

So emotion coaching relies on our being aware of emotions, tuning into our own feelings and those of our children and sits within the context of a trusting relationship where we actively listen to children and value what they say and do. This response does not take sides or apportion blame, instead it remains non-judgemental and practises acceptance of the children and their feelings.

It follows 3 main steps:

  1. Acknowledging and validating feelings, labelling them and empathising with everyone involved;
  2. Talking through the situation, exploring the issue further and setting limits on behaviour if appropriate;
  3. Resolving any conflicts, looking forward to the future, and problem-solving as necessary.

Emotion coaching is a powerful strategy to use and works effectively because it validates everyone’s feelings and accepts all emotions, whilst at the same time recognising our natural ways of responding and providing a calming way out. This approach believes children to be competent and capable and supports them to ‘own’ any problems, enabling them to become more independent and emotionally resilient in the future. In addition, because this approach doesn’t take sides, it can really defuse a situation and allow the molehill to be viewed as just that – a small molehill.

When we find ourselves responding emotionally to our children, colleagues, family and friends, let’s remember to use an emotion coaching response. This will de-escalate the situation, acknowledge the feelings of all involved and resolve conflicts through problem-solving. That way we won’t make a mountain out of a molehill…

Digby, R., West, E., Temple, S., McGuire-Snieckus, R., Vatmanides, O., Davey, A., Richardson, S., Rose, J., and Parker, R. (2017) Somerset Emotion Coaching Project Evaluation Report: Phase Two, Institute for Education, Bath Spa University.

Gottman, J.M. and Declaire, J. (1997) Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The heart of parenting. New York: Fireside.

 About the author

Useful Childcare Contacts and resources

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook page, website or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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