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.
During their play, children regularly behave in interesting and unusual ways that are sometimes confusing or even frustrating, such as lining up the toy animals, climbing inside boxes or repeatedly playing with the taps. As early childhood educators, we recognise these play patterns as children learning through schematic play, but the families of our children might not know anything about schemas. We are regularly asked by parents and carers why their child is doing these things and part of our role is reassuring them that schematic play is a common occurrence in early childhood and nothing to be concerned about. The other day, I was considering how parents feel about schematic behaviour and this led me to wonder what they would write if they asked an agony aunt about patterns they have observed in children’s play and how Sympathetic Sue might respond:
Dear Sympathetic Sue,
My son is driving me crazy! Johnnie is 18 months old now and keeps dropping his beaker from his highchair, again and again! As soon as he drops it, he looks at me to pick it up for him. When I do and place it on his tray, he immediately drops it again! He will repeat this until I get fed up and stop giving it back to him. Please help!
From Frustrated in Ferryport
Dear Frustrated in Ferryport,
I can understand your frustration with this, Johnnie has turned this into a turn-taking game and it can feel very annoying when all you want him to do is sip his beaker! Don’t worry, this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal for a child of his age. Johnnie is working out how the world works in terms of both his relationship with you and also what happens when you throw things off a highchair. Educators would say that Johnnie is engaging in schematic play and has a fascination with trajectory, or the movement of things. The word trajectory comes from the Latin ‘trajectoria’ and literally translated means ‘throw across’ so Johnnie is exploring the movement of his cup when he drops it from his highchair. In a basic way, he is learning about gravity and forces as well as engaging in play that involves turn-taking with an adult, which is essential for social interaction and conversation. If you are worried about the mess when he throws things, then you can take practical steps like placing a splash-mat under his highchair or sitting him in a small chair at ground level. Alternatively you could accept that he will throw things and only give him things that you are happy for him to throw. You may like to play other games with him like throwing some soft balls or beanbags into a waste-paper basket or share with him some cause-and-effect-toys like shape-sorters and pop-up toys.
Dear Sympathetic Sue,
I am worried about my daughter Sarah’s behaviour. She is a lovely little three-year-old who happily plays with her friends, but when she is on her own, she spends hours lining up her teddies or carefully arranging her unicorns in rows, often in a colour order. If I try to touch them, she gets very upset and I’m running out of floor space! I am worried that she might be autistic. Please help!
From Panicking Pamela
Dear Panicking Pamela,
Please do not panic! Although I do not know Sarah, no one has ever been diagnosed as autistic on the basis that they line up their toys alone! She sounds like a sociable little girl who is engaging in a positioning schema. This type of play is very common and is helping Sarah to make sense of the world. Through lining up her toys, she is learning important organisational skills and working out how to order and sequence her unicorns. Her ability to focus for long periods of time is great and will be a huge asset when she begins school. You could talk to Sarah about creating her lines in the space in which you would prefer her to create them, which still enables people to walk past, explaining that you love her lines of toys and are worried that you might step on them. Sarah might want the opportunity to order and line up other toys so perhaps you could introduce some unicorns of different sizes? She might enjoy positioning her toys on an old flattened box to create a magical background scene and you could invite Sarah to introduce a narrative to run alongside her lines of toys, explaining to you why she has placed each toy in that specific place. You will probably find that she has carefully thought this through and has a great brain for planning things, which will prove very useful in years to come!
Dear Sympathetic Sue,
My son, Xavier, enjoys painting but has been coming home from nursery school lately with black pictures. His key person said that he spent ages painting a lovely picture and then covered it all with black paint! Why would he want to cover up his lovely work? Oh, and he’s also been hiding a lot recently, under duvets, blankets and even putting my dressing gown over his head! Please help!
From Confused in Creeton
Dear Confused in Creeton,
Firstly, do not worry about Xavier’s confusing behaviour. He is interested in enveloping, which is a common schema of play. Covering himself or his paintings links with the idea that things can appear and disappear and he is playing with the concept. While hiding, he is exploring and thinking about when he can and can’t be seen – which you can play along with. You might like to offer him some large pieces of material, a clothes horse and some clothes pegs with which he can make a den or offer him wrapping paper to ‘hide’ his toys inside. He will love playing hide and seek with you and may want to cover some toys and play a treasure hunt game to find them. Some children who enjoy enveloping also like to explore this concept when cooking, so making pies, pasties, filling pitta bread or samosas will be a great hit!
We can share information about schemas with parents and carers, offering them practical ideas of how they can support their children’s development at home in ways that link into the schema they are interested in. You may be interested in reading my book “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” which looks at 12 different schemas, what they are, interpreting this behaviour and it also offers ideas of how to further extend the schema. It also considers how occasionally-schematic-play can be misinterpreted as poor behaviour.
Here are some ideas of how to support parents to better understand schemas:
Help them to recognise and identify schemas and play patterns
Talk about behaviours that could be described as schematic
Reassure them that schemas are a common way that many children learn and develop
Explain that children repeatedly behaving in unusual, odd or frustrating ways is how they are learning about the world around them
Display photos of children engaging in specific play relating to schemas, for example, rotation – with pictures of children spinning wheels, playing with balls, drawing circles etc.
Share how repeating actions helps children’s brains to develop
Provide ideas of how to extend children’s play including simple games or activities that they can play together at home
Plan a workshop to share ideas about schematic behaviour
Set up your room with lots of schematic activities and add posters stating what children are learning through this repetitive play
Create a series of little information leaflets, each focusing on one schema at a time.
When it comes to schemas, you may need to be ‘Sympathetic Sue’ for your parents and carers, reassuring them that schemas are a common way in which children investigate and explore the world around them.
About the author
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.
What a child sees, hears and feels on a consistent basis creates a blueprint for how they view themselves and how they respond to the world around them. Over time and repetition, our subconscious mind, which controls 95% of what we do, becomes programmed with beliefs and values that then silently guide us throughout life.
Our subconscious mind is very literal and sees the beliefs it holds as its ‘safe’ zone. It, therefore, obediently keeps in alignment with these beliefs and makes sure that we behave in a way that is in alignment with them too.
If a child is consistently put down, there is a strong chance that they will become programmed with a belief that they are not good enough. They will then likely act in a way that perpetuates this belief and will see the world through a lens that is influenced by it. They become like an energetic jigsaw piece that only fits scenarios and people that validate their inner programming. For example, later in life they may find themselves surrounded by critical people who make them feel ‘not good enough’, or they may find themselves in situations where they feel inadequate and less than.
Likewise, if a child is consistently praised for their efforts and surrounded by acceptance, the contrary is likely to happen and this child is likely to grow into an adult who reacts to the world in a way that reflects a belief that they are good enough. They are more likely to have a ‘can do’ attitude and find themselves in situations where they are respected and valued.
If these two people with opposite beliefs were to walk into a room together, they would probably move in different circles and have a very different view of what was going on. One might see a larger-than-life character and think that that person was full of themselves, yet the other might think that the exact same person was inspirational. It’s not that the person in question behaved differently in front of them both, it’s that each person sees him or her through a different lens that is influenced by the beliefs that they hold deep down inside. This is why we all connect with different people in life and react differently to situations.
As previously stated, the subconscious mind is very literal, so it is important that we take note of the messages that are being given to children through our consistent words and actions. None of us are perfect and we all have bad days. However, how we consistently act is crucial and will help lay the foundation for how a child moves forward in life.
Quite often we don’t even realise that what we think are positive actions, can actually programme children with beliefs that could hold them back. A very simple example is this: If we teach a child that they have to colour within the lines, we are also teaching them that perfection is important. If a child has a belief that they have to be perfect, then their subconscious mind will do everything it can to stop them failing. In order to reach our brilliance and succeed in life we have to step out of our comfort zone and risk failure. A child doesn’t learn to walk straight away. They fall many times before they take that first step. Success is the same. A person will fail many times before they have their breakthrough moment. Therefore it is crucial that children are programmed to see failure as a positive stepping stone to their goals. If they are programmed for perfection, how are they ever going to fulfil their potential?
Granted, the colouring example is extreme. However, I hope you can see what I mean about looking at the literal message that is being programmed into our children’s minds. By simply tweaking the way we say things we can ensure that we are planting the right seeds:
‘I wonder if you can stay in the lines? It takes time to learn how to do that though so don’t worry if you go out of them because it will still look beautiful’. In this sentence we are giving children a goal, explaining that it takes time and practice (so preparing them for failure) and then most importantly we are allowing them to still feel accepted and appreciated when or if they ‘fail’.
We are all doing our best and we all want the children in our care to thrive and succeed. By understanding how the mind works we can ensure that our actions and policies support every unique child to be programmed with positive beliefs and values. This will then lay the foundation for a happy and fulfilled life and give them a blueprint for success.
About the author
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.
In today’s society, where the physical, emotional and digital safeguarding of children is at the forefront of every parent’s mind, it is vital that safeguarding not only starts at home way before they begin school, but that the responsibility also lies with early years childcare providers.
New EYFS software – designed to help settings do just that – is being launched this month. Developed and designed by market leader Parenta, ‘Footsteps 2’ is an online EYFS assessment tracker and learning journal which addresses the issue of digitally safeguarding young children by using facial detection technology when uploading images – not only automatically identifying and tagging children, but more importantly, blurring out the faces of those not tagged within an image. This will enable children within our care system to also benefit from this software as photos can be shared with carers and caseworkers.
Daniel Gooding, Head of Information Solutions at Parenta said; “This new technology is a game changer in the early years education software market. New ‘smart’ tagging and blurring technology means children not tagged in the photo are automatically blurred out. All children can be tagged, but when observations are sent to individual carers, only the relevant faces will show, supporting safeguarding regulations within settings and complying with the new GDPR requirements. This is going to open up a whole new world for practitioners, giving them greater flexibility when recording observations and peace of mind when thinking about safeguarding.”
The new software retains all the features of the original Footsteps, but gives extra flexibility with the children’s EYFS learning journey. Observations, reporting and screen switching are easy to use; and the software can be used on a variety of electronic devices. New features help provide users with a better overview of each child’s development throughout their time at the setting. Observations and comments can be reviewed by all users, making communication between users easy and workload is significantly reduced so that staff in a setting can spend more time with the children and less time staring at a screen!
Road Safety Week takes place on 19th-25th November and is an annual event organised by road safety charity Brake. Brake works to prevent road death and injury, as well as raising funds to support the victims of road crashes.
As part of Road Safety Week, thousands of tots and infants participate in Beep Beep! Day, which will take place on Wednesday 21st November. It’s a great way to educate children about road safety through themed activities, whilst also raising awareness amongst parents and families about how to protect children on Britain’s roads.
Promoting life-saving messages and awareness around road safety for children is vital, especially when you consider the statistics from the latest accident report by the Department for Transport. It found that there were 15,976 child casualties in 2016, of which 38% were pedestrians.
The report stated that, in 2016, 2,033 children were seriously injured in road traffic accidents and 69 died. Notably, over a third of these accidents occurred during the hours of 7 am-9 am or 3 pm-5 pm on a weekday, which coincides with the time children are normally going to or leaving school.
Activities for your setting to take part in
It’s vitally important to help shape children’s understanding of road safety and ingrain this from an early age – these lessons will help to keep tots safe whilst they’re young and also stay with them as they get older.
To take part in Beep Beep! Day, here are some ideas to get you started:
Get colourful! Have your children dress up in some bright clothing to wear for the day, whether it be hats, tops or socks, to emphasise the importance of drivers slowing down to watch out for pedestrians crossing the road.
Make a handprint poster of all the children’s hands to display in your welcome area, so that everyone understands the importance of holding hands with a grown-up whilst near a road. You could make the heading of this poster “Going home? Hold hands!”
Play stop and go games – make mock roads in your playground and use props to signify traffic lights and zebra crossings. Children could take turns to be ‘drivers’ on a ride-on-scooter or bike, supervised by staff. They could also practice crossing pretend roads safely. Your local authority road safety team may be able to lend you some equipment to help with this activity, too.
Teach children a road safety song with new verses for familiar songs such as Wheels on the Bus. For example, swap the lyrics to: “The children and the grown-ups all hold hands, all hold hands, all hold hands”.
Invite a VIP to your setting to talk about road safety – this could be a police community support officer, the fire brigade or a local lollipop lady. Make sure your chosen “VIP” understands the message you are trying to deliver to children such as hold hands with an adult when crossing, stay on pavements and away from dangerous traffic etc.
Play a sound game by recording noises in advance such as those of an ambulance, car or pelican crossing. Let the children listen and guess what they are. Talk to your group about key road safety words such as pavement, kerb, road, car, danger, traffic, stop, look and listen.
Teach children about safe places – make a giant poster of pavements, roads and parks and cut out a selection of pictures from old magazines of people, buggies, dogs and vehicles. Ask children to stick the images in the safest places: people on pavements, vehicles on roads.
Consider raising money for Brake by holding a bake sale! Why not bake yummy traffic light-themed biscuits or cupcakes, with all money raised to be donated to the charity? For a healthier alternative you could offer traffic light fruit during break-time such strawberries, kiwis or mango.
To help your setting’s Beep Beep! Day go off with a bang, Brake is providing organisers with free e-resource packs or, for a fee of £12.50, a bumper pack for 50 children. The bumper pack includes stickers and certificates for children taking part, promotional posters, activity and song cards and even balloons! Find out more from the charity’s website.