What is Emotional Literacy?
Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand, and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner. Children who have a strong foundation in emotional literacy tolerate frustration better, get into fewer fights, and engage in less self-destructive behavior than children who do not have a strong foundation. These children are also healthier, less lonely, less impulsive, more focused, and they have greater academic achievement. The focus of this What Works Brief is on building an emotional vocabulary. The development of a feeling word vocabulary is considered to be of critical importance in a child’s emotional development because it makes it possible for children to better understand their emotional experiences. The ability to name a feeling allows children to discuss and reflect with others about their personal experience of the world. The larger a child’s emotional vocabulary, the finer discriminations they can make between feelings and the better they can communicate with others about their feelings.
Children who are able to label their emotions are on their way to becoming emotionally competent. The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill that is not present at birth—it must be learned. And just as there is wide variation in the point at which children start to demonstrate appropriate use of books, begin writing, and recognize letters, some children’s ability to identify, understand, and label their emotions develops at a slower rate than others.
Three variables can underlie a child’s growing ability to label emotions: (1) the child’s temperament and developmental status, (2) parental socialization and environmental support, and (3) the teacher and child care providers’ emphasis on emotional literacy. Indeed, differences in the way adults talk to and teach children about feelings and problem solving are related to children’s abilities to label emotions.
What Can Adults Do?
Adults can play a major role in children’s ability to identify, understand, and express emotions in a healthy way. The following strategies are key in fostering emotional literacy in young children:
Express Your Own Feelings. One way to help children learn to label their emotions is to have healthy emotional expression modeled for them by the adults in their lives. For example, a teacher who knocked over all the glitter can say, “Oh boy, is that frustrating. Oh well, I’d better take a deep breath and figure out how to clean it up.” Or a parent who just got word that she got a promotion at work can say, “Wow! I am so excited about this! I feel proud of myself for working so hard.” Parents, teachers, and child care providers can make a point to talk out loud about their feelings as they experience them throughout the day.
Label Children’s Feelings. As adults provide feeling names for children’s emotional expressions, a child’s feeling vocabulary grows. Throughout the day, adults can attend to children’s emotional moments and label feelings for the children. For example, as a child runs for a swing, another child reaches it and gets on. The first child begins to frown. The teacher approaches her and says, “You look a little disappointed about that swing.” Or a boy’s grandmother surprises him by picking him up at childcare. The boy screams, “Grandma!” and runs up to hug her. The child care provider says, “Oh boy, you look so happy and surprised that your grandma is here!” As children’s feeling vocabulary develops, their ability to correctly identify feelings in themselves and others also progresses.
Play Games, Sing Songs, and Read Stories with New Feeling Words. Adults can enhance children’s feeling vocabularies by introducing games, songs, and storybooks featuring new feeling words. Teachers and other caregivers can adapt songs such as “If you’re happy and you know it” with verses such as “If you’re frustrated and you know it, take a breath”; “If you’re disappointed and you know it, tell a friend”; or “If you’re proud and you know it, say ‘I did it!’” The following are some examples of games young children can play.
Adults can cut out pictures that represent various feeling faces and place them in a container that is passed around the circle as music plays. When the music stops, the child holding the container can select a picture designating an emotion and identify it, show how they look when they feel that way, or describe a time when he or she felt that way. To extend this fun activity , give the children handheld mirrors that they can use to look at their own feeling faces.
Children can look through magazines to find various feeling faces. They can cut them out and make a feeling face collage. Adults can help the children label the different feeling faces.
Children and adults can play “feeling face charades” by freezing a certain emotional expression and then letting others guess what the feeling is. To extend this activity, ask the children to think of a time that they felt that way.
In the mornings, have children “check in” by selecting a feeling face that best represents their morning mood. At the end of the day, have children select again, and then talk about why their feeling changed or stayed the same.
Finally, the teacher can put feeling face pictures around the room. Children can be given child-size magnifying glasses and told to walk around looking for different feeling faces. When they find one, they can label it and tell about a time they felt that way. With a little creativity, teachers and other caregivers can play, adapt, or develop new games, songs, and stories to teach feeling words.
If the schools focused on emotional literacy they would see an increase in the literacy rates, and a decrease in violence and dropout rates. It is ironic to see an education system and society cutting Physical Education programs and sending out comments browbeating the children as having the highest obesity rates in history. What do you expect to happen when you do this to children? It is not conducive to their developmental growth. Physical Education should be five times a week for the minimum of one hour a day. This is why Cricket Casey has combined emotional literacy with literature and music to bring the whole brain to work in harmony. When you have a half-brained curriculum, you get half-brained results which include low self-esteem, unstable, disinterested, angry children robbed of their body-mind fitness.
Physical health should be a number one course from K through 12. It is known that music stimulates memory so it should never be removed from a curriculum. As a matter of fact music should be incorporated into every class. Integrated course study is the way to develop a brain to its full potential. Integration not segregation. Another challenge we face education is the academic segregation caused by the testing and shifting out the so-called gifted resulting in early labels of success and failure that oppress those labeled as failures, Too many are depressed by this and sadly, live up to the label. We as teachers, parents, therapists and professional need to encourage our educational system to increase the curriculum to have a mandated mind-body fitness activities.