Tonight my 3 year old son asked me to read a favourite of his before bedtime – The Last Noo Noo by Jill Murphy. Being that this book was his favourite, I am now in a position to read the book from memory, given the numerous requests for it each night. Despite having read this book to the point of exhaustion I had never considered the way in which I could use it as a teaching tool around emotional literacy.
Emotional literacy is the awareness and understanding of our emotions. When a child is emotionally connected, not only will they be able to explain how they feel, but also know what to be able to do with the emotions they have. This is a particularly difficult skill to master, even for many adults. There is an assumption that children just know how they are feeling and what it’s called. Unless parents consciously teach emotional literacy to their children, children will pick up parts of these skills by osmosis and observation, rather than in more conscious and meaningful ways. And more often than not it is their peers that they imitate rather than adults modelling appropriate skills and strategies.
Many parents are unaware of those teachable moments in the day that serve to shape children’s emotional regulation. The way in which parents use their attention is a powerful tool in consciously teaching children about their emotions and how to regulate them. In reading The Last Noo Noo tonight, I was able to seize on one of these such moments. I was able to point to the illustration of the Monster and say ‘look at his face, he is looking really sad isn’t he?’ And that was it. A simple moment in which I highlighted to my son the look on his favourite characters face and gave it a name. That is what sad looks like. We then carried on with the story and he was not subjected to a barrage of formal teaching in the last few minutes of his day before sleep.
This is such a simple starting point for parents unsure as to how to go about helping their children to develop emotional literacy. Using those moments to point out the faces or behaviour of those around them and giving the underlying emotion a name. As children are exposed to more and more real-life moments of seeing what sad, happy, angry, frustrated, proud and jealous looks like, they will begin to be able to notice it more in themselves and in others. What is key at this point is for the parent to assist their children in identifying how those feelings feel in their own ‘insides’. Again, a simple way to do this is by parents noticing their own child’s feeling and specifically commenting on them as the observer. Almost as if their child were the character in the book and the parent pointing out ‘you are looking very happy’. I was conscious of this just last week when my daughter flew through the door with her first Principal’s certificate. The smile on her face reached from ear to ear and she looked as if she were to burst. After the initial congratulatory exchange, I commented ‘you must be so proud of yourself…..are you proud?’ to which she nodded (too proud to speak). Another teachable moment in which she connected her ‘insides’ to a label within a context that was relevant to her.
The struggle for many parents is in how to approach children when they are unable to manage their negative emotions, such as anger and frustration. There is no different an approach to the ‘noticing’ of the emotion discussed above. But in order for our children to learn how to manage these emotions, or what to do with them, they must be taught what is appropriate. Discussions need to happen with children when they are not consumed with these negative feelings about ways to manage and what to do. For example, ‘when I am mad, I need to go and stomp ten times outside before I can calm my body down’. Children need to know it is ok to be mad, sad, angry or frustrated. These are perfectly normal human reactions to events that occur. What children need are guidelines for what to do when they are feeling these negative emotions. They need to be coached in order to develop self-regulation and management of their behaviour in these moments. It is unrealistic to expect that children will know how to safely be angry, when they have not had anyone to teach them the relevant strategies. And yet, for many children, they are often scolded or punished when they use inappropriate strategies in moments of anger or sadness. By coupling the labelling of the emotion (you look angry) with a coping statement (but you are taking some deep breaths) children begin to understand what is expected of them when feeling these negative emotions.
Children are arriving at school today with an increasing inability to manage themselves and engage in appropriate pro social behaviour. By looking for teachable moments whereby parents can coach children to understand and build emotional literacy, they will be giving children opportunities to learn how to manage themselves and regulate their emotions. Children need the adults around them to model appropriate pro-social behaviour and coping strategies when things get tough. They will not learn these skills from their peers or siblings. Parents need to consciously notice, comment and support children’s emotional literacy. These moments can be brief and sporadic through the day, but they are moments of invaluable learning for our children. It can be as simple as just noticing a little monster and the sad look on his face on the page of a favourite book.