Helping Every Child Unpack Their Backpack Filled with Emotions - Part 3: Expressing Emotions

Welcome back to the third of our four-part series focusing on how we can help young children in the process of unpacking their backpacks that are overflowing with emotions, both big and small.

Last time, you followed along with us as we supported Annie on her journey towards identifying and understanding her big feelings in order to lighten the weight of the emotional backpack that she carries with her each and every day. Let’s keep unpacking.

How do I express myself and let people know how I’m feeling?

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with what you are feeling that you couldn’t find the words to express what you were experiencing? Imagine not having the foundation of recognizing and understanding your feelings — it can make communicating your emotions and needs that much more challenging. As we have said before and are reminded of often, children are emotional detectives; they pick up and absorb the responses, actions, and reactions of those around them, especially the key adults in their world. That’s how they learn! So, when we as educators model appropriate language around emotions by sharing what we are feeling, verbalize observations about what others might be feeling, identify different emotions out loud or through visuals, and practice safe, alternative options for when we can’t find the words, we are in turn providing the children in our care with strategies for them to constructively express their own feelings. 

Let’s return once more to our friend, Annie. In our previous piece, we highlighted how Annie would let us know her feelings of sadness by taking the space she needed in our classroom cozy corner and nonverbally show us her feelings on Our Emotions(tm) Board. These behaviors cued us into what Annie might be feeling, and our goal was to support Annie in putting the pieces together so she could verbalize and truly understand not only what her feelings are, but what causes them. We supported Annie in making strides towards identifying and understanding her feelings, but her backpack was still being weighed down by another challenge on an almost daily basis.

Like many children (and even adults), Annie would often have difficulty expressing her BIG feelings. When her sad, angry, frustrated, or worried feelings became too heightened, she would resort to melting down: she would cry, scream, throw things, turn her body away from us, and refuse to talk about her feelings or what caused them. Finding those words can be challenging for anyone in the heat of an emotional moment, but by consistently using begin to ECSEL language, tools, and techniques, we were able to support Annie and the other children in our class (who were picking up on Annie’s emotional reaction themselves) in being better able to appropriately express their feelings by channeling their actions into words. 

It is important to note here that not everyone is able to communicate verbally, and supporting anyone in finding alternative or nonverbal ways to communicate their emotions and needs is just as significant. In fact, incorporating both verbal and nonverbal strategies is a great way to scaffold appropriate expression and communication around emotions for all children. For Annie, her ability to identify her feelings on Our Emotions Board was a huge step towards appropriate expression, and we met her at her level with verbal support to validate her feelings and appropriate actions both in and out of the heat of the moment:

  • “I can see you’re feeling angry. That would make me feel angry, too. But hitting our friends and teachers isn’t safe, and doesn’t let us know what is making you feel so angry. If you do have big, angry feelings and you feel like you need to hit, you can come over here and hit a pillow instead. Then when you’re ready, we can use our words together and talk about what you are feeling and what is making you feel that way.”
  • “Wow, Annie! You did that all by yourself! I have a big smile on my face because I am feeling so proud of you. You also have a big smile on your face. Are you feeling proud, too?”
  • “It makes me feel so frustrated when you do not listen to my words. I’m going to move my picture over to ‘frustrated’ on Our Emotions Board. When your listening ears aren’t on, I feel like I have to use a loud voice, and I don’t want to do that. Can we try again?”
  • “I see that you came over to Our Emotions Board and moved your picture from ‘sad’ over to ‘happy’! Did something happen to change your feelings?”

A critical step in supporting children such as Annie in appropriately expressing their big emotions is by modeling how we do so ourselves. Rather than shying away from expressing our own emotions, we as educators need to feel empowered to discuss our emotions appropriately with the children in our care. Whenever we were feeling sad, frustrated, or disappointed about things that were happening in our classroom, we would let Annie and others know — not by yelling, but by calmly saying, “I’m feeling frustrated because you aren’t hearing my words. What can we do to change that?” By providing modeling and guidance for Annie and the rest of our class, they were consistently introduced and exposed to the appropriate expression of emotions, both cozy and prickly. Instead of a heightened response such as screaming while angry, melting down when sad, or running around the room while excited, we would give Annie and others tangible strategies for how to better express these feelings. 

It is so important to remember that as Dr. Housman always says "when you close the door to an inappropriate behavior, you must always open the door to an appropriate one." For example, one afternoon Annie became angry because a friend took the toy she was playing with, and her instinct when filled with these big, angry feelings was to hit. We calmly intervened: “I can see you are feeling so angry. Instead of hitting your friend, which will really hurt their body, let’s take a deep breath and try using our words instead.” We then modeled appropriate options out of the heat of the moment for Annie to use her words to express her emotions, such as, “I was using that toy. It made me feel angry when you took it.” Using appropriate language to express emotions allowed us to move towards finding a solution for Annie to feel better and help her know what to do differently next time.

When children are able to practice expressing their emotions appropriately with guidance from trusted adults, it can make all the difference when it comes to finally being able to manage them. And once again, we are able to help them unpack one more thing from their backpack, which is feeling lighter already! 

Up next… unpacking how to manage those big emotions and feelings.

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