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Helping Every Child Unpack Their Backpack: Part 1 Identifying Emotions

Welcome to our 4-part series focused on helping young children unpack those heavy backpacks toppling over with big and little emotions, and how we can help ourselves in the process.

In this first part, you will learn why it is important to help kids identify emotions, and recognize the physiological signs related to emotions, and some techniques and language ECSEL educators use in their classroom to do this.

Read all 4 of the Helping Every Child Unpack Their Backpack Series:

Imagine you are a young child. You carry the weight of your little world with you on your shoulders each and every day like a backpack: I don’t like school...Why don’t my friends want to play with me?... Maybe if I hold onto mommy she will stay at school with me... I feel like running around the room and making my friends laugh...I just want to go home and play, but mommy says I need to learn and pay attention... I don’t like having to listen or learn new things.

Sometimes children’s “backpacks” are weighed down to the floor with all of these things before even walking through the door of our classroom. It’s our job to step back and find the meaning behind these things, and then step in to help children with what is weighing them down.

As educators of young children who are also weighed down with our own big feelings, how do we help them to unpack all of this from their backpacks so they can focus, learn, and have fun? How do we support children’s learning and development, while also making sure they have the time and energy to just be kids?

This has been such an overwhelming time for us all. According to research by Dr. Walter Gilliam, “56% of pre-K teachers report children being more aggressive, hyperactive, or oppositional than they used to be, and 55% report children shyer, withdrawn, or anxious.” Before we can even begin to address the learning, we need to first be able to focus on children’s emotional needs.

We need to meet children where they are cognitively, emotionally, and socially before sitting them down for traditional learning tasks. Imagine trying to complete a math activity when all you can think about is how you’re at school instead of at home, and all you feel is sadness and anxiety — it doesn’t work.

Children simply do not have the mental or emotional space to learn when their backpacks are already filled with feelings that they do not have the skills to manage.

As educators, we can start helping children slowly lessen the weight of their backpacks with tools of emotional intelligence.

Let’s start unpacking! 

What am I feeling? 

Before we can think about supporting children in understanding, expressing, and managing their emotions, we need to first help children learn to recognize and identify what they are feeling.

Help kids identify emotions

Recognizing and identifying emotions, especially emotions brought on by stress and anxiety, is often difficult for young children, which is understandable — it can be difficult for adults, too!

The emotions can be so overwhelming that they can take over before they even realize what it is they are feeling. Think about a time when you have felt anxious or overwhelmed — your heart might start to race, you may feel hot, your palms might start to sweat, and maybe you even have the sudden urge to burst into tears. If you can't recognize the physiological signs and identify the associated feelings, how can you manage them?

angry child

Now, let’s meet Annie - a child in our Pre-K class. Annie would often have difficulty recognizing and labeling her emotions when they arose in the heat of the moment. Not knowing what you are feeling can make it difficult to take any steps towards feeling better, and for Annie, this usually meant a meltdown — she would cry, scream, turn her body away from us, and refuse to discuss what she was feeling.

In order to best support Annie and our entire class, while also preventing these unexpected, heightened emotions from sending our day off the rails, we would start by talking about emotions ourselves.

Describe the Physiological Signs of Emotions During the Heat of the Moment

Talking to Annie about what was happening physically in the heat of the moment helped her (and others) learn to channel what they are feeling in their bodies into words, and eventually recognize and label those feelings.

For example, when we noticed Annie’s feelings escalating, we would tell her: “I can see that you are crying a lot, and you’re having a hard time taking deep breaths. Is something making you feel sad?”

Use Visual Tools to Help Kids Label Emotions

Boy identifying his emotions using Our Emotions Cards

Using language to label emotions can be especially helpful when paired with a visual tool to reinforce and further validate children’s feelings. In our classroom, using tools like Our Emotions Cards to help Annie find what they are feeling, and learn the associated language to label these feelings with support from their teachers. 

Model Talking About Emotions, So Children Know What to Say

Modeling language around emotions will eventually make it easier for children to do the same.

Whenever you are feeling frustrated, sad, proud, or even happy in the classroom, use language to describe what you are feeling and what your face or body is doing to help you know that is what you are feeling.

Children are emotional detectives, and they pay close attention to the actions and responses of trusted adults like you. As a result, when you recognize and identify your own emotions clearly, you are taking a big step toward guiding children to do the same. By appropriately modeling how to label our own emotions, Annie and the other children in our class learned the language to apply these same skills to their own feelings while feeling safe and comfortable expressing their emotions.

Throughout each day, we would say, “That makes me feel ___ because...” Before we knew it, Annie was using this very same language in her day-to-day life.

This also helped all of the children in our class learn that teachers and adults have feelings too, that all feelings are okay, and that the classroom is a safe space for everyone to express their many feelings.

When teachers make feelings a part of everyday conversations and routines in the classroom, children become more able to identify and label their own emotions - and that’s one less item weighing down their backpack.

Read all 4 of the Helping Every Child Unpack Their Backpack Series:

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