Does Your Child Have the Emotional Vocabulary for School Success?

By Goldie Millar, Ph.D., and Lisa Berger, Ph.D., coauthors of F Is for Feelings

Goldie MillarWith school underway, it’s a good time to check in with your kids to make sure they have what they need to succeed this year.

Pencils? Check.
Notebooks? Check.
Backpack? Check.
Strategies for preventing meltdowns and outbursts?
Ways to cope with the emotional ups and downs school brings?
Ways to stand up to bullying?

Lisa BergerChances are, you might need to check off a few more items. Being ready for school involves more than backpacks filled with the right supplies. All children need help preparing for the social-emotional experiences school inevitably brings. Setting children up for success means giving them the tools to express themselves clearly and share what they need. Success includes dealing with peers, solving problems, and most importantly, advocating for themselves when things go wrong.

It’s never too early—or too late—to help your child develop these lifelong skills.

What Am I Feeling?
All children need support and encouragement to identify what they are feeling. Caring adults can help children develop their “feelings vocabulary.” For young children, introducing the feeling words mad, sad, scared, and happy can be a place to start. (c) Jodielee | Dreamstime.comAnchoring the feeling words in everyday experiences can help a child begin to understand what is happening for them emotionally. For example, kids who cry when faced with separation from their parent can be gently helped to understand that they are likely feeling scared, and that scared feelings are okay. As children get older, increasing their emotional vocabulary to include a wider range of human emotions will give them more ways to express their internal world, reduce frustration, and take active steps toward meeting their own emotional needs.

Friend or Foe?
As parents, we know our children are exposed to all kinds of people, friends and foes alike. Kids who have an emotional vocabulary to draw from when discussing their experiences will more easily navigate the peer world and reach out to supportive connections when needed. Kids who feel connected to peer supports will consequently find school a more comfortable place.

On the other end of the spectrum, bullying behavior is everywhere, and our children will encounter it no matter how hard we try to protect them. Children who are taught feeling words are better able to identify their emotional experiences and recognize how others are feeling. (c) Zurijeta Dreamstime.comThis skill builds empathy and decreases the likelihood that a child will act out frustration and anger in bullying ways. And the ability to articulate their internal world will increase the likelihood that kids will speak up and seek support from caring adults when they are bullied. Overall, children who communicate their emotional needs and experiences to the adults in their lives are more likely to feel they can effectively navigate the social world.

What Is the Solution?
Children encounter all kinds of problems every day. Some are fairly benign, like “What clothes should I wear?” More challenging problems may be related to peer relationships: “Why was I not invited to the birthday party?” They may also stem from academic issues: “Reading is hard and I don’t want to do it.” Problem solving is a life skill that grows and remains important throughout our lives. We can help children develop their problem-solving ability by listening to them express what is happening in their lives without judging, blaming, or rushing to the rescue. In this way, we validate their feelings and help them identify problems. It is then possible to help break down the problem into smaller, more manageable parts. This way we support kids as they learn ways to solve or cope with their problems in order to move through them.

Speaking Up
Children are well-positioned for success when they have practice in identifying, naming, and expressing their feelings, as well as in using that emotional vocabulary in peer relationships to solve problems. As caring adults, we cannot be in the classroom, schoolyard, or playground every moment (although we might want to be). Children need to be able to advocate for themselves and express what they need. Self-advocacy skills are related to academic success, the quality of peer relationships, and overall life satisfaction. Teaching kids to talk about their feelings and advocate for themselves is a great way to help kids be ready for school.

Goldie Millar, Ph.D., is a clinical and school psychologist. F is for FeelingsSince earning her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Toronto in 2003, Goldie has worked with children in hospital, forensic, community, and educational settings.

Lisa Berger, Ph.D., is a clinical, counseling, and rehabilitation psychologist who works with adolescents and adults in a private practice. In 2003, Dr. Berger received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Toronto. She has practiced in hospitals, post-secondary institutions, and community-based settings. Lisa’s professional interests include emotional health and wellness, psychological trauma, and emotion-based therapy.

Drs. Millar and Berger are the coauthors of F Is for Feelings. They both live near Toronto.

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