Terrible Twos. Threenagers. Fearsome Fours.  These are years marked by tantrums and meltdowns — palpable reminders that young children haven’t yet learned how to regulate their emotions. But rather than wait for them to outgrow this phase, caregivers can use this window to teach emotional literacy skills that will yield immediate and long-term benefits.

Increasingly, research confirms the efficacy of explicit training in emotional intelligence starting at a very young age. According to multiple studies, preschoolers who participate in social-emotional skills programs exhibit less aggression and anxiety and become better social problem solvers. While these outcomes may make for a more peaceful classroom environment, the benefits outlive preschool: prosocial behavior in early childhood is strongly linked with future academic performance and mental health.  In other words, when children learn how to calm themselves down, use language to express their feelings and treat others with kindness, they are laying the foundation for future success and wellness.

Even without a formal curriculum to draw on, parents and early childhood educators can do a lot to foster young children’s emotional literacy.

What Parents and Teachers Can Do

1. Name emotions

Reflective listening is a hallmark of effective counseling. Therapists listen to patients and then reflect back what they hear as a way to strengthen the patients’ self-understanding. Toddlers and preschoolers have limited expressive language skills, but parents and teachers can “listen” to their behavior – be it yelling, pushing, crying, or withdrawing – reflect it back, and help them put a name to what they are feeling. It might sound like this:

  •      “You are mad! Baby brother ripped your picture and you are MAD.”
  •      “You are sad. Grandma left and you didn’t want her to leave. You feel so, so sad.”
  •      “You are happy! You got a big balloon and you are jumping up and down because you are so happy!”

As children mature, you can use this strategy to introduce nuances that will build their emotional vocabulary: “You sound frustrated. Your tower fell down and you worked hard to make it tall! That’s disappointing.” Or, “You look startled. That thunder was really loud, and it surprised you.”

2. Normalize emotions

Emotions should not be classified as good or bad.  Even so, strong emotions can scare or overwhelm kids, so normalizing their response to stimuli – helping them see that everyone feels mad, sad, or scared sometimes – can comfort them and build their perspective-taking skills.

After the child has calmed down, circle back and briefly summarize what happened, including how the child felt. Then, remind them that everyone – including you – feels this way sometimes. For example, “When grandma left this morning, you felt very sad. You kicked and cried. You wanted grandma to stay and play with you. Everyone feels sad sometimes. I felt sad when grandma left, too. I like talking with her and watching her read books to you. It’s sad when people say goodbye. Do you want call her tomorrow to say hello or draw her a picture?”

Some advanced warning: Don’t be surprised if a child wants to hear the story about “the time I got mad at Target” multiple times. But such repetition has its benefits: with the triggering event safely in the past, you and the child can use it as a reference point when encountering future emotional stimuli.

3. Develop Strategies

At some point, almost everyone learns that throwing a physical tantrum in the middle of the checkout aisle is not a wise choice, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel frustrated when we are running late and stuck in a slow line. We can’t always control how we feel, but we can control how we express our emotions.

Building on Fred Rogers’ legacy, the PBS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood provides memorable musical prompts about how kids can respond to emotional stress – everything from “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four” to “Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then how can I help?” to “You can take a turn, and then I’ll get it back.”

You can help children develop with similar simple, memorable strategies. If a child is struggling with a particular aggressive behavior, help them verbalize both what they can’t do and what they can, such as, “When I’m mad, I can’t hit my brother, but I can stomp my feet or squeeze my ball.” You can also model the connection between mood and healthy eating, exercise, and sleeping: “Sometimes when I’m frustrated, I eat a healthy snack or take a nap to help me feel better.”

4. “Read” pictures

Research indicates that reading fiction promotes empathy. For little ones, picture books offer an additional tool for teaching emotional literacy: illustrations that serve as visual context clues. When a happy, scary, or frustrating event occurs in a story, pause and look at the picture together. “Look at her – how do you think she’s feeling right now?” Examine characters’ facial expressions, how they are standing, and what they are doing. Employ this same technique when you watch media together. A few picture book authors who are particularly skilled at exploring emotion in print and picture are Kevin Henkes, Patricia Polacco and Mo Willems.

5. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism but has been adopted by clinicians and teachers as a way to support mental health and improve emotional self-regulation. A key principle to this practice is calming your body and mind and paying attention to the sensations around you – the sounds, smells, and sights. Practice sitting quietly with your child or students for 60 seconds – and then share what you each saw and heard. Take “listening walks” around the park or neighborhood.  Before bed – or at the end of the school day – share small moments that made you happy.

Ultimately, emotional literacy is as foundational as learning the ABC’s. As psychologist Daniel Goleman reminds us, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

The Benefits of Helping Preschoolers Understand and Discuss Their Emotions 24 September,2015Deborah Farmer Kris

  • Gayle

    Love the concrete, practitioner-informed, research-based examples! So many tips here to learn from and try out! Thanks Deborah!

  • lab4sf

    Reading on the study mentioned in the article regarding prosocial behavior and success in academic performance by Caprara et al. (2000), shows a strong positive correlation between the two. Although I do not doubt the potential benefits of developing a child’s emotional literacy early on, I think the long lasting impacts should also be explored, as the same study noted that early academic achievement wasn’t linked to later academic achievement after controlling for effects of early prosocialness. However, this could just mean that it is necessary to continue this development of emotional literacy further into the lifespan in order for the long lasting impact implied in the article to be in effect.

    The examples provided provides a brief, but supported list of ways to encourage a child to explore his or her own emotions, but in order to effectively foster emotional literacy, perhaps a more formal curriculum may be more effective. The article already linked one study exploring the effects of three different classroom-based approaches to developing children’s social emotional learning – the “Impact Findings from the Head Start CARES Demonstration,” where the emphasis was placed on a teacher training specifically for preschool students, so although this list may be a good place to start, ultimately for more longer lasting and effective results, a combination of more formal interventions might be best.

    Jennings and Greenberg (2009) proposed a model highlighting the importance of teachers’ social and emotional competence when trying to foster a prosocial classroom. The prosocial classroom model establishes this teacher social and emotional competence and well-being as a framework that can be examined in relation to student classroom outcomes. So while I think there’s many things educators can do to encourage a young child’s emotional literacy, at the same time, developing this literacy in the teacher is very important as well to avoid teacher burnout that results from poor classroom management, which can result from poor teacher social and emotional competence.

    I would encourage parents and teachers to look at this for a place to get an initial understanding of where to start, but to look further into a more systematic implementation in schools and ways to develop their own social and emotional competency as well.

  • Mother of four

    I love this article, I appreciate the examples you used and how important it is for our kids to understand our emotions, I think I’ll use some of this even with my teenager as well as my toddler. It is almost like we have reverted to the temper tantrum stage, but a good way to handle it is to help them to understand their emotions and how appropriately they can express themselves.

  • Paul

    It appears to be about emotional intelligence but it is actually about willful intelligence as the child is learning to become wise in his actions. The writer is correct in learning to listen to one’s child as they explore why they reacted, discuss it with others, look for reasonable solution and assess how wisely they acted in response to it. Now if only we could get teachers to listen at times to their students. We would vastly increase the wise behavior of our students – the subject of my international talks.

    • Elizabeth Searles

      If you’re ever in Romania, we at NOROC would love to have you come and talk in this vein. NOROC (“New Opportunities for Romanian Orphaned Children” trains frontline volunteers and staff who work in state institutions: “Grannies” for the youngest, “Friends” who are small family group leaders, and others who provide personalized relationship and support to institutionalized children of trauma and the youth and adults they become. We’re just beginning to talk about Emotional Security, Conscious Discipline and techniques that our (otherwise quite untutored) Grannies can begin to use consistently. First challenge: Get the staff and volunteers conscious and disciplined . . . 😉
      Liz in Tulcea, Romania

      • Brenda Guerra

        Elizabeth Searles I worked for 15 years in the public school and would like to visit with you, please contact me at trythis_brendaguerra@yahoo.com. I just visited the NOROC website and believe I can be of assistance with some techniques and positive interventions strategies that can provide support training to “Grannies” and other staff.
        Brenda Guerra Behavior Interventionist

  • Laurie Pinkney

    I love this article and resonate with these principles throughout! I did feel compelled to mention the
    suggestions for #3 may ultimately cause a learner to behave emotionally repressed around certain huge feelings which may inadvertently teach active repression of uncomfortable feelings and preemptively withhold expression of certain blocks of specific emotions from anyone.

    • Abby Rose

      I agree with you here, Laurie Pinkney. I think that “control” and “repress” may often go hand in hand, and when words like “control yourself” are used, it is implicitly taught to the child that they mustn’t show how they feel in that moment. The emotions they express then when they are told to control their feelings could thus be misinterpreted as “bad” emotions, which may lead to issues with self expression in other scenarios or later in life.

      Additionally, this tactic only works when operating under the assumption that the child is able to identify how they feel and has been taught some methods of self reflection. Depending on ability, upbringing, and context, a child may not be able to articulate how they are feeling in order to work on “controlling” said emotion.

      • Laurie Pinkney

        YES! Precisely Put!!
        Add to that school atmosphere a home that reflects the same ideals about not only withholding ‘negative’ feelings and emotions, but decree that one in not allowed to HAVE those emotions, at the risk of losing familial acceptance and love…
        It is repairable however, tho’ unnecessary and terribly damaging in any context.

  • S3r3nity

    I’m surprised that naming your own emotions in words kids understand isn’t on the short list.

  • Lauren Haas

    I’ve always been curious about gender differences in how we teach small children to name emotions. Adults seem more inclined to describe a little boy as being “angry” or “mad” when they might tell a little girl in the same situation that she is “upset” or “disappointed” or “sad.” I hope parents and people who work with young children can be aware of not passing on limited ideas of the emotions we “allow” for each gender.

    • claire

      yes yes I agree with this sence of gener-typing but also or over simplying childs emotions or boxing them into word labels…..yes for some being mad is away of venting fustration…. or making children self concious about their behaviour i think its better to show children how to deal with the rough and toubles of life and the children Ive minded Id ask them ‘why’ why are they crying, mad, sad…. so they self reflect on their behaviour, emotions triggered and whats happened the events around then also to think what ever caused them to feel this way what was it thats created this feeling whats the root/s or whats effected them the most (you can be surprised it can a) be not what you would assume b) show deeper feelings or bring up other problems that realy triggered the feeling (e.g one child wouldnt share his book with another so we can think child not sharing must tell to share… asked child why not sharing answer (once got past crying….) the book was from his mother who he rarely sees so very precious to him and b the other child doesnt place emotional connections to objects and doesnt see books in the same way (uses them as toys….not something to just read) i asked the boy to explain to the other child why he wasnt sharing the book and for the other child to explain how he sees books in the end both boys read from the book and the other boy played with it but gently so as not to damage it….. trust and understanding i also asked the boy with the book to show what he would share and wouldnt (other gifts he saw as precious) and the other boy to understand he cant ‘rough’ play with everything as for some not everything can be turned into anything else (books sometimes cant be frisbees…) i didnt want to limit the other boys sence of play either but for both to understand eachother see things in different ways ‘rough’ play with books not bad but boy to learn to sometimes ‘gentle’ rough play…… cant oversimply and just box emotions and attach an emotion to an action also children will use different actions to express different emotions (not always odvious!)

  • Andrea

    If you loved this article you should research Conscious Discipline. As a preschool teacher I use it everyday. It is all about validating a child’s emotion and equipping them with stratigies to overcome those moments of overwhelming emotions such as frustration and anger.

  • Christine Lowry

    The premise is at the core of the Montessori Early Childhood “Peace curriculum.” Rather than a specific time of day, or specific lessons, the good Montessori teacher incorporates these principles and suggestions at every opportunity. Helping children learn to manage their own feelings and how to solve problems and conflicts with others, along with lessons in how to get along in a social community (referred to as Grace and Courtesy) is the foundation of the Montessori education and one of the primary reasons that a Montessori classroom is such a calm, peaceful and happy place to be.

    • Martha McGlinchy Teien

      Beautifully written. Thank you, Christine!

  • LB

    It is a gift to learn self awareness and empathy at an early age. This learning models and those that are similar in fostering emotional intelligence provide a powerful impact in socialization. It will hopefully offset what damaging lessons are learned in the home.

  • Leanne Dyck

    Thank you for writing this helpful article, Deborah. As a once Early Childhood Educator (for fourteen years), I’d like to underline the importance of validating emotions and at looking at the cause. The pre-school years are especially difficult because of the challenges they present. The child is no longer a baby but the demands of being a pre-schooler may, at times, be too great.

  • Martha McGlinchy Teien

    I have been a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year olds for almost 20 years. When new parents come in to observe our classrooms they frequently ask ‘how do you create such a peaceful place?’ The answer lies in Maria Montessori’s understanding that children deserve respect and understanding. Montessori teachers are trained to weave all of the suggestions made in this article into every day of school.

  • Daniel Eugene Pugh-Barnett

    I find Daniel Tiger’s musical prompts helpful in considering my response to our toddler. On a number of occasions I’ve song the words to relieve my own frustration at an outburst.

  • Bonnie Bricker

    I love your simple examples. I have been teaching inclusive preschool for a very long time, and it rings true! Will be happy to post on my Zoom Out Parenting page!

  • Patricia Spino-Freudenthal

    As someone not in the field of teaching… I had lunch at a restaurant with my daughter and 3 yr. old granddaughter. I was enjoying my meal so much, and said, “This is so delicious! I am getting full, but I just can’t stop eating because it tastes so good!” My granddaughter turned to me and said, “So, you are having some conflicting feelings.”

    • Wow! And she is 3 year old! Such enviable vocabulary, I love it! 🙂

    • kathy irons

      THAT made me smile, Patricia; thanks for sharing!!:D

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  • Nancy Schimmel

    I agree mostly, but I have trouble with the wording. “You are sad. Grandma left and you didn’t want her to leave. You feel so, so sad.” I hate it now when somebody tells me how I feel, and I think I would have hated it then. It would be easy enough to say, “You sound sad. Grandma left and you didn’t want her to leave. I think you feel so, so sad.”

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  • Diane

    Meal time offers an opportunity to engage in conversations with and listen to the children. One can learn through this relaxed, enjoyable time when the children seem to understand that it’s okay to laugh, share adventures as well as discuss their concerns. These special small group occasions build trust,respect for others, offers turn taking when communicating and inclusion. Meal time or snack time affords moments for the educator to observe the interaction of the children, listen to their conversations, understand the diversity in the classroom and note any changes in individual children. Look, listen, learn, it is an ongoing adventure for children and educators.

  • Miranda Bucky

    By normalizing emotions, teachers can help children to become better able to handle emotions that, if they were classified as “bad,” would end up being suppressed instead of dealt with in a constructive way. Teaching a child to say, as the author of this article writes, “When I’m mad, I can’t hit my brother, but I can stomp my feet or squeeze my ball,” requires that they be aware of emotions as they arise in order to be able to express them constructively. This article reminded me of a blog called “Mindful Schools,” which discusses mindfulness practices and how they can be incorporated into the classroom. There is an interesting sample lesson plan (found here: http://www.mindfulschools.org/resources/sample-lesson/) for introducing elementary school students to practicing mindfulness in the classroom by having them bring their attention to their bodies, their breath, and the sounds of the room around them. This physiological self-awareness can equip students to become more aware of emotions, and better able to express and cope with them. Mindful Schools also offers training to teachers, both in developing a personal mindfulness practice and also in bringing that to teaching. Incorporating mindfulness practices into the classroom goes hand in hand with teaching students how to understand and discuss emotions.

  • Leah Kalish

    agree that Conscious Discipline has great tools for developing “emotional competence”. So does move with me yoga adventures – educator created yoga story videos that are super fun exercise and imbedded in the action – the characters use “adventure skills” for managing emotions, overcoming obstacles and making smart choices – so kids learn these mind-body techniques in a story format in an embodied way.

  • Seow Lim

    Yes, we believe that. We are group of mostly parents wanting to help our kids with Emotional Intelligence, that;s why we have a group called Emotional Intelligence for Kids. http://tinyurl.com/EQforKids. Join us.

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  • Fran Allison

    Well, understanding the emotions of preschoolers and helping them understand their emotions are two major things that a preschool should implement. As a child trainer, I have visited so many school, but I believe a very few of them have actually implement this such as Williamsburg Northside Preschool.

  • Rebecca Johnson

    The second tip stuck out to me in that I can see how having kids see emotions of others could help them feel normal about theirs. When they are young like that, it could be a good idea to find a place that could help them control their emotional troubles. Doing research on a facility could help a couple decide if it is good for their kids. http://www.alphababies.com.au/about-us

  • Ava Parnass

    Great article! I love when an article explains emotional intelligence well! Very well done again ! ????I agree We teach our kids to read and write so let’s also teach them how they feel ! And yes It’s important to remember that kids are not born knowing how they feel! As I see it there are two issues, one is having parents begin to understand that teaching feelings is important. Secondly even if they do begin to understand that feelings are important to teach, we can’t expect them to do it correctly. Since we can’t teach what we haven’t learned and we wouldn’t expect most parents to teach math correctly so why would we expect them to teach feelings correctly? Which is why I say it’s always important to consult a therapist regularly to help you learn how to teach your kids and yourself how you feel and what to say. And when I help parents learn to teach feelings , as you do in the article I always say start with the simple yet difficult concept of EMPATHY. Empathy means that when your kids are having hard feelings you just say “I’m sorry that happened or I’m sorry you’re disappointed or that’s a hard feeling ….nothing else.

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Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator. She spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibilityresearching, writing, and consulting with schools. She is the mother of two young children. You can follower her on Twitter @dfkris.

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