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Helping Kids Understand and Express Their Feelings

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Crying, laughing, shouting—you name it! Preschoolers certainly wear their emotions for all to see. Teaching emotional intelligence is especially important during the highly developmental ages of 3 and 4 years. Many parents ask how to help your child express their feelings appropriately. You can find activities to help children express their feelings in a positive and productive way in the powerful book from veteran teacher Dr. Susan A. Miller: Emotional Development of Three- and Four-Year-Olds. Emotional learning is a key element in social emotional learning activities that we teach in early childhood settings.

The first step is understanding the emotional reactions of preschoolers. Then, you may employ useful strategies for encouraging developmentally appropriate behaviors among 3 and 4 year olds.

Although preschoolers are well aware that everyone has feelings, it is important for children to know that some reactions to feelings may not be all right. Unkind responses may hurt others' feelings. Perception is an essential part of empathy.

From Emotional Development of Three- and Four-Year-Olds, here are some tips for what you, the teacher or caregiver, can do:

What You Can Do

  • Involve children in "Oh, no! What can we do?" stories. Make up short stories for the children to finish, asking them to tell how they might help the character. For example: "Rosa is squeezing glue on her collage paper, then the glue bottle top comes off and glue goes all over. Rosa starts crying. Oh, no! What can we do?"
  • Mentor caring behavior. Help young children become aware of when others need assistance. You might ask, "Why do you think Maggie is frowning? How can you help her?" After children are aware of the situation, analyze and try solutions with them.
  • Display posters that promote a climate of kindness. Take photos of children in the classroom involved in kind acts--giving a friend a doll to hold or helping another put their coat on. Blow up the pictures and prominently display them as an inspiration to be kind.
  • Develop a kindness list. Brainstorm and list ways to make your classroom environment kinder. When a kind act is performed, check off the item and write down the names of the empathetic children and their fortunate recipients. Add happy-face stickers!
  • Participate in an altruistic project. Encourage the children to think how they might bring happiness into others' lives. For example, provide art supplies for the children to decorate tray favors for a hospital or nursing home to cheer up patients during holiday time.

Other Aspects to Consider

  • Recognize that saying sorry is an ineffective strategy. You need to focus on a young child's personal feelings first as a jumping-off place for relating to others' feelings. If a child is forced to say "I'm sorry" to another child but doesn't understand why, the request may backfire. The insincerity of this coerced request may send a message to a preschooler that his feelings don't really matter at all.
  • Be aware of don'ts. To foster a kind environment, put a positive spin on your requests. If you find yourself saying "Don't hit" to the preschoolers, change your negative wording to let the children know what you want them to do instead. For instance, you might say, "Use your words. Tell Jared what you want. Say, 'I want the ball now!'"
  • Involve young children in the affective process. Instead of dictating solutions that you think are best, assist preschoolers in exploring how others are feeling and what they could do to make them feel better. Ask, "Why do you think Henry looks angry?" This helps preschoolers learn to be empathetic and practice responding with kindness.

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