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How to Be An Emotion Detector for Infants and Toddlers

Donna wittmer author spotlight blog header

Just like older humans, infants and toddlers have complex emotional worlds. Unlike older humans, infants and toddlers do not yet have the language or vocabulary to express those emotional worlds. Instead they express their emotions through facial expressions, sounds, and body postures. Dr. Donna Wittmer—co-author of Crying and Laughing: The Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers and From Biting to Hugging: Understanding Social Development in Infants and Toddlers—explains how to be an emotion detector for infants and toddlers and help them develop emotional competence, the bedrock for their present and future success. 



Hello, my name is Donna Wittmer. We know each day is both a challenge and a joy to you. It's a joy to experience infants and toddlers nessel into you when they need soothing, or explore a toy with such intensity that their little brows are furrowed with concentration. However with Covid-19 and budget and staffing shortages, I know that each day is a challenge to provide the type of care that you know infants and toddlers need. 

During these times of challenge and joy, we all need resources that boost our energy and inspire us to provide the kind of care that children greatly need to flourish. The two books published by Gryphon House—Crying and Laughing: The Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers, and From Biting to Hugging: The Social Development of Infants and Toddlers—were written to help you create caring and learning experiences for infants, toddlers, and their families.

The books provide realistic strategies that you can use today. These experiences both enrich children's emotional and social development, and also make your work more fun and satisfying. The book, From Crying to Laughing, describes the goal of emotional competence in young children. Emotional competence is the absolute bedrock for young children’s success now and in their future.

The book describes 10 keys to opening the doors to children's emotional competence. I'd like to share with you just one of those tips today. 

Be an emotion detector. 

We have motion detectors. We also need emotion detectors! Double down on detecting or understanding children's facial expressions, their sounds, and their body postures. Use words or sign language to describe children's emotions. Double the number of emotion words you use each day. You can say to a child who looks sad, struggling to reach a toy, “You seem sad. You are trying so hard to reach that.” 

When children learn the words or sign language for happy, sad, angry, hungry, and even disappointed, they are more likely to learn to use these words to express their feelings and needs rather than fall in a heap or in a tantrum. They will be happier when they deeply deeply feel that you care and understand them. 

The book, From Biting to Hugging, gives you many strategies to help young children become pro-social, that is caring and kind. The strategies help you create a prosocial classroom, help children learn to solve conflicts with peers, and help children stop biting and start hugging. 

You may be thinking, “How in the world will I have time to read two books cover to cover?” You do not need to do that with these books. We'd like you to, but you do not need to do that. They are resources for you when you and your team want to prevent biting. You can pick up the book, From Biting to Hugging, and read that chapter. When you want to find strategies for a child who's hitting rather than learning to use words or sign language as a toddler, you can pick up the book, Crying and Laughing. And look for the information to help you with that topic. 

I want to close with an acknowledgement of how important you are in the lives of infants and toddlers. As they grow, they may have no concrete memory of you as their teacher, but the way you make them feel about themselves and others and what you help them learn become a part of who they are.

My coauthor and I hope that these books support you as you make a lasting positive impact on young children. Thank you!

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