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Monday, Nov. 5, 2018

Understanding Emotions

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Helping children experience the world around them

As children grow, they learn how to navigate the changing world around them. New situations, new problems and new social interactions force them to find the skills necessary for these experiences. A critical part of these developmental stages is the ability to recognize their emotions, regulate and manage them, and identify the emotions of others to have meaningful relationships, compassion and healthy interpersonal skills. This ability is known as emotional intelligence (EI). While the concept has been part of an increasing conversation, and even a theme of major motion pictures like Pixar’s 2015 animated movie “Inside Out,” the understanding of emotional intelligence has long been known.

The notion that understanding one’s own emotional experience and regulating it healthily and adaptively serves a larger purpose than merely reducing times of distress. For children, experiencing emotions quickly leads to an immediate emotional reaction – that instant behavioral reaction is their way of communicating and navigating through problem-solving that emotion. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, research shows high EI is a strong predictor for higher quality of life, health and success in academics and relationships. These skills clearly have benefit as children grow into adults, as they are more equipped to nurture, regulate and handle circumstances of great emotional distress. Additionally, these skills give the opportunity for reflection, which can help to promote critical thinking, re-assessing personal values and meaning, and fostering moments of personal growth.

To encourage strong emotional intelligence in children, it’s essential they have a guide. This can be their parent or teacher – anyone who has a relationship with them and can model, teach and process different emotional experiences. As it is widely known, children learn how to behave and understand the world by observing people around them. It’s important for families and teachers (and anyone in between) to have open, honest conversations about emotions and express them in healthy ways so that it becomes normalized and learned. Within this act, children can also learn the skills for empathy and the ability to feel with other people by which they are accessing their own similar emotional experiences. In these conversations, the first and most basic step is being able to identify and name the emotion. Sadness, joy, anger, disappointment, frustration, nervous, excited – names and associations are what children will be able to call on when identifying emotions as they happen.

As adults, talking about how you feel, experience, process and express your own emotions is invaluable to children. Validating that everyone has emotions and that having them is always OK. Help connect the dots for them – sharing that perhaps you felt sadness overhearing a friend was ill, or disappointment that an event you were looking forward to was canceled, or happiness because he/she made a new friend at school. Teach them that emotions serve a function and purpose. For instance, anger can serve as a protecting emotion, and it can act as the tip of an iceberg, which is all people can see, but perhaps below is a more vulnerable emotion. Anger can send our minds and bodies into hyperdrive – even fight or flight. It can help to motivate and energize us. However, be sure to explain and process fully that there can be consequences for reacting negatively out of anger as well. It’s necessary that children (and adults) find productive, healthy and adaptive ways to express their anger and find ways in which to self-soothe.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence came up with a program for schools to implement as part of their standard curriculum. RULER stands for recognizing emotions in self and others, understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling emotions accurately, expressing emotions appropriately, and regulating emotions effectively. The program, which includes staff training, classroom instruction and family engagement, has proven that EI can decrease the rates of depression and anxiety, improve social skills and school conditions (particularly those identified with high needs and limited financial resources), improvements for student leadership skills and a less likelihood of bullying by students who participated in RULER programs.

Building emotional intelligence in children has clear and proven benefits for developing more successful, stable and resilient people. In teaching or coaching children to understand their emotional experiences, there is a need for patience, validation and empathy on the part of the adult. Resources are aplenty for parents, teachers or others looking for models or instructions on how to help foster EI for their youth.

For more information on the RULER model for school programs, visit www.ei.yale.edu/ruler.

– Katie Ho


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