Plus, 3 ways to use picture books to build social-emotional literacy
October is Mental Health Month and today is World Mental Health Day.
As a mum and as a teacher, children’s emotional and mental health is a subject that’s very close to my heart.
For several years, I’ve been investigating the reasons why some children seem to be naturally contented, calm and resilient while others are the opposite: often unhappy or dissatisfied, easily upset and lacking resilience.
Why does this happen and what can we do to help children develop better emotional and mental health?
Good mental health begins with our ability to manage our emotions and in this post I’ll discuss how children learn this important skill and how picture books can be used to build social-emotional literacy.
Emotional development in children
Emotional development in children is a complex process that actually begins in infancy and continues through to adulthood. In fact, from birth, babies are learning about their emotions by the way we interact with them:
- they learn that their feelings matter when they cry and we pick them up and feed or comfort them;
- when a parent says “looks like you might be feeling sad” the baby begins to understand that the uncomfortable feeling inside his body is called sadness;
As they grow, our little ones need to learn some really important things about their feelings.
If all is going well, they learn:
- to be aware of their emotions and how they feel in their bodies;
- that all emotions are normal and ok, even the tricky ones like anger, fear and sadness;
- that emotions, including the tricky ones, are just feelings and will pass;
- that their feelings won’t hurt them and that it’s safe to feel them and to accept them without trying to avoid, fight or change them;
- that emotions provide us with information about our environment and what we need;
- how to name and talk about their feelings;
- what to do with their feelings – how to express them in healthy ways, breathe through them, manage them;
Children who are learning these things are developing emotional literacy.
As you can see, learning to manage their emotions is actually the final skill children learn.
Parents and teachers spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how they can help their children develop the ability to manage their emotions however this skill – often called self-regulation – is actually the last step in a complex process of helping children learn about their emotions.
By now you may be thinking “But isn’t all this pretty obvious? Don’t we all just learn about our feelings and how to manage them naturally?”
Well, yes and no. Some of us do and some of us don’t. It all depends on the environment we grow up in.
In generations past, most people grew up in environments where children were expected to be “seen and not heard” and they often grew into parents who did not understand their own emotions. Because these parents lacked emotional literacy, they were usually not able to help their children learn about their emotions which means that many of us still find it hard to cope with difficult feelings like anger, sadness and fear when we become parents. This in turn means that it can be hard for us to manage our own feelings in order to help our little ones learn.
“No wonder so many adults seek therapy, trying to sort out how they really feel.” – Magda Gerber
In fact, it’s only in fairly recent years that we’ve come to understand the important role our emotions play in our mental health and how children learn to regulate their emotions through their interactions with the adults who care for them.
The bottom line is that babies – and even older children – don’t know why they feel the way they do and they don’t know what the feelings they sense in their bodies are called unless we help them work it out.
Feelings can be overwhelming, confusing and even scary but they become less so once children understand them and have the vocabulary to talk about them and, most importantly, someone who will listen and help them sort out their feelings. Children need us to help them with the tricky work of learning about their feelings and developing emotional literacy.
So how do children learn emotional regulation skills?
As we’ve seen, children learn to regulate their emotions as part of the overall development of emotional literacy.
Parents and other adult caregivers shape and support the development of children’s emotional regulation skills from birth through young adulthood through an interactive process called ‘co-regulation’.
Co-regulation requires parents to do three things:
- provide a warm, responsive relationship by displaying care and affection; recognise and respond to the child’s cues which signal her needs and wants; and provide caring support in times of stress;
- structure the environment to make self-regulation manageable and provide a buffer against environmental stressors;
- teach self-regulation skills through modelling language and behaviours;
Co-regulation is important because it’s a supportive practice which eventually leads to the child being able to regulate his own emotions without the need for direct support from mum or dad.
In other words, self-regulation develops on the foundations of co-regulation.
This is something that has been poorly-understood until recently and it’s still something that many adults are pretty sceptical about. Children need our support until well into young adulthood when things get tough (don’t we all need support when things get tough) but we know that children who get the early experiences of co-regulation that they need grow into happy, confident teenagers and into adults with impressive emotional regulation skills.
So what does co-regulation look like in practice?
The lovely story below is a great example of co-regulation with a toddler. This mum has two sons, a 6-year-old and a 21-month-old, and has kindly allowed me to share her story. (Names have been changed).
Today my son, who is six, had a play date with a friend we don’t often see. His friend came round with his mum and 3-year-old sister.
My 21-month-old, Jack, is … well, he’s a 21-month-old and he took exception to the 3-year-old playing with his toys. He screamed, tried to grab them back, threw himself on the floor, etc. Bless his heart, he was really struggling and didn’t we know about it! The other mum kept saying sorry for her child playing with his toys. I was saying ‘please don’t worry – it’s an age thing’ and she got it but it was awkward and embarrassing for both of us.
After about 20-25 minutes of my 21-month-old being really cross and trying to grab everything my friend’s 3-year-old dared to touch, my friend not knowing where to look, and me sportscasting and holding limits, I had a lightbulb moment.
I got down to Jack’s level and said, ‘Jack, this is Ellie. She’s our friend. Felix is Tom’s friend and Ellie is his sister. Sarah is his mummy. They are all our friends. It’s okay for them to play with our toys. Ellie will not take them away for ever. She just wants to play. It’s really okay for her to play with our things. It’s okay if that feels strange to you but they are our friends and they will not take away your toys.’
And, just like that, it stopped. There was not one more whine, test or protest from Jack. All the children played happily from that moment on.
My friend and I were amazed!
I am celebrating that I did not panic because I was worrying about what the other mum thought. I’m so happy I slowed down and observed. I’m so happy that I believed my child is capable of understanding what I said even though he can’t talk yet.
You can see how this mum acknowledged her little one’s confusion, explained what was happening and modelled the calm acceptance of some difficult feelings (her son’s fear that the toys would be taken away, his frustration and his likely sense of feeling overwhelmed).
By doing this, she reinforced the message that his feelings mattered and that his feelings about the situation were ok. She also reassured him that his tricky feelings, which felt overwhelming to him, could be calmly felt and managed and showed him how this could be done by talking about them.
Through this experience of co-regulation, Jack is developing emotional literacy. He is also, with his mum’s help, building the foundations of the emotional regulation skills he will use throughout his life.
As he grows, it’s likely he will be able to:
- calm himself in difficult situations;
- understand what emotions he is feeling and why:
- express his feelings calmly and appropriately;
You might be wondering how all this emphasis on their own feelings helps children relate well to other people. Isn’t this kind of thing likely to make a child self-centred and overly-focused on his own feelings?
You might think so but that’s actually not what happens.
Social-emotional development in children: developing social-emotional literacy
These days there’s a lot of talk in the media and in schools about social-emotional development in children.
But what does this really mean and why do we talk about social development and emotional development together?
It’s obvious that children develop basic social skills by observing the adults around them and by the feedback they receive from others. They learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and to greet people appropriately mostly by observing what other people do.
But we know that the social skills that really matter – the ones that enable children to build and maintain healthy relationships with other people, navigate problems with their friends and draw on their well of resilience when things get hard – are actually firmly rooted in their understanding of human emotions.
Their social-emotional literacy develops naturally upon the foundations of their emotional literacy.
We know that once children understand their own emotions and are developing the ability to talk about them and manage them, they begin to naturally notice how other people might be feeling and to talk about those feelings.
This was something that was hard for me to imagine when I first read about it but I’ve now seen it happen many times with children close to me and with the children I teach.
Because they know that emotions are important and have had lots of experiences of being allowed to feel and talk about their own emotions, children whose emotional literacy is developing well are able to tune in to other people’s feelings, empathise with how they might be feeling and offer comfort and support.
And this can happen at a younger age than most people think possible.
In fact, research shows that children as young as three can tune in to other people’s feelings, express empathy and offer help or support, as this story (shared with permission) shows:
Mr 3 asked me a question while I was dealing with a frustrating situation. I replied in a harsh tone, meant for the situation, not him. I immediately felt bad, but before I could even try to make things right he walked over, handed me a bottle of water and a snack. He said, “you sound frustrated. Take however long you need and let me know when you’re ready to talk. Or you can just be grumpy if you want.”
3 ways to use picture books to build social-emotional literacy
So co-regulation is the critical thing that helps children get to know their emotions and develop the ability to regulate them.
They learn to tune in to the feelings they’re having in their bodies (increased heart rate, clammy hands, fast breathing, etc), tolerate them, name them, talk about them and eventually manage them. This is a process that takes many years and lots and lots of patience and self-awareness on the part of the adults in the child’s life but it’s probably the most important thing our children will ever learn because it determines how healthy and fulfilling their relationships – and ultimately their lives – will be.
But picture books can also play a role in helping build children’s social-emotional literacy by providing a focus for discussing emotions.
Here are 3 ways you can use picture books to help develop your little one’s social-emotional literacy:
Start when you little one is a baby – as early as you can – and read aloud. Babies benefit in a variety of ways from being to read to and you begin reading and talking about emotions as soon as you like. Books like Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, The Tale of Peter and Rabbit and Guess How Much I Love You are wonderful choices for little ones and provide lots of opportunities for using words relating to emotions and for talking about feelings. As your baby grows, you can emphasise and begin to talk about these words and what they mean and about how the characters might be feeling.
For children of any age, most books can be used as springboards for conversations about the characters’ feelings. “How do you think she might be feeling?” “What makes you say that?” and “Do you remember a time when you felt like that?” are good questions to ask if you’re not sure how to begin.
Use specific books about feelings like the ones suggested below. You can also look for books which directly address any challenges your child might be dealing with such as welcoming a new sibling, moving house or friendship issues at school. As we all become more aware of the important role our emotions play in our children’s emotional and mental health, more and more of these books are becoming available.
6 books that help build social-emotional literacy
While any book is a great book for building your child’s social-emotional literacy, there are some really wonderful books that directly discuss emotions and that are great fun to read.
As a primary school teacher with a special interest in helping build children’s emotional literacy, I’m always on the lookout for books like this.
These six books are books I regularly use in the classroom to help build children’s emotional literacy.
They’re wonderful books to read aloud and they never fail to spark the most fantastic conversations with whatever class I’m with that day. I’ve used them with children aged from five up to eight but I think they’re probably best-suited to the 4-7 age group.
They’re my go-to emotional literacy resources and it helps that they happen to be books that the children love!
As you read these books together, your child will learn more about the importance of feelings and how to talk about them, both his own and the feelings of other people.
Beyond Blue (n.d.). Why Emotions Matter. Retrieved 2 October 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9119582 https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/age-1-5/social-and-emotional-development/why-emotions-matter
Borke, H. (1971). Interpersonal perception of young children: Egocentrism or empathy? Developmental Psychology, 5(2), 263-269.
Gergely, G. & Watson, J.S. (1996). The Social Biofeedback Theory of Affect-Mirroring: The Development of Emotional Self-Awareness and Self-Control in Infancy. Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self. Retrieved 1 October 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9119582 .
Lansbury, J. (2011). The Happiest Kids Don’t Have to Smile. Retrieved 1 October 2019 from: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/09/the-happiest-kids-dont-have-to-smile/
Nikolajeva, M. (n.d.). Picturebooks and Emotional Literacy. Retrieved 2 October 2019 from: https://www.readingrockets.org/article/picturebooks-and-emotional-literacy
Rosanbalm, K.D; & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver Co-regulation Across Development: A Practice Brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Retrieved 5 October 2019 from: https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf
Vigliotti, A. (2019). Parenting for Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved 1 October 2019 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-now/201909/supporting-your-childs-social-emotional-growth
I’m Felicity. I write about children’s books and reading and about their potential for enriching the lives of young humans.
I review picture books, board books and sometimes books for older children.
As well as being a lover of all things to do with books and reading, I’m a mum of three young adults and a primary school teacher.
I also create gift baskets filled with the very best books for children from newborns to four-year-olds. Welcome. It’s nice to meet you.