Ways to Teach Children Emotion Language

Emotion language provides children a tool for managing social exchange. By the time they get to Kindergarten, I want children to be able to look at their friend and say, “I am mad at you. You took my block,” rather than clobber them. There are many ways to teach children emotion language, here are a few:

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way by putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, and people are running). This AVOIDS blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide following an emotional exchange, once all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. When Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into six squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs –  We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.

For more ideas you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to our workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

How Intermittent Reinforcement Makes Parenting Harder

I apologize, to cover intermittent reinforcement, we are going to stop discussing children, and we are going to start discussing lab rats. We’ll come back to children at the end of this post.
Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest pattern of reinforcement there is. Let’s compare lab rat A and lab rat B. They are living beside each other in cages that have a lever to push for food pellets. Lab rat A gets consistent reinforcement. Every time he pushes his lever, a food pellet drops out. Push, pellet, push, pellet, push, pellet. It’s not very exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s boring. Lab rat A will only push that lever for pellets until he is full. After that, he’ll leave it alone and only come back when he is hungry again.
Lab rat B gets intermittent reinforcement. As much as he pushes, there is a pellet every once in a while. Sometimes, it takes two pushes to get a pellet, sometimes it takes eight, and sometimes it takes as many as seventeen pushes. Then, four pushes gets the next pellet. It is unpredictable and exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s downright addictive. Lab rat B will push that lever long past the point of being full. He will push that lever until he’s exhausted, and then come back later to push some more. He will stock pile pellets because sometimes this thing works and sometimes it doesn’t. Every time it works and a pellet drops, he is happy and a bit surprised.
Let’s say the pellets stop altogether, no more pellets. Lab rat A will push a few times, but he thinks, “oh, this thing is broken. It used to always work and now it doesn’t. This thing is broken.” He’ll walk away and come back only when he is hungry again. Even then, he’ll only press it a few times.
When the pellets stop, lab rat B will push that lever until he keels over out of exhaustion and then, he’ll get right back up and push it some more. He thinks, “darn it, this thing’s got to work. Sometimes it took two pushes. I remember it took seventeen presses one time; that’s my new goal. Eventually this thing will work. Maybe it’ll be the next press.” He’ll keep at it for a quite a while, and he’ll come back far more often than lab rat A.
Now, let’s go back to children. Child A gets consistent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give her a candy bar. Tantrum, candy bar, tantrum, candy bar. It’s not very exciting; in fact, it’s boring. You’ll see that behavior when the child feels it is warranted. If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child A may tantrum a little while, but she thinks, “wow, you are broken. This used to always work on you and now, it doesn’t.”
Child B gets intermittent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give a candy bar, tantrum, say you’ll leave the store, tantrum, you ignore her the rest of the trip, tantrum, you say “no,” she tantrums six more minutes, you give in and say, “whatever, it’s just a candy bar.” If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child B will tantrum way longer and harder than child B because she thinks, “sometimes this works with you. I remember it took six minutes one time; that’s my new goal.”
What I am saying is that, if you give in to tantrumming every tenth time because you are tired or it’s just a cookie, you are more strongly reinforcing tantrumming than if you gave in every time right away. I am not telling you to give in every time, right away. I am telling you to never give in because when you do, it makes your job harder. It encourages your child to tantrum more often. Giving intermittent reinforcement to negative behaviors is a disservice to all involved. When my children tantrum, it makes me firm to never reinforce their tantrumming behavior. I think, “I can’t give that to you, even if I wanted to. It would be bad for you; you would behave that way more often.”

The Steps of Positive Discipline

The steps of Positive Discipline are not something I’ve created, these steps have been around for years. Originally written in 1965, Dr. Haim Ginott introduced a version of these steps in Between Parent and Child. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, or STEP classes, desiged by Dinkmeyer and McKay have been in session since 1976. These steps are covered in some variation in most all Positive Discipline parenting books. We cover the steps of positive discipline in my one-day and eight hour evening series workshops. My full audio workshops are also available at www.askdrrene.com. Here are the basics to get you started:

  • I messages – This is labeling your own or others emotions and blaming the behavior not the child. When labeling your own emotions, it sounds like, “I am frustrated, no one is listening,” or, “I am upset, this is a huge mess.” Labeling others’ emotions sounds like, “she is upset, she wasn’t finished with her turn,” or, “she is angry, that hurt her.” This shares emotions and avoids You messages which blame the child such as, “I am frustrated, you never listen,” or, “she is angry, you hurt her.”
  • Empathy – This is validating the child’s emotions as you enter into a discipline exchange, even when you disagree with the emotion at hand. It is saying, “wow, you are mad, you didn’t like that game,” or, “I see you are sad, it’s hard to be left out.”  It’s remembering to validate emotions and help find a calm before you address the situation or discipline.
  • Positive Intent – This refers to how we view the child’s behavior. What we think and assume about their behavior, shapes our tone and our reply. This is thinking of those you love as tired or overwhelmed rather than lazy. For the child having trouble waiting for a turn, it is seeing them as excited, young and needing to learn patience rather than annoying or rude.
  • Choices – The idea is to offer the child two positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you are wanting them to get homework done, this might be, “do you want to start with reading or math,” or, “do you want to work before or after snack,” or, “do you want to work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk?” These often work because they give the child some power.
  • Natural Consequences – This is what just might happen in life if the child continues the behavior. These warn and encourage the child to think about the possible outcomes. This sounds like, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold,” and, “if you do that, she might not want to play with you.” These consequences start to make sense around three-and-a-half years old.
  • Logical Negative Consequences – This is, if the bad behavior; then the bad related outcome. “If you keep yelling, you will have to play in separate rooms,” or, “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 5 minutes.”
  • Logical Positive Consequences – This is, if the good behavior; then the good related outcome. “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together,” or, “if you can share the coloring books, I’ll get out the other markers.”

Four-Year-Old Goes to the Park Alone

Hi Dr. Rene,

Early this morning, I was awakened by knocking at my front door. There stood my neighbor with my four-year-old that she had found playing by himself at the park down the street. We have rules that he can’t go downstairs in the morning without telling us, he can’t go outside alone and such, but he obviously ignored them. He scales babygates like a pro and knows how to open the locks on our doors. I am looking for ways to drive home the seriousness of what he did. I showed him how scared I was and am, but he just countered with, “but we know her, and she was nice, and look, I’m fine.” I called his dad and together we told him there are some very bad people who like to take children away from their parents and hurt them. Any advice on how to drive this home? Is talking enough?

Thank you,

Ellyn, scared mom

Hi Ellyn,

There are several answers here. I think in the moment you were absolutely right to show him how scared you were. Most parents, when they feel scared show anger which doesn’t tend to stick. Your children see you angry often, but they rarely see you scared, so if you can keep it that true emotion, on your face and in your voice, it will likely have a biger impact.

I would then review the rules of telling before going downstairs in the morning and getting permission before going outside. Since this was in place and ignored, I would have followed up with a related consequence something along the lines of being inside for two days. I get this may seem like a big response, but it is a big and depending on where you live (busy streets) potentially dangerous one. As a parent of a four-year-old boy who has already bypassed the system, I would go ahead and install an alarm system. I don’t mean to be dramatic here, but for sanity’s sake put one on the doors to be used overnight or at least new key-only locks.

In a whole other area, I would get and watch The Safe Side: Stranger Safety by John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) and Julie Clark (Baby Einstein) with him http://www.thesafeside.com/. It is a DVD that teaches children the difference between ‘safe side’ adults, ‘kind of know’ adults and ‘don’t know’ adults with rules for each. It is informative without being scary and well done to keep the children’s attention. For yourself, I would also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker https://www.gavindebecker.com/index.php/resources/book/protecting_the_gift/. It is a book written to guide you through teaching your child about personal safety.

I hope this helps.


Dr. Rene

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Floortime Tips

Playing with colorful blocks

Developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, founder of DIR/Floortime and author of many respected parenting books, Floortime offers parents a system of play to encourage language development, social skills, emotion regulation and leadership abilities. Seen as beneficial to all children, this approach to play is often incorporated into therapies for children with speech and language delays, and social and developmental concerns. Below are a few tips to get started and a link to helpful online workshops.

  • By design, the child is in charge- They are the director, you are the assistant. They decide the topic, place and pace of the play. Your job is to stay engaged and support the play.
  • Stay on topic- All of your questions and comments should be about the ongoing activity. Avoid introducing new ideas or taking the play in new directions. While this sounds easy, it really forces many parents to slow down. The goal is to comment or question in ways that continue the play or encourage the child to think deeper about current activity without moving them off it. You might ask open ended questions like, “what’s happening?” or, “how did you think of that?” You might describe their play or comment on the details.
  • Play at their pace- If the child is often running and dumping things, and you are often trying to slow them down, for these 20 minutes you are running and dumping. The message is – how you play is spot on for you.
  • There is no correction, no education- It is play. If the child decides the dog is a cow, it’s a cow while playing farm. Just go with it. Yes, you can go back later and read your farm books, but, for the time being, play.
  • The goal is 20 minutes per day- Put this on the calendar, set aside the time. This is a stretch that you turn of the tv and put down the phone. Floortime requires you be fully engaged and attentive.

There are many online resources that include and teach about Floortime. For online workshops designed for parents and professionals, visit http://www.thefloortimecenter.com/,   http://stanleygreenspan.com/.

Other helpful links include http://www.mindspring.com/~dgn/playther.htm and http://www.cms-kids.com/providers/early_steps/training/documents/floor_time.pdf.

Taking Children to a Funeral

Dear Dr. Rene,

We are comtemplating taking our five and six year olds to their grandfather’s funeral. My instinct says not to, and I want to know what is the current thinking on this.

Thank you!

For sure, this is a difficult and personal decision and should feel comfortable once made.  If your instinct is saying no, for whatever reason, that may be the way to go. You know your own children, their emotional well-being and their relationship with their grandfather, so you ultimately are the best judge. That said, from a psychological standpoint it can be fine to have children attend funerals. Death is a part of life and can be presented as such with a great deal of love and support. I think a lot of how children manage through difficult situations rests in how we present them. If you decide to take them with you, talk about the place and the activity that will happen. Talk about who will be there and that people may be very emotional or quiet. Find out, if you can if it will be an open or closed casket, an indoor or graveside service and talk about those details as well. Prepare them as best you can for the experience and be open to answering all of their questions before, during and after. I would also consider the child’s response. If there is great hesitation or upset over going, it may be they are not yet able to handle the event. I wouldn’t push a child into attending any related activity. If they do not attend the funeral, it may be nice to offer some other way for them to have closure such as making a photo album or taking a nature walk to talk about memories of that person. This also holds true in the other direction. If a child really wants to attend, I would err on the side of taking them, especially if this is an important relationship to the child. Missing the event can’t be undone.

My children have been to several funerals with us for friends and relatives over the years. While they have willingly attended and asked a great many questions after, they have avoided going near the casket at each, and that is fine. We talk openly about the process, our feeling and fond memories we have of that person before and after.

Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.


Dr. Rene

Traveling Away from Children

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am traveling alone at the early part of December and again in January. The first trip is to visit my sister who is ill and following treatment. The second trip is work related. I will be gone a week for each trip and have only been away from the girls once before. They are now three-and-a-half and almost five years old. The first trip out of town for work was two years ago, and it was difficult all around. How and when should I tell my girls?  Should I tell them together? How much do I tell them? What are things I could do to make this time go faster or easier for them? I too am having a hard time getting ready and making these trips. I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the separation and find it a difficult task. Then, I think about all the other moms of the world who travel regularly and wonder in amazement, how do they do that? Any insight and suggestions would be appreciated!


Cristina, mother of two

Dear Cristina,

I know this can be difficult. The idea is to prepare them without overpreparing them. It is plenty to tell them just a few days before. Have a simple few sentences ready about where and why you are going, when you are leaving, how long you’ll be gone and most importantly who will be taking care of them. Be ready for the upsets and questions. If they are upset, give lots of empathy and talk them through. Answer all of their questions honest but small. Try to shift the follow-up conversation a bit to where they will be and who will be caring for them during the time. If there is anything fun planned for them during the time, highlight that as well. I tend to tell my children things together as they help each other. If your’s are particularly dramatic or tend to work each other up, it is fine to speak with each separately.

You might help them by teaching them to use a simple calendar to count down the days you will be gone. You can practice this next week with the Thanksgiving holiday. If you are all traveling or having houseguests for a few days or even just all home from work for a few days, draw a square for each day. Draw a picture in each square to represent something from the day and have them cross off each day when they go to sleep at night. For example, Grandma is visiting Wednesday through Saturday. The calendar would be four squares with a picture of grandma arriving in the first square, turkey in the second, a museum trip in the third and grandma leaving in the last. Each night during the visit, have them cross off a square. Make one of these for each of your trips.

You might also make them each a small photo album with a few pictures of you with each of them and a few of them with other relatives. It is a nice thing for children to have pictures readily available when a parent is away. You might also introduce the family to email and Skype. It would likely help if you can send notes or pictures each day and spend a bit of time on the phone or skyping with them while you are gone. If you were going to be gone longer than a week, you might also send postcards or small gifts in the mail. A little more effort, you could record them a few of their favorite or even some new books on tape.

As much as you feel overwhelmed and anxious, try to put on your brave and confident face when you are talking with them about this. If they are upset themselves and see your tears and lip quivering, it may add to the sense of panic. In general, I am all about sharing emotions openly with children, and I think you can let them know you are sad, but you want to be sure you are able to send comforting messages and the sense that this is a solid plan rather than adding your own sense of doubt.

In genreal it is good for children to have normalcy during times of change, so it’s good to keep them on a relatively similar schedule as to when you are home. Plan for them to attend school regularly. That said, around their normal activity, I would try to build in one special thing for them to do late in the week. Maybe their caregiver could take them to a movie or out for a dessert on Friday. You might also encourage the caregiver to help the girls plan a welcome home for you such as a special dinner or outing. This gives them things to look forward to and distracts them a bit.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,  Dr. Rene

Tantrums at School

Dear Dr. Rene,
I am a mother of four, and am expecting a fifth. Our second to youngest child is throwing really bad tantrums in school. These tantrums are out of control and disrupt the entire class. The school is talking about suspension because this is interrupting the whole K, first and second grade hallway. I have tried everything I can think of from taking away special toys and explaining she has a choice to throw a tantum. I thought by six years old she would not be having these tantrums, but they still seem to be problematic.
Please help.
Andrea, Mother of Five

Dear Andrea,
This is a difficult situation all the way around. There are a few things to do at home and a few things to do at school that may be helpful. I would ask if there is a space provided for children to be alone, to calm down and regain themselves that is also safe. This might be a quiet corner of the classroom or the waiting area of the nurse’s office. It would be best if this is away from the other children and somewhere she can take herself. There is a preschool near us that has a small house filled with beanbags and pillows. When children feel overwhelmed and angry they are invited in to help themselves settle. This works by removing the audience and social reinforcement as well as provding a calming setting. It is hard to stay mad when you are lounging on bean bags.

A thing to do at school and at home is to focus on teaching emotions language, better ways to express and ways to calm. These are things that are helpful to most children in overcoming tantrums, take a long time to learn and best if reinforced at home and school. it is best to teach these things out of the moment, when all are calm. If you wait and try to teach these things when children are emotional and overwhelmed, they are not in a good place to learn.

Likely, it is best to avoid disciplining behaviors that happen hours earlier in school. If it is a big enough behavior that you were made aware of, the child was already disciplined at school. If it is several hours later, the child may not connect those things well. I am not saying just let it go, but rather focus heavily on coaching the new behavior. Talk to your child about the thing that happened at school, brainstorm better options, together find ways for the child to make amends and do better the next day.

With tantrums, it can be helpful to lean about “charting a behavior,” in this case it is focusing on triggers (what sets a child off) and cue behaviors (signs they are about to tantrum). This would have to be done in the school setting, so by the teacher or guidance counselor. It would mean a bit of observation time and record keeping, but would provide helpful information, so the school can be more prepared to manage the upset.

There is a full discussion of these ideas on our http://www.askdrrene.com/ website, in the recorded workshop on manageing tantrums. There is also a good book titled No More Meltdowns, which is about managing tantrums in school age children.
Dr. Rene