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.
There are many ways to encourage early language:
- Provide Running Commentary– Running commentary is talking about all the things your child is seeing, doing and feeling. Be sure to use lots of labels. This sounds like, “oh, you have a ball. You rolled the ball. That ball is rolling fast. I have it; I caught the ball.” At the grocery store, “mommy is putting the red apples in the bag. One, two, three apples are in the bag.”
- Read and Sing Aloud Everyday– Read board books and picture books with your child. Label and talk about the pictures. Have children’s books available on every level of the house and with you in your diaper bag. Sing songs with your child often, particularly songs with movement.
- Avoid Anticipating Their Needs – When the child points to their cup, rather than just giving it to them, you might hesitate for a few seconds asking what they need. If gestures and points are able to fully communicate, there may be little need for language. I wouldn’t wait to the point of frustration, but enough to encourage them to use words.
- Use Echo Expansion – Echo expansion is reflecting their language intact and adding to it. If they say, “milk?” you say, “more milk?” If they say “more milk?” you say, “you would like more milk, please?” You are validating their language effort and modeling using more.
So, I’ve been asked many times in the last year for my thoughts about young children playing on iPads or reading on Kindles. My answers always lean towards it being better to play with toys or each other and read books rather than screens. Even when it’s just to occupy them because you need a minute, I would much rather parents hand their three-year-old a crayon and piece of paper than a phone with an open app. When it comes to early reading, my sense has been there is value in experiencing the book, in turning the pages, taking in the pictures and talking about the story. Thankfully, my favorite technology writer Lisa Guernsey has pulled together a fuller answer in her Time Ideas article titled Why EReading With Your Kid Can Impede Learning http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/20/why-ereading-with-your-kid-can-impede-learning/?xid=gonewsedit. If your pre- or early reader is already on a screen, check this out for tips on how to use it better and consider setting and enforcing time limits.
Lisa Guernsey is the director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative and author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five. Great book!
So folks ask, what is private speech?
Private speech is the running commentary we have in our heads that helps to guide our behavior. When you are following a recipe, you may talk yourself through the steps. When a task is particularly challenging, the private speech may become public. We start to talk out loud to ourselves to support the action.
Children start to do this often around three years old. Think about your child working on a hard puzzle – do you hear him muttering to himself about the piece he is looking for or the plan to get started? This is his still public – private speech. As children grow, the speech gradually moves into their brain (hopefully) rather than being said out loud.
Studies show private speech benefits future behaviors. Children who mutter their way through first grade math often benefit second grade math. The idea is the language is reinforcing the learning – they are talking their way back through.
With so many patterns of normal speech and language development, it can be difficult to sort out what is most important. There are a few basic milestones that if not met, signal flags in early language development.
- First word – Most people say babies should have a first word by one year old. The normal range for a first word is 10 to 16 months.
- 50 words by 18 months, concern if less than 10 – Most babies have in the ballpark of 50 words by 18 months old. There is concern if there are less than 10, particularly if those 10 are garbled or only used once or not really in context. I actually wouldn’t be concerned if they only have five words, but those words were clear, well used in context and consistent.
- Two words together by 24 months – Most babies are putting two words together by 24 months. Many of them are stringing six and seven word sentences, but the concern is single words only.
- For articulation – Think that children should be 50% understood by strangers at two and a half years old. This means half the time when your child speaks to the lady checking groceries, she understands them. By three years old this jumps to 75%, meaning more often than not she understands. It doesn’t count to be understood by grandma or a great babysitter, they hear his language often. This marker is for strangers.
I am a firm believer in the benefits of early intervention. If you feel or worry your child has a speech or language issue, there is no harm in having an evaluation. Children often enjoy the process, and at best they reassure you and let you know to let go of the concern. At worst, the child qualifies for what were needed services, and you get started on a better long-term path. Somewhere in the middle, they may not qualify for services, but you are given great guidance for working with your child to make improvements at home. Whatever the outcome, early intervention also provides a baseline; a professionals take of where your child is and how to move forward.