Sometimes it seems that children function in two distinct gears, happy and mad. They act in dramatic attention seeking ways to make us very aware of their feelings. They may hit, bite, scream, bang their heads or use a number of other creative ways to express themselves. Their tantrums and acting out can be very overwhelming to child care providers, teachers, parents and anyone else in their paths.

I have thought to myself many times regarding my own children…

  • Why do they act like that?
  • What am I doing wrong?
  • Why can’t she just understand?

That’s the key, why can’t they understand and why can’t I understand? There is an obvious gap in communication between adults and children that causes frustrations on both parts. Children are able to feel emotions before they are fully able to communicate their needs and help us better care for them.

There is a way to help bridge our communication gap, and that is by teaching children to identify their emotions and then find appropriate ways to express them. There are many resources available to assist parents and child care providers in teaching these things. A basic tool is a sign with faces identifying a variety of emotions. These signs and other resources can be found at This is an EC-PBIS (Early Childhood - Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports) website that has many great tools and ideas available. Your local Child Care Consultant can also assist in understanding EC-PBIS techniques and how to implement them in a child care program or offer resources to share with parents.

My own daughters, 3 and 4, often identify my emotions by my eyebrows. I have learned to use that in helping them understand other emotions. We also visit the mirror when they are having different emotions to identify how they are feeling and what that looks like. I have a feelings sign on our refrigerator that my girls can put magnets on to show how they are feeling today. After children are able to identify how they are feeling, they need to be able to process through their feelings without acting out in inappropriate ways.

At this point we teach them coping strategies. Coping strategies are appropriate, healthy ways to handle intense emotions. Coping strategies may include:

  • Taking time alone to calm down
  • Counting
  • Coloring
  • Talking to an adult
  • Taking deep breaths

In our home when things get heated I often use the prompt, “Do you think you want to take some time on the couch to calm down?” For my daughters, this is a gentle reminder that they are getting upset and may want to calm down before they lose control. I try to give them a chance to make their own calm down choice. This technique usually works for us, then we are able to either move on because they forget what upset them or we talk about things to help them process through it.

It is very important to help children interact with each other in healthy ways. Assisting them with interactions can happen both at home and at child care. The more they understand how to be social with each other, the less teachers will have to focus on this at school, which allows more time for learning academics. Teaching appropriate social interactions also helps to build independence, self-esteem, and is less work for you.

We can start by observing and trying to let them resolve problems on their own. This can be difficult for them when they are just learning. We can intervene to help them with concepts such as taking turns, sharing, asking, getting help when they need it, etc. There is a tool kit available to use as a prompt on the EC-PBIS website I mentioned above. CCR&R Child Care Consultants have access to this kit as well and would be happy to assist child care providers with implementation.

The key to emotional literacy is teaching children to identify their emotions, learn healthy ways to process those emotions and interact in positive ways with others. If we are able to get them past, “I’m so mad,” or “so happy,” they can learn different ways to respond rather than tantrums, such as letting us know when they are lonely or overwhelmed. Those emotions have different responses than happy and mad and can be addressed by child care providers and parents in different ways. Teaching children these things will help them throughout life by giving them a good emotional foundation and learning how to use appropriate social and coping skills.

orginal post date 8/20/15


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