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Emotion Coaching- a new approach to supporting children's behaviour (Part 1)

“Much of today’s popular advice about children’s behaviour ignores the world of emotions.  Instead, it relies on child-rearing theories that address the children’s behaviour, but disregard the feelings that underlie that behaviour” (John Gottman)

We are all familiar with ‘Supernanny’ and her common use of reward stickers and charts and ‘time-out’ as a means of teaching young children how to behave.  Although this might not be something you use in your work place, most behaviour management techniques in early years settings often rely on traditional, behaviourist approaches for modifying young children’s behaviour. ‘Behaviourism’ is based on the premise that behaviour can be controlled and modified via the reinforcement systems of rewards and/or sanctions.  Despite its critics and considerable psychological advances in the understanding of children’s motivation in relation to self-concept, self-esteem and self-regulation, behaviourist principles are still evident in many behaviour policies in settings, with rewards and sanctions used as key tools for controlling young children’s behaviour.  

The Behaviorist approach has been criticised for relying on external frameworks for moderating behaviour and ignoring the feelings which underlie the behaviour.  Although it can be a powerful way of manipulating children to behave, it means that children learn to rely on rewards or live in fear of punishment to make them behave.  Once the reward or fear has been removed, such children may not be able to self-regulate their behaviour.  Research has also shown that children soon ‘habituate’ to reward systems and so they begin to lose their effectiveness to motivate children to behave.  Similarly, too much fear can lead to children relying on innate survival mechanisms such as disassociation (i.e. not caring) or becoming reactive (i.e. aggressive) in an attempt to compensate for the fear of punishment.  It is also apparent that rewards and sanctions just don’t work for all children, particularly children with additional needs.  This is often because a behaviourist approach relies not only on children’s capacity to mentally envisage and understand the consequences of their behaviour, but also an ability to delay gratification or regulate innate emotional needs – these abilities may not be possible for some children.  There are also the particularly vulnerable children whose priority to feel safe and secure overwhelms any capacity to respond to a behaviour management system that relies on a fully functioning rational mind.

This article draws attention to a growing base of research evidence which suggests that a ‘relational’ rather than a ‘behavioural’ approach to supporting young children’s learning and behaviour is likely to facilitate the development of better self-regulation and social functioning.  Such an approach operates to create ‘internal’ mechanisms within the brain.  An approach that encapsulates this more affective and effective way of managing behaviour is called ‘Emotion Coaching’. It reflects the evidence that the most successful programmes, in terms of improving behaviour for learning, are those that focus on the emotional and social causes of difficult to manage behaviour and proactively teach social and emotional competencies.  It is also supported by recent findings from neuroscience.

Emotion Coaching is based on the work of John Gottman and his colleagues in America who emphasise the process of emotional regulation rather than behaviour modification – in other words, a focus on the feelings and desires which are ultimately driving the behaviour instead of just the behaviour itself.  Given that  personal, social and emotional development is a primary responsibility for professionals working with young children, we can take advantage of opportune moments to teach appropriate behavior in the moment that it occurs.  This is possible via the adoption of Emotion Coaching in practice.  An Emotion Coaching approach also reflects the capacity to be both aware of our own as well as children’s emotions.  Adults who are ‘mind-minded’ - i.e. who tune into young children’s thoughts and feelings, help to scaffold children’s understanding of their own behaviour.  Gottman’s research has shown that emotion coached children:

  • Achieve more academically in school
  • Are more popular
  • Have fewer behavioural  problems
  • Have fewer infectious illnesses
  • Are more emotionally stable
  • Are more resilient

Emotion Coaching views all behaviour as a form of communication and makes an important distinction between children’s behaviour and the feelings that underlie that behaviour.  A key belief is that ALL emotions are acceptable, but not all behaviour.  It is about helping children to understand their different emotions as they experience them, why they occur and how to handle them, leading to happier, more resilient and more well-adjusted children.  It is essentially comprised of two key elements - empathy and guidance.  These two elements underpin the adults’ approach whenever ‘emotional moments’ occur.  Emotional empathy involves recognizing, labeling and validating a child’s emotions, regardless of the behaviour, in order to promote self-awareness of emotions.  The circumstances might also require setting limits on appropriate behaviour (such as stating clearly what is acceptable behaviour) and possible consequential action (such as implementing behaviour management procedures) - but key to this process is guidance: engagement with the child in problem-solving in order to support children’s ability to learn to self-regulate and to seek alternative courses of action preventing future transgressions. 

Gottman has described Emotion coaching as involving 5 steps:

  1. Be aware of child’s responses
  2. Recognize emotional times as opportunities for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen empathetically and validate child’s feelings
  4. Help child to verbally label emotions – helps soothe the nervous system and recovery rate
  5. Set limits while helping child to problem-solve

Research by the author has shown that these 5 steps can be perceived more simply in 3 steps for the busy practitioner:

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The first step of emotion coaching is essential and often the step that is forgotten when dealing with children’s behaviour.  Often practitioners will rely on reason to distract or dissuade a child.  However, when a child is in an emotional state, particularly if it is intense, they are unable to engage with the more rational parts of their brain (the frontal lobes) since their mind and body is ‘locked’ in a fight/flight/freeze state.  Neuroscientific research has shown how emotional memories are stored in the part of the brain called the limbic system, which is (amongst other things) responsible for giving meaning to sensory information.  Sensory information (visual, auditory, olfactory) is sent first to the limbic system before being processed in the decision-making areas of the brain (the frontal lobes).  If the sensory information is deemed to be a real or imagined threat, the limbic system signals the rest of the body to mobilize into a ‘fight/ flight/freeze’ response.  The limbic system has enormous influence on how the rest of the brain functions, including the centres for rational thought, since emotional outbursts are instinctive and unconscious and cannot be prevented - our emotions literally have a  ‘mind of their own’. Goleman refers to the ‘fight/ flight/freeze’ response as ‘emotional highjacking’.  We now know that the same neural pathways are used for both an actual experience and the remembrance of an event.  As Goleman puts it, ‘endangerment can be signaled not just by an outright physical threat but also, as is more often the case, by a symbolic threat to self-esteem or dignity: being treated unjustly or rudely, being insulted or demeaned, being frustrated in pursuing an important goal’.  For a volatile 2 year old such a goal might be simply the desire to have someone else’s toy, leading to a stereotypical tantrum.

Children in an emotional state need to be returned to a relaxed, calm state before we can reason with them.  Gottman writes that proposing solutions before empathising is like trying to build the frame of a house before you lay a firm foundation.  What children need when they are angry or sad, no matter how ‘badly’ they might be behaving, is emotional first aid.  Since feelings are self-justifying, a practitioner needs to get ‘in sync’ with the child by recognizing and then affirming the existence of their feelings.  Empathy from the practitioner helps the child to calm down, providing a safe haven of acceptance that builds emotional and responsive bonds between the practitioner and child.  Once the child has calmed, she/he is more open and able to reason and the practitioner can work with the child in creating effective neural connections to the rational parts of the brain (the frontal lobes) to become an ‘efficient manager of emotion’,  as Goleman puts it. 

John Gottman has also drawn attention to the less effective ways of supporting children’s behaviour.  His research shows that adopting what is known as a ‘disapproving’ style or a ‘dismissing’ style does not help the child to learn to self-regulate or develop resilience.  A ‘disapproving’ approach to behaviour management views emotions as a sign of weakness or lack of control.  A ‘disapproving’ adult lacks empathy, is noticeably critical and intolerant and tries to ‘get rid’ of negative emotions via discipline, reprimand or punishment.  A ‘disapproving’ practitioner focuses on the behaviour of the child rather than the emotions generating the behaviour.  In this kind of response, emotional displays are viewed as a form of manipulation, a lack of obedience or a sign of bad character.  Behaviour management strategies are motivated by a need to control or regain power and/or to ‘toughen up’ the child and is commonly expressed through a stern and angry tone.  Although it may appear  successful in the short-term, a disapproving style is probably the least effective way of developing more long-term, positive behaviour in a child, particularly because the adult is role-modelling an angry response. 

Similarly, a ‘dismissing’ style of behaviour management, views children’s emotional displays as toxic.  Emotions such as anger need to be ‘got over quickly’.  This kind of adult considers that paying attention to such emotions will make them worse and prolong the emotional state.  Therefore, a ‘dismissing’ adult will try to stop emotions by minimizing or ‘making light’ of their importance – by dismissing them.  It is important to distinguish a ‘dismissing’ style from a ‘disapproving style’ as it can often appear to be a warmer and more empathic response.  Indeed, it is often motivated by a desire to rescue and make things better for the child.  However, it relies on logic and/or distraction/reward to try and help the child feel better.  Common phrases might be ‘Don’t worry about it’, ‘Be a big girl’, ‘You’ll be fine’ to ‘Let’s have a biscuit’ and ‘Let’s play with this toy instead’. 

Although a ‘dismissing’ style is gentler and less dictatorial than the ‘disapproving’ way of managing children’s behavior, it does not allow the child to engage with how they are feeling.  Distraction or disapproval approaches can often work and temporarily stop  unacceptable behavior – BUT they deliver a message to the children that what they are feeling is not right, that their assessment is wrong and that they should not feel this way. They are not able to learn to distinguish between feeling and behaviour.  Children experiencing disapproving or dismissing styles of interaction do not learn to trust what they are feeling.  Such styles of interaction also tend to lead to the suppression of innate and natural emotions or to a reliance on distraction/reward to reduce the intensity of the feeling, since they are not given opportunities to experience them (and this may generate more negative emotions such as shame and resentment).  A lack of experience and understanding of an emotional state can, in turn, affect children’s capacity to manage feelings by themselves or to employ self-regulation to reduce the intensity of the emotions.  A reduced capacity to self-sooth affects their ability to engage the more rational parts of their brain and to make appropriate behavioural decisions or to develop problem-solving strategies to resolve the situation.   Have a look at the illustrations below which depict first a dismissing, then a disapproving and finally an emotion coaching response to a child who is feeling sad.

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It's strange. When we urge a child to push a bad feeling away- however kindly-the child only seems to get more upset.

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Parents don't usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they'll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.

The issue of adults’ role-modelling appropriate emotional responses becomes particularly significant when we consider the relatively recent neuroscientific discovery of what are known as mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons are specialised brain cells which are activated simply by watching others perform intentional actions.  They also fire when we copy another’s action.  Thus mirror neurons literally enable us to ‘mirror’ the behaviour of others.   In relation to behaviour management, some neuroscientists consider that the mirror neuron system provides the building blocks for empathy and socialisation by building our capacity to emulate others and understanding others’ intent.   If we are trying to support a child who has pushed another child and we respond with a cross face, a pointing finger and an angry tone – the mirror neurons in the child’s brain will be trying to emulate the same response.  This is probably the opposite of what we wish to convey in the already angry child.  Instead, we ought to be role-modelling a more empathic response to the child’s emotional state, in order to foster a more empathic way of behaving that will help the child to inhibit their desire to push another child and develop more pro-social ways of engaging with others.

The messages children receive when they experience an Emotion Coaching style, is that we all have feelings, that they are all natural and normal, that they create wishes and desires which are normal too, but  feelings may need to be regulated and expressed constructively and that such wishes and desires may not be met.  It conveys to the child that they are not alone, that they are accepted, supported, valid, cared about, understood, trusted and respected.  At the same time, it communicates that not all behaviours are acceptable, that they can’t always get what they want and that they might need to moderate how to express feelings and desires.  In other words, an Emotion Coaching approach acknowledges that all desires, wishes and feelings are ok but that their fulfillment or expression of them might not be.  This supports children’s learning in how to resolve their issues and empower them to feel safe enough to engage in their own problem-solving.  Thus, through Emotion Coaching a child learns to empathize, to read others’ emotions and social cues, to control impulses, self-sooth and self-regulate, to delay gratification, to motivate themselves and to cope with life’s ups and downs (be resilient). It also shows children how conflicts might be resolved peacefully through self-control and builds problem solving capacity.

So how do we actually do Emotion Coaching?  Does it really help children to learn how to behave or will all that empathizing just mean they’ll think it’s ok to behave badly?  Next time, in part 2, we will answer these questions.  We’ll explore the process of doing Emotion Coaching and highlight how it can help to build better relationships in your settings.  We’ll look at some real-life examples from research where Emotion Coaching has been successfully used in early years practice to support children’s self-regulation of their behaviour and improve the well-being of everyone in the setting.


References

Cozolino, L. (2006) The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment And the Developing Social Brain.  London: Norton & Co.

Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (1997) The Heart of Parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child. New York: Fireside.

Gottman, J.M., Katz, L.F. and Hooven, C. (1996) Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10.3, 243-68.

Rose, J. and Rogers, S. (2012) The Role of the Adult in Early Years Settings. Milton Keynes: OPUP.

Rose, J., Gilbert, L. & Smith, H. (2012) ‘Affective teaching and the affective dimensions of learning’ in Ward, S. (ed) A Student’s Guide to Education Studies. London: Routledge.


Janet Rose
Janet is the Award Leader for the Early Education Award within the Education Studies degree and the Award Leader for the Early Childhood Studies MA degree. She specialises in early childhood education with a particular interest in the adult role and has recently co-authored a book on this subject. She has undertaken research in a number of areas of early years education including working closely with early years practitioners to improve the quality of their practice, particularly in the area of supporting children's early literacy. Her most recent research interests mainly focus on children's emotional development.


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