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Emotion Coaching -a new approach to supporting children's behaviour (Part 2)

“Emotion coaching is about helping children to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur, and how to handle them” (John Gottman)

In Part 1 we saw how Emotion Coaching offers a relational model for supporting children’s behaviour.  We compared Emotion Coaching to traditional behaviourist approaches and also to other styles of managing children’s behavior, such as a disapproving or dismissing approach.  We saw how Emotion Coaching offers a powerful way to connect with young children’s emotional state and helps them to manage their own feelings and desires – to learn to self-regulate their behaviour internally rather than relying on extrinsic rewards or sanctions to modify their behavior – as shown in the diagram below.

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A key process involved in Emotion coaching is ‘co-regulation’.  By empathizing with a child’s emotional state, even when they are displaying inappropriate behaviour, we are providing a support structure for that child to learn to self-regulate.  We do this for all other aspects of their learning. For example, we help children learn to talk by talking to them – this narrative helps children to engage and respond and begin to articulate their own words.  With Emotion Coaching, we are providing a similar scaffold and narrative for them to learn about their own emotions and how they can be regulated.  Once again, we can turn to some recent neuroscientific evidence to help us understand how important co-regulation is in helping children to self-regulate and to develop what is known as ‘high vagal tone’.

We saw in Part 1 that when a child is in an emotional ‘fight-flight-freeze’ state, they need to be soothed so that they can return to a stable condition and enable the reasoning (frontal lobes) parts of the brain to function effectively.  In order to reverse the ‘fight and flight’ response, a part of the nervous system known as the vagus nerve needs to be stimulated.  The vagus nerve connects with every major organ of the body and forms a vital role in regulating involuntary responses – it operates like a paramedic coming to our rescue.  Gottman’s research shows that Emotion Coaching appears to have an effective impact on the operation of the vagus nerve since the techniques of Emotion Coaching can trigger the vagus nerve into helping the brain and body to calm down, enabling the child to develop what is known as ‘high vagal tone’. High vagal tone appears to directly affect our well-being and responses to stress in later life.  Whilst young children’s brains and nervous systems are still under construction, it is of particular importance for the early years practitioner to help support children in developing high vagal tone.  As Gottman writes, ‘just as kids with good muscle tone excel at sports, kids with high vagal tone excel at responding to and recovering from emotional stress’.

In essence, Emotion Coaching provides the practitioner with an effective strategy which helps children learn to self-regulate their emotions and consequently their behaviour:

  • by triggering a calmer response through empathetic support,
  • by assisting/co-regulating young children to self-soothe by raising their awareness of their own emotional state and helping them to establish good vagal tone,
  • by using the emotional moment as an opportunity to scaffold the young children’s self-management of their emotions and behaviour.

The 3 steps of Emotion Coaching from dysregulation to co-regulation to self-regulated are depicted in the diagram below (courtesy of Kate Cairns Associates):

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Recent research by the author evaluated the impact of adopting Emotion Coaching techniques into professional practice, particularly during behavioural incidents.  Practitioners and parents were trained and supported to help embed Emotion Coaching into practice and preliminary findings show that Emotion Coaching: 

  • Helps children to regulate, improve and take ownership of their behavior
  • Helps children to calm down and better understand their emotions
  • Helps practitioners to be more sensitive to children’s needs
  • Helps create more consistent responses to children’s behavior
  • Helps  practitioners to feel more ‘in control’ during incidents
  • Helps promote positive relationships

For example, one practitioner talked about how Emotion Coaching helped her to communicate more effectively and consistently with children in stressful situations and to de-escalate volatile situations.  She said: “It made the whole situation feel less fraught for both parties”.  By using Emotion Coaching, adults found difficult situations less stressful and exhausting with a positive impact not just on the children’s well-being, but their own.  One said: “It actually made me feel better because it made me feel calmer during the process”.  Another said: “I show more empathy with how the child must be feeling and it helps you slow down to consider why a child is upset/angry.  Because I now use this, I think the relationship I have with the children is much more relaxed”.  Emotion Coaching promotes young children’s self-awareness of their emotions, positive self-regulation of their behaviour and generates more nurturing relationships.  In nurturing relationships, young children can feel protected, comforted and secure within a context of caring and trustworthy adults, who can support them in their emotional self-regulation.  As one practitioner put it:  “It makes the children feel more secure and gives them a vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling instead of just acting out.  This helps them to be more positive and happier”.  Whilst a parent commented: “My boys seem to calm down a lot quicker than before and my daughter is understanding that she’s not on her own with her emotions.  Their confidence is improving and they know it’s normal to have all these feelings”.

So how does it actually work in practice?

By using an example from the research project where Emotion Coaching was used successfully in a Nursery, we can see how it might work in practice (see box)

Case Study from a Nursery:

Sam was a 2 and a half year old who was looked after mostly by his Grandmother as his mother suffered from health issues.  He had not spent much time in the Nursery and when the time came for his Grandmother to leave him, he would become very upset, often screaming for a long time.  At first the Key Person would try and entice him to stop crying by saying ‘If you stop crying, I’ll give you a cuddle’ or ‘If you stop crying, I’ll give you your teddy’.  Or she tried ways of distracting him by giving him a toy or telling him something fun that was happening that day.  Or she put him in the ‘time out’ chair on his own until he eventually stopped crying. These attempts to reward and/or distract Sam into behaving differently did not seem to be helping.  After Emotion Coaching training, the Key Person changed the way she approached Sam in the following way:

When she saw Sam, she immediately started to focus on Sam’s emotional state, empathising with how he might be feeling and affirming these feelings by verbalising them for him by saying: ‘Ah, I can see your sad Sam.  It’s making you feel upset to leave your Grandma.  I can understand why you feel like that.  This is a new place for you, isn’t it and you’re getting used to new people.  That would feel strange for me too. I feel a bit sad and worried when I don’t know people’.  In this way, she was co-regulating his emotional state (rather than leaving him to cope on his own) by tuning into his feelings.  She was also role-modelling a more empathic response and providing a narrative for Sam to help trigger a calmer state and engage in more productive behaviour.  After he was soothed, she would make it clear that screaming was not ok but would go through some ideas of what he could do instead when he was feeling upset. She would say: ‘There are things we can do to make you feel better when you come to nursery. Things that will help you not to cry so hard and make such a noise.  I know you feel like crying because you feel so upset but crying like that makes it hard for everyone to hear and it means you might miss some of the fun things all the other children are doing.  Let’s find a special place you can go when you come to Nursery and we can sit together until you feel better, maybe look at your favourite book or play your favourite game’.  The Key Person noticed that using Step 1 of Emotion Coaching helped Sam to calm down more quickly, that using Step 2 helped Sam to learn some of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and that Step 3 helped her to work with Sam to find strategies that would help him to settle more easily into Nursery. Although the Key Person used some distraction techniques which might be viewed as a ‘reward’ to motivate Sam, this was done within the ‘internal’ Emotion Coaching framework which helped Sam to moderate his feelings and behaviour, rather than just rely on external rewards. 

 

Key points to remember for Step 1:

  • Recognise all emotions as being natural and normal and not always a matter of choice
  • Recognise behaviour as communication (relational vs behavioural model)
  • Look for physical and verbal signs of the emotion being felt
  • Take on the child’s perspective (mentalising/mind-mindedness)
  • Use words to reflect back child’s emotion and help child/young person to label emotion
  • Affirm and empathise, allowing to calm down
  • Provide a narrative/translation for the emotional experience (creating cognitive links)

Key points to remember for Step 2:

  • State the boundary limits of acceptable behaviour
  • Make it clear certain behaviours cannot be accepted
  • But retain the child’s self-dignity (crucial for responsive behaviour and well-being)

Key points to remember for Step 3

  • When the child is calm and in a relaxed, rational state:
  • Explore the feelings that give rise to the behaviour/problem/incident
  • Scaffold alternative ideas and actions that could lead to more appropriate and productive outcomes
  • Empower the child to believe s/he can overcome difficulties and manage feelings/behaviour

 Here’s another case study from a Reception class which tells the story of five-year old Sally who successfully learnt to self-regulate her behaviour (see box).

Case Study from a Reception Class:

Bonnie is a Reception teacher in an inner city primary school in London.  She found Emotion Coaching of particular help when she had difficulties with a 5 year old girl, Sally, who was prone to temper tantrums.  In her frustration, Sally sometimes damaged property such as tearing down displays on the walls.  Initially, Bonnie responded with a ‘disapproving’ style of interaction. Bonnie instinctively adopted this role as she felt it was expected of her as a teacher and tried to control Sally’s reactions with reprimands and threats.  At other times, Bonnie found herself adopting a ‘dismissing’ style of interaction with Sally which meant that she either ignored or trivialised Sally’s negative emotions or tried to distract her with rewards.  Eventually, Bonnie realised that neither disapproving or dismissing Sally’s emotions and behaviour was preventing the tantrums from occurring and so she decided to adopt an ‘Emotion Coach’ style of interaction.  The next time Sally had a tantrum, instead of getting cross with her or ignoring her, Bonnie said things like ‘You seem to be feeling angry.  I can see that you are feeling fed up about this.  Shall we talk about how you’re feeling?’  If Sally’s emotions were causing a particular problem such as damaging property she would include limit-setting statements such as ‘I can see you are cross now but it’s not ok to rip that display or push that girl.  We need to help you to feel more calm so that you don’t hurt anything.’  She noticed that empathising with the girls’ feelings seemed to stop the tantrum from getting worse almost as if it ‘took the wind out of her sails’.  When Sally was feeling calmer, Bonnie was able to talk about how she could manage her feelings better and they worked together to think of some ways they could prevent the feelings from causing misbehaviour.  Sally did not respond immediately the first time Bonnie tried Emotion Coaching but it did seem to calm her more quickly.   Bonnie also said that initially she had some misgivings about trying Emotion Coaching as she was concerned that it would diminish her authority and that the empathy would make things worse by legitimising the behaviour.  But she was able to help Sally to realise that it was her feelings that were causing the behaviour.  This distinction gave both Bonnie and Sally a means to communicate more effectively and to learn to co- regulate both Sally’s’ feelings and her behaviour.  Over time, Sally learnt to recognise when she was feeling angry or frustrated and started to verbalise her feelings rather than lashing out.  She also started to use some of the ideas she and Bonnie had discussed to help manage her behaviour.  Instead of reacting and getting more angry whenever something frustrated her, she would say ‘I’m feeling cross and so I’m going to go and sit down now in my special calming place’. Sally had learnt to self-sooth, prevent escalation of her feelings and to moderate her behaviour more effectively, which in turn gave her the opportunity to spend more time constructively engaging in lessons and with her peers.

 

Of course Emotion Coaching is not a panacea, a quick fix or a miracle cure.  But research suggests that engagement in Emotion Coaching can provide transferable skills that benefit practitioners, parents and children.  In this respect, it contributes to sustainable early years practice that optimises universal well-being and resilience.   

For more information or training in Emotion Coaching, please contact Dr Janet Rose – j.rose@bathspa.ac.uk


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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