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Emotional Competence Part 2: Developing Self-Awareness

In his ground-breaking work, Daniel Goleman calls self-awareness a 'keystone of emotional intelligence.'(i) A self-aware child is conscious of his emotions. He is able to discriminate between various feelings, and is therefore more likely to make appropriate, socially acceptable responses to life's challenges. He has the ability to resist what Goleman calls the danger of 'emotional hijacking'. A child who has not learned to be aware of his emotions cannot become fully emotionally competent. His life is more likely to resemble a roller-coaster of reactions to events, rather than a journey where he actively responds to life's challenges. In order to have self-control, you need to have self-awareness, and in Goleman's words:

Those who are at the mercy of impulse - who lack self-control - suffer a moral deficiency: the ability to control impulse is the base of will and character.

Some children enter the early years setting with a higher level of self-awareness than others. A child's ability to know their emotions, recognize feelings and discriminate between them will depend upon a number of factors. Personality certainly plays a major part - undoubtedly we have all known children at opposite ends of this spectrum: those who rush from one crisis to another, responding to stimuli without seeming to stop to think, to those who can talk endlessly about their innermost feelings about everything from their guinea pig to the colour of their new shoes!

But experts are generally in agreement that self-awareness is not simply a genetic trait. Howard Gardner defines self-awareness as an 'intelligence', but he and Goleman are in agreement that it is learned and can be taught(ii). To a large extent, that learning comes from a child observing the adults around him, noting how they deal with emotions and respond to stress. How well this lesson is learned depends largely upon the quality of the examples offered. If adults are emotionally literate, they not only set an example of emotional competence, but they are also in a position to give explicit lessons based upon their personal responses to everyday events. They can go a step further than modeling emotional competence - they can actively teach for it. For example, when discovering that a number of colours of paint have run out, children can learn from the practitioner making an observation such as, "Oh, I'm cross with myself about that! How could I forget to order the paint? How annoying! Hmm... But it doesn't help to get cross, it's too late now. I'll make a note to remind myself next time. So, what can we do about it? I wonder if we can get the powder paints out and mix the colours that we need?" Through witnessing the adult talk through her emotions aloud and hearing her verbalize how to cope with them and find a solution, the child has been provided with a model and an explicit explanation of emotionally competence that he can apply to future challenges of his own.

When the child encounters these personal challenges, adults need to actively help him to connect his thoughts to his feelings, in order to be able to recognize his emotions and respond to them consciously. Stanley Greenspan, Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University, writes about the importance of helping children to think consciously and connect concepts:

To the degree that caregivers accurately understand the child's communications and elaborate on them in the direction the child is moving, the child's internal world keeps expanding, forming an ever more logical and refined network of thoughts and images that gives structure and meaning to his inner life.(iii)

The caregiver needs to help the child to bring his feelings into his consciousness. Self-awareness is not the same as self control, nor is it mere obedience to rules: it is being conscious of your emotions as you experience them, for example as you are tempted to push over another child as you race to be the first to the bikes. The reflection, "he took the bike and I screamed," needs to become, "he took the bike so I felt angry and disappointed." We should not simply aim for obedience to rules such as 'no pushing.' An emotionally competent child will know the rules and the reasons for them, but he will also be aware of his emotions, and so will be able to consciously control his behaviour.

One of the most effective ways to help the child reach this level of emotional competence is to act as an observer and reflect back what we observe to him, encouraging him to bring his feelings into his consciousness. When a child is clearly feeling a flood of emotion such as anger, jealousy or sadness, the practitioner needs to carefully choose the language that she uses in her response. The sorts of phrases that should be avoided include ones such as, "there's no reason to feel like that," and, "never mind," or simple instructions and reminders of rules, such as, "remember we don't hit," or, "why don't you go and play with something else instead?"

It is far more effective to hand the responsibility back to the child to inwardly reflect upon his feelings and to find conscious solutions. Of course, this does not include allowing him to hurt another child in the process, and at times a simple reminder of rules and a time to cool off would be appropriate. The sooner you intervene in the 'emotional hijacking' process, the better chance you have of averting the impulsive response and helping the child to process the experience successfully. If it is necessary to reinforce rules, it is best to do it in the context of feelings, for example, "Jacob, I understand that you feel upset, but please don't hit."

It is also important to let the child be the active participant and to avoid 'telling' her what she must be feeling. She is the only one who knows how she feels! Choose phrases such as:

"You seem upset. Do you want to tell me..."
"If that happened to me, I think I'd feel..."
"It looks to me as if maybe..."
"What might help you to..."

Following the uncritical acknowledgement of the emotion, reflect back what the child says or seems to be trying to say. Allow her time to process her thoughts and express them. Once the emotion has been brought to the child's attention and she has heard it given a name, it is within her consciousness. When children lack the verbal skills to find the language themselves for their feelings, making an "I" statement can be a useful tool for the practitioner. An example would be, "If I had to rebuild my model, I think I'd feel really cross." In many situations, 'walking through' the incident from start to finish can be helpful. Taking the child back to the start of the incident, and calmly giving language to what happened and to what she felt can help her to process it more clearly. A creative practitioner can then find opportunities to help the children to learn from the experience by re-visiting it in different contexts. For example, a dispute over a favourite doll in the home corner that resulted in hurt feelings can be explored the next day at circle time with an activity where a beautiful doll is handed around and everybody has the chance to stroke her hair and talk about what they like best about her. The practitioner can verbalize what many of the children may be feeling, for example, "Oh, she's so lovely, I want to hold her all day. I really don't want to hand her to Dinesh, but I know that he wants his turn.......(sigh).......oh, well, here you are Dinesh. It's your turn now."

There are many ways to foster the development of self-awareness, just by the way that we interact and organize the curriculum. Many practitioners consider ways to do this when they plan, working activities into the daily and weekly routine that actively foster the development of self-awareness. Some simple ways to do this might include:

  • Using small world toys to act out and give words to conflicts, frustrations, or sad or exciting events.
  • Using puppets and dolls to tell stories that are related to the children's real-life experiences.
  • Using mirrors to practice making expressions to show different emotions.
  • Drawing children's attention to the expressions on the faces of characters in books.
  • Taking photographs of children and adults in the setting with different expressions and talking about their moods.
  • Being explicit about personal feelings and what you observe in other people's expressions and actions.
  • Talking about personal challenges and how you deal with them.
  • Role-playing lots of different scenarios at circle time.
  • Making masks with different expressions and telling stories where the masks are interchanged to show the characters' different moods.
  • Including mentions of emotions at plenary times - asking children how they felt along with questions about what they achieved or learned.

By being proactive and keeping this aspect of emotional competence in mind when planning everyday activities and responding to events in the setting, the practitioner gives children permission to feel different emotions, and she actively helps them to become self-aware. Once a child has the ability to recognize and identify personal emotions, he can move on to be able to effectively manage his emotions. He will be able to act appropriately even when under stress, and subsequently to control and alter his mood.

Exclusively for the Foundation Stage Forum - International copyright Nicola Call © March 2004. All rights reserved

In the next article in this series I will address how we can help children to move on from being self-aware to having a good command of the second of Goleman's areas of emotional intelligence: the management of emotions.



i) Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995

ii) Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind – the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, 1983

iii) Stanley Greenspan, M.D., The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence, Perseus Books, 1997

Nicola Call
Nicola Call is author of The ALPS Approach and The Thinking Child. She is currently working on The Can-Do Club, a series of children's books with accompanying activities for the promotion of emotional competence. More information about Nicola's work can be found at her websites at acceleratedlearning.co.uk and www.candoclub.com

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