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Emotional Competence Part 3: Learning to Manage Emotions

The physiological structure of the brain means that an emotionally-charged situation can produce a somewhat primitive hormonal rush that we cannot control. Our aim should not be to try to repress or deny the emotions themselves, but instead to help each individual to learn to manage their responses to emotions. A child who has a high level of self-awareness has the building blocks in place that will make it easier for him to develop this self-control. Young children feel the effect of their emotions more intensely than most adults, mainly because they do not have the life-experience to be able to anticipate what is likely to result from any action or event. They also tend to respond more impulsively, simply because they have not learned techniques for controlling their responses. Indeed, most young children have not yet even learned that this is socially desirable! We cannot protect children from feeling a wide range of emotions, nor would it necessarily be advantageous to do so, but we can help them to learn to anticipate and deal with their emotions appropriately.

Children who are self-aware have learned to make a connection between a cause and the resulting emotion. The first stage is being able to understand their own emotions, and the next is to be able to resist acting impulsively in response to them. Unless there is a life-threatening situation, there needs to be a 'thinking break' between the onset of an emotion and any subsequent action. Some children find this easier than others. A famous piece of research done in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel showed how different children are in their ability to manage impulsivity.(1) Mischel offered a marshmallow as a treat to a group of young children, but told them that if they would wait for a while they would be allowed two marshmallows when he returned. There was a wide variation between the preschoolers who waited patiently for fifteen minutes, to those who had eaten the marshmallow before he had even left the room!

A variety of factors will determine a child's level of impulsivity and his ability to manage his emotions, such as personality, early experiences and the role-modeling of adults. The child's ability to understand and use language will also have an impact upon his ability to find solutions to challenging situations. A child with limited language skills will naturally find it harder to express his emotions and seek solutions verbally. He will often need more direct help with learning how to respond to frustrations. It is useful to reflect back to the child what he may be feeling and to teach him some simple phrases for dealing with difficult situations. For example, at circle time children can rehearse saying phrases such as, "please share," or "may I have a turn?" These skills can be practiced when playing a variety of games that involve waiting, turn-taking and suspense. It is also important to teach children simple rules, such as, 'tell an adult if you feel upset or cross.' Our aim, however, should not be for blind obedience to rules, nor to lead children to feel that only an adult can solve problems. It is important to hand the power to the children to find solutions, such as by saying, "you seem to be cross that Tony didn't let you have a turn. What do you think you can both do?"

There is a lot of scope for professional judgement regarding when to intervene in an emotionally volatile situation and when to simply observe. As long as there is no risk or danger, it is often worth waiting to see how children manage to problem-solve. For example, as an argument developed in the sandpit in a nursery playground, Carin clearly felt a mixture of emotions as Joshua held the two biggest spades behind his back and screamed at Carin, refusing to allow her to use one. The key-worker's instinct was to intervene, but then she decided to wait a moment to observe:

'Joshua was obviously overwhelmed with anger that another child would step into what he regarded as his territory. I thought that Carin might respond by shouting back or trying to grab a spade. But in fact, Carin tried to find a strategy to persuade Joshua to share. Instead of grabbing from him and causing a fight, she spoke to him and tried to negotiate a solution. "Hey, Josh, let's make a fort. A really big one for the dinosaurs! Yeah, with a tower as tall as the trees…" Joshua was carried away with the excitement of Carin's proposal and handed over a spade and began to dig.'

The key-worker made a mental note to revisit the incident with the children later in the day, but at the time she simply made a quiet affirmation that, "Carin and Joshua are great at sharing and working together." In doing so, she reinforced the desirable behaviour and increased the chances of it being repeated. Later, she invited the children to talk about the incident, focusing on the positive aspects of how Carin had wanted to share the sand toys and had invited Joshua to work with her.

Whereas Carin clearly has a good grasp of techniques for managing impulsiveness, Joshua needs to learn to predict what might be a result from behaviours such as refusing to share the sand toys. This is one of the essential skills that children need if they are to learn to manage their emotions. They need to be able to anticipate their own emotions first, before being able to anticipate how someone else might respond to their actions. Children like Joshua benefit from adults being explicit about cause and effect, and from being involved in discussions that help them to draw parallels and learn from each experience. They also benefit from being taught specific methods for managing emotions. This can be done by adults being explicit and verbalizing these techniques when they encounter challenging situations. For example, saying "Oh bother, that makes me so cross!" as you discover that the bolt on the shed has seized up could then be followed by, "OK, I'll take a deep breath and count slowly. One, two, three... hmm, now, I wonder how we can solve this problem and get the bikes out of the shed? Who has any ideas?" Real-life situations can be used in this way to demonstrate how to handle a variety of emotions, and can be followed up with stories, discussion and role-play activities where children revisit situations and practice these skills.

Learning to manage emotions often involves an inner struggle for children. If a child is overwhelmed by his emotions and behaves inappropriately, he needs support if he is to learn from the incident. Our aim should be to help him to make a better choice the next time that he feels overwhelmed. For some children, a quiet time away from other children helps - although this should not to be confused with being isolated in a 'time out' or punishment, which can be counter-productive to emotional development. If 'alone time' is needed, it should be carefully monitored and the child should be supported through the experience. For other children, a distraction such as an active game or exercise works before revisiting the difficult situation, and for others, a quiet activity such as listening to soothing music is more productive. Care must be taken, however, that the activity does not become a chance to fume inwardly and fuel the emotion, which may then emerge later in some form of negative behaviour, such as seeking revenge. It is important to ensure that any method used to help a child to cool off and reflect is a productive experience. Even if an activity is not intended to be a punishment, we need to take care that this is not how it is perceived by the child.

Once the child has had the chance to reflect and settle any inner conflict, he can be helped to make an appropriate response. This may require more support from the adult. Simply telling a child to say, "I'm sorry" should never be seen as an adequate solution. The words, "I'm sorry", although socially gracious, are only useful if they are heartfelt and should never be accepted as a token gesture. If a child wishes to say sorry, the words should be part of a larger picture where he appreciates the meaning. At worst, an adult asking children to 'say sorry' can be asking them simply to tell a lie and then to move on. More learning will occur if you walk the child back through the incident and ask him to role-play what he might have done differently. He can then decide on an appropriate response and practice making that response. This can be done with other children or alone with an adult who he trusts, although any victim also needs to see that the child has made amends. Role-play is a useful technique because it offers an opportunity for learning new behaviours. When a child practices a type of behaviour, it can become familiar and comfortable and he is more likely to use it in the future.

Once a child has learned how to resist the temptation to act impulsively and can respond to challenges appropriately in spite of his emotions, he has a good chance of also being able to alter his mood:

'the design of the brain means that we every often have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor over what emotion it will be. But we can have some say in how long an emotion will last.'
Daniel Goleman (2)

When a child is feeling strong emotions, validating his feelings can be followed by gently asking him what he might do to alter his mood. Even if he is unable to do so at that time, an explicit mention of how it is necessary sometimes to take action to alter one's mood will help him to learn to do so eventually for himself. Drawing upon real-life examples in discussions and plenary times will raise children's awareness and reinforce emotionally competent behaviour. Role-play and circle time activities can help children to learn to control and alter their moods by experimenting, for example, with how it feels to be grumpy one minute, and cheerful the next. Simple games can initiate discussion, such as showing children a selection of pictures and asking them which things would cheer them up, such as playing with a pet, listening to music, reading a book, or snuggling with a parent. It can be made more fun by adding some silly pictures such as a one of a brick or a string of sausages! There is also endless scope for learning through story sessions where moods are exaggerated, with visual props such as puppets and soft toys who work their way out of different predicaments by learning to adapt their moods.

Some of this learning can be planned for and structured, but most emotional development will simply occur as children face the everyday challenges inherent in being a young child. A fine balance is needed between distracting children or 'cheering them up', helping them to move on after a crisis, and helping them to manage their emotions and moods for themselves. Our aim is ultimately to equip each child with the skills to recognize and manage his emotions and moods even when an adult is not present. When a child can do this, he is well on his way to being fully emotionally competent.

In the next article in this series I will move on to consider the factors that contribute to a child being self-motivated.

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


1) Walter Mischel et al, Stanford University , USA , quoted in Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995

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

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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