The importance of recognising feelings and exploring emotions

Jessica Clifton

Jessica Clifton is marketing manager for elementary at LEGO Education, covering the UK, Scandinavia and France. Jess holds over three years’ experience within the sector and with a passion for working alongside teachers and educational specialists, she is able to contribute to the company’s ethos of providing solutions and resources that are used in the classroom to bring subjects to life and make learning fun.

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With annual awareness campaigns such as Children’s Mental Health Week and Mental Health Awareness Week, many schools and adults are focusing their attention on the wellbeing of pupils and teaching them how best to convey emotions. However, this isn’t something which should be actioned momentarily; it’s an important issue, and one that must be addressed all-year round.

Studies undertaken by The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University link the understanding of emotional and mental health with the development of cognitive functionality in the early years of education. This research, among other sources, suggests that an individual’s emotional, social and cognitive development is heavily influenced by their perceptions and experiences throughout childhood. Quite often, it is in the classroom when pupils are introduced to objects and situations for the first time. Through social interactions both at home and school, children begin to understand the basics about themselves and those around them. Therefore, teachers and adults must find ways for children to identify different emotions, helping them to understand that, for example, feeling sad or angry is perfectly normal and the ways that they can react, cope and respond accordingly.

While for adults recognising emotions is an automatic process, for children it is a new and often confusing concept. In the early stages of Primary school, they will come across situations that they may not necessarily be used to; making friends, falling out with friends, sharing equipment and working alongside different personality types. All of these experiences require reactions and responses, so it’s important for teachers to be able to provide a safe learning environment where pupils can sensitively explore and express their feelings. This will, in turn, allow them to adopt the necessary understanding and skills needed later in life, whether that be academic, social or personal.

The need to encourage young people to engage with their emotions can explored in subjects"It’s often in the classroom when pupils are introduced to objects and situations for the first time." such as PSHE, or in break out rooms away from lesson time for those who may have social, emotional or mental health issues. Wherever the discussion takes place, it’s important to provide a safe environment for pupils, and allow them to take the time to explore emotional understanding in various scenarios. Teachers can encourage pupils to think about how they feel, express their emotions and also understand how to respond to other people’s feelings.

According to Carolyn Saarni’s study Emotional Development in Childhood, by the age of five, children should be able to understand both their own and other’s feelings and be able to differentiate between emotions. In addition to this, they should also be able to verbally express how they are feeling using the correct vocabulary, such as “I’m happy” or “He’s angry”. But in order for children to be able to do this, we must focus on teaching them from a young age, so they grow up with a social and emotional understanding of themselves and their peers.

Claire Osbourne, team leader of the Behaviour Support Advisory Team at Telford and Wrekin Council, believes that learning through play and hands-on exploration is a significant part in this development process. She says, “We work with a lot of children who have various barriers to learning, including those with attachment difficulties or on the autistic spectrum and therefore have high levels of anxiety, and often have poor social skills. This can mean that they find it hard to interact with their peers. When children are unable to communicate or understand their emotions it can lead to negative behaviour being used to communicate an underlying need, which is the only way they know how to express it. So it’s really important for us to give them a vehicle that enables them to positively express their thoughts, feelings and emotions around a particular event.”

Often, talking therapies alone, or just having a conversation, simply gets the answer ‘I don’t know’. Therefore it’s important to consider adding visual elements and hands-on resources, so that children have the opportunity to express themselves in different ways. This is particularly useful for those who may not feel comfortable verbalising their feelings, or struggle to write it down.

Claire continues, “We’ve found that for those children who find it difficult engaging with writing for example, due to low self-esteem or fear of failure, find greater success in being more hands-on. This, in turn, helps them think more creatively, and gives them the confidence to then talk about, or write about what they have built or role-played. We find that visual and solution-focused activities are a lot more effective.”

There are so many ways that teachers and practitioners can engage children in expressing their emotions. For example, practitioners may set pupils a scenario and ask them to think about all the possible outcomes. Once they have done this, they can then identify the ones which will result in a positive outcome, rather than the negative. It’s important for pupils to focus on the positive solutions, so that they understand the appropriate ways to respond and act to peers’ feelings.

Role play or building scenes is another way that can help them ‘play’ with personal"Practitioners may set pupils a scenario and ask them to think about all the possible outcomes." problems or teach them how to behave in a particular social situation. Pupils who find it really difficult to interact in the playground, for example, could be tasked to build or act out what they think a good playtime would look like. Getting them to physically act it out or build it enables them to understand what they’d need to do in that situation, so that they can cope better themselves and alongside others.

Teachers and practitioners can also consider using resources that identify emotions or facial expressions, which can be useful for pupils who don’t necessarily recognise them. For example, use characters to create a scene in which a pupil is being bullied, and because of this, feels sad and upset. Ask the class to think of solutions to the problem, giving them the opportunity to consider different scenarios and what the most positive outcome could be. This should then result in pupils gaining an understanding of the social and emotional effects as well as an awareness of their actions.

One of the most important responsibilities of teachers, practitioners and adults is to support pupils in their emotional and mental wellbeing, whether this be in the classroom context or in a 1:1 or small group outside of the classroom. It’s important for children to build resilience and be given the confidence and reassurance that their feelings and thoughts are just as important as academic learning. Being able to express their emotions in a safe environment will ultimately increase their self-esteem and give them the confidence to interact appropriately with their peers. And by doing this from an early stage, it will then provide them with a positive outlook for future social and emotional chapters in their lives.

How do you help to encourage pupils’ emotional developments? Let us know in the comments below.


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