Learn about the issues | Preschool | Kindergarten | Behavior + Discipline | New Parents | Ages 3–5

Emotional coaching sets the stage for learning

When we think about school readiness, we often focus on a child's cognitive skills. Can he count? Recognize letters? Spell his name?

According to experts at the Talaris Research Institute in Seattle (the institute studies early brain development), kids do better in school when parents also pay close attention to their emotional development.

"We've asked the question, what permits us to absorb new experiences and form social relationships?" says Bridgett Chandler, vice president and chief programs officer at Talaris. "We've found that emotional health is very important."

Parents, says Chandler, can help children learn to regulate their emotions and understand their own feelings. At Talaris, researchers call this "emotion coaching."

"Emotional well-being is the ground floor for psychological and social mental health," says Chandler. "Children need this for learning. A child wrought with anxiety or fear--or who has never been able to handle anger--will be in a stressed situation at school. His brain will be focused on survival."

Parents can become effective emotion coachers by learning how to validate their child's feelings, says Billie Young, manager of Child Development Programs for the City of Seattle.

"Toddlers get overwhelmed and have melt-downs," she says. "A controlling parent might say, 'Knock it off, I'm sick of that.' An emotion coaching parent would help the child understand that behavior by saying, 'It sounds like you might be angry. It's hard to be angry, isn't it? It doesn't feel good.'"

With assistance, children can find solutions for dealing with their anger or sadness, says Young. "A parent might say, 'It's not okay to hit me--but you can hit the pillow.' Or, 'I know you're sad, but it's time to go to bed now. In a little bit, you're going to feel better.'"

Child and family therapist Terri Hollinsworth suggests parents label feelings such as disappointment and frustration. "That way kids will get a chance to understand the words."

How does helping a child cope with emotions translate to school readiness?

Kids who can't manage their feelings can't make friends, work in groups or stay in the classrooms, Young says. "The kindergarten teacher needs a child that talks about his feelings and deals with them in a way that doesn't make him disruptive to the class."

Areas of emotional development

Larry Macmillan, director of the Highline Head Start Learning Center and Young's husband, targets three areas of emotional development directly linked to a child's school performance: attachment, self-control and initiative.

"Learning takes place in the context of relationships," he says. "Attachment affects how well a child can socialize and form bonds with peers and with the teacher."

Self-control--intertwined with initiative and curiosity--is what helps a child stand in line, sit in a circle and wait his turn.

Babies begin forming attachments-with support from parents or caretakers-the day they're born. "Parents should read to their baby, mirror their baby's expressions and show the baby that his needs will be met," says Macmillan.

Parents can teach self-control and initiative by helping their child understand behavior, what's acceptable and what's not. "Children possess an innate aggression to discover the world," he says. "They need to figure out ways to balance their impulses and to understand how those impulses impact others."

Emotional teaching opportunities

The Talaris Institute suggests parents view their child's emotional moments-when their child is happy, sad, angry or hurt--as opportunities to teach the child how to deal with feelings in a healthy way.

Here are some tips from Talaris:

  • Be aware of your children's emotions throughout the day.
  • Don't dismiss or avoid their emotions; acknowledge them in a patient caring way.
  • Encourage your children to talk about their emotions.
  • Let them know you accept them, no matter what feelings appear.
  • Tell them you understand their feelings.
  • Help them feel it's okay to trust their emotional instincts.
  • Help them think of solutions to the situation--and let them suggest their own ideas.

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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