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Emotional coaching sets the stage for learning

Published on: April 01, 2004

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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