Exploring Emotional Intelligence: Helping children to express their feelings through positive child guidance

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Being emotionally capable of using words to express feelings is critical to becoming socially competent. A commonly held belief is that children in modern society are more emotionally stressed than at any other time in history. It appears that the lack of ”emotional intelligence” prevalent in today’s children, could be interfering with their ability to pursue healthy inter- personal relationships.

Exploring emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is defined as the intelligent use of one’s emotions. It is the intentional act of using emotions to guide one’s thinking and behavior. Being aware of one’s feelings and accepting responsibility for one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions can have a profoundly positive influence on one’s ability to manifest self-control. Since all early childhood educators are in agreement that we, as adults, must facilitate young children learning socially acceptable behavior; we should certainly not leave the emotional education of young children to chance either. Teachers of young children help to prepare young children for life. Helping young children develop self-awareness, self-control, self-direction, self-regulation and a strong sense of self-worth is essential to becoming a fully-functioning member of a democratic society.

Effective implementation of developmentally appropriate classroom management is essential to creating an educational environment conducive to early learning. However, the typical early childhood educator relies on maintaining order in the classroom through discipline methods that are detrimental to the emotional well-being of young children. For this reason, it is of utmost importance to understand the link between behavior management practices and the development of emotional intelligence (Ryff & Singer, 2001).

Early childhood educators must utilize classroom management techniques that promote the development of emotional intelligence. To do so calls for a fundamental change in the way teachers of young children attempt to control disruptive behavior. Relying on the use of punishment in an attempt to extinguish unacceptable behavior must be abandoned, Early childhood educators must utilize techniques that facilitate young children learning how to self-monitor and self-regulate their own behavior. Adults need to help children learn how to exercise self-control, not out of fear, but out of respect for themselves, the environment and others.

It is well accepted that emotional responsiveness to learning is an extremely important component of the educational process. Emotions drive attention and attention drives learning.  When a child is unable to sustain focused attention, learning becomes more difficult. Attempting to separate emotions from learning is futile. It is impossible to separate emotions from any aspect of daily living. We need to realize that emotions are intimately linked to the whole child. Therefore, any behavior management plan must be based, not on punishment, but rather on the development of self-control. Early childhood is the time when children need to learn how to balance responsiveness to personal needs against the needs of others.

Research clearly demonstrates that punishment tends to exacerbate discipline problems rather than minimize them. Negative adult behavior has a profoundly negative impact on both self-esteem and school achievement. Attempts to extinguish unacceptable behavior using punitive measures stifles the emotional, social and cognitive development of young children. Not only does attempting to change children’s behavior through the use of punishment frequently not stop unwanted behavior, it also tends to lead to an emotional insensitivity to others. It is actually just as counterproductive to curtailing disruptive behavior as permissiveness (Cohen, 2001).

Using children’s books as an integral part of a classroom management plan

A developmentally appropriate behavior management plan facilitates self-evaluation that helps a young child to practice acceptable alternatives to unkind, disruptive behavior. An important part of a learning environment for young children is to provide the stimulus to fix mistakes and acquire information useful for avoiding making the same mistake in the future. It is not a teacher’s job to make a child feel ”bad” for making a mistake. Rather, the role of the early childhood educator is to assist the young child in making healthy choices for self that are responsive to others and the environment.

Having the ability to deal constructively with interpersonal conflict is pivotal to successful living in a democracy. Without emotional intelligence, healthy conflict resolution is impossible. Teachers of young children must accept a major role in helping young children learn the skills required to become cooperative, responsible members of society. This skill will only evolve from developing the emotional intelligence necessary for handling interpersonal conflict in a socially competent manner.

If young children do not learn pro-social ways to resolve conflicts in the school environment, can we take for granted that these skills will be acquired elsewhere? Even if the foundation for emotional intelligence is initiated at home, it must be reinforced in the early childhood education environment.  Imagine a classroom where young children are able to resolve conflicts without the intervention of an adult. Imagine a school setting where diversity is celebrated and feelings are openly expressed. Imagine an environment where children and adults are working cooperatively to solve problems without aggression or coercion. Our challenge is to make it a reality.

The place called ”school” is one place where emotional intel- Iigence should be modeled at all times. And the vehicle for this should be the teacher’s classroom management plan.  Early childhood educators must have realistic and develop- mentally appropriate behavioral expectations of young children. We must realize that how the learning environment is set up and maintained is going to have a significant impact on how young children act. How young children are expected to behave greatly impacts on how they actually behave. Having a curriculum that enhances a young child’s cognitive and emotional development is necessary to help that child stay ”on task” so that academic learning can take place (Reuven & Parker, 2000).

The early childhood environment is the place where young children should be exposed to healthy conflict resolution.

Being able to demonstrate healthy conflict resolution is the hallmark of emotional intelligence. Therefore, early childhood classrooms should be set-up for young children to practice constructive ways of solving interpersonal conflict.

An abundance of research emphasizes the importance of using books to, not only enhance a young child’s cognitive development   but to also enhance a child’s emotional develeve , opment. When an adult reads a book about an emotionally- charged theme to a child and then leads a discussion about the meaning of the book, the result can profoundly influence the child in a positive way. To a young child, problems seem much more manageable when others facing the same problem are able to come up with a solution. When a young child sees that others experience the same frustrations that he or she must deal with, that child develops an understanding that he or she is not the only one in the world with a problem. Thus, problems become easier to face, Using children’s literature to help a young child explore feelings is an invaluable pad of early childhood education (McDevitt & Ormond, 2004).

Books are a valuable tool for learning how to use words to express feelings

In spite of all the TV viewing young children do, the importance of books for enhancing cognitive and emotional development cannot be over-emphasized. Despite the fact that most adults tend not to spend much time reading, it is imperative that early childhood educators encourage young children to use reading as a vehicle for learning. Reading books to young children can facilitate the exploration of feelings and serve as a vehicle for understanding healthy ways of expressing emotion. Books can be used as a ”mirror to the self” and as a model for healthy conflict resolution. Reading books to young children that explore feelings can be a powerful instructional tool for introducing discussions about limit-setting and social competence. Learning about how characters in a story solved their conflicts can provide the teachable moment to facilitate a young child learning how he or she can be more sensitive to the needs of others and still get his or her own needs met.

Using books to help young children explore their feelings is not a new idea. Since the middle of the last century, educators have written about the value of using children’s books as a tool for helping to guide children through personal difficulties. This process has come to be known as bibliotherapy.

The term bibliotherapy implies using books to address psychological concerns with young children. Bibliotherapy does not end with reading a book about feelings to a child. Bibliotherapy includes using books to introduce a topic in the affective domain and then discussing, with children, the issues addressed in the story. Bibliotherapy can help young children to better see themselves and others through the characters in a story. Bibliotherapy can enhance self-awareness and build empathy for others. One of the most important skills a young child can acquire is the skill of communicating empathic understanding – the ability to understand how it feels to walk in another person’s shoes. Children’s books are an extremely valuable tool for developing this skill. Teachers of young children need to select books for reading to children that explore feelings and healthy ways of expressing emotions.

As a young child hears how the characters in a story deal with feelings, the child is exposed to a model for handling similar feelings as they might be encountered in the child’s personal life. Bibliotherapy can help a young child to better deal with the stressors of daily living. It probably goes with- out saying that when an early childhood educator encounters a child with seemingly complicated psychological problems, he or she should refer the child for professional help by an individual with the appropriate training in psychotherapeutic interventions. However, using books to help young children develop enhanced self-control is a non-threatening intervention that is clearly within the training and expedite of early childhood educators in the classroom (Doty, 2004).

Why should early childhood educators focus on emotional intelligence?

Is the role of an early childhood educator to get involved in the character development of young children? The answer is: YES! The role of the early childhood educator is to teach the whole child. How can we educate the whole child if we are ignoring the child’s emotional development? Using bibliotherapy is the most effective manner for an early childhood educator to address the emotional development of young children.

Building empathy for others begins with becoming sensitive to the emotional needs of others. Building self-control begins with having models of self-control to emulate. Reading books to children, where the characters in a story display pro-social behavior provides a powerful model for healthy ways of dealing with stress.


Early childhood educators cannot ignore the emotional reactions that young children display to events happening around them. Reading stories to young children that explore feelings can be an excellent introduction to discussions that address sensitive issues. When children are not burdened by emotional baggage, they are better able to be emotionally avail- able for learning.

Using bibliotherapy with young children requires good timing.  To best utilize the ”teachable moment” for introducing a story about a problem that has occurred in the classroom you need adequate time to address the issue. Problem-solving cannot be rushed. The purpose of bibliotherapy is to read a story that addresses feelings about a real-life problem and then to explore the feelings in greater detail during a classroom discussion of the topic.

Topics of frequent concern are: family, friends, self-control, self-worth, bullying, coping with fears and frustrations, illness or even the death of a classroom pet animal. There are many children’s books that address these topics. It is your job to seek them out. However, you must be careful to find books that address topics in a developmentally appropriate manner.

A book that trivializes a problem or solves it in an unrealistic manner will not help a young child in finding constructive solutions to handling frustration. It doesn’t matter if the characters in the story are real or fictional. What is important is whether or not the issues the characters are dealing with are issues that are realistic concerns of young children (Mosier, 2005).

  • References

    Cohen J. (2001). Caring classrooms/intelligent schools: The social-emotional education of young children. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Doty G. (2001 ). Fostering emotional intelligence in K-8 students: Simple strategies and ready- to-use activities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

    McDevitt T.M. & Ormrod J.E. (2004). Child development: Educating and working with children. (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice-Hall.

    Mosier W.A. (2005). Exploring emotional intelligence with young children: An annotated bibliography of books about feelings.Dayton, OH: Dayton Association of Young Children.

    Reuven B.O. & Parker J.D. (2000). The handbook of emotional intelligence: Theory, development, assessment and application at home, school and in the workplace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Ryff C.D. & Singer B.H. (2001). Emotion, social relationships and health. New York: Oxford University Press.

This article originally appeared in Dayton’s Young Children, Volume 1 Issue 2, Pages 2-4.
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