Increasing emotional literacy improves behaviors.

PageLines- childdev-groupofchildren.jpgSam is in his classroom. He is trying to do his work. Other students are bothering him, being loud, and calling him names. Sam becomes frustrated, turns around and pushes a classmate. He then gets up and angrily storms out of the room. School staff reprimands Sam for his behavior and sends him to the in school suspension room. This is the third time this week, Sam has had an outburst in class. Sam is signed up for counseling services. When asked about his behaviors Sam reports people say he has “anger problems.” He has difficulty talking about his feelings and blames his behavior on others. The story of Sam is all too common. Why can’t Sam control his anger? Why can’t he express how he feels? Why can’t he make better choices? Is there something wrong with Sam? He appears to be intelligent in class…
What factors contribute to overall success for children? Research has currently suggested that emotional literacy is the key to success and in fact, is a greater measure of intelligence than typical IQ scores. So just what is emotional literacy and why is it so important for children like Sam? Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner. Children such as Sam often lack the ability to identify their feelings as they are happening or often mislabel their feelings. Sam is aware he is angry, but perhaps not aware that his anger is triggered by other feelings – frustration, embarrassment, hurt. Here are some important concepts about feelings that counseling would begin to teach Sam:
 Feelings are normal. We all have them.
 People are capable of feeling many different feelings. We are entitled to all of them.
 You can have more than one emotion about anything.
 You can feel differently than someone else about the same thing
 All emotions are valid it’s what you do with them that counts
 Sometimes we feel contradictory feelings
 Some feelings are pleasant, some are unpleasant
 No feeling lasts forever
 There are over 4,000 words to describe emotions in the English Language
The benefits of emotional literacy are extensive. Children who are emotionally literate tolerate frustration better, get into fewer fights/form stronger friendships, exhibit less destructive behaviors, are healthier, are less lonely, are more focused and less impulsive, and demonstrate greater academic achievement (EL is the best predictor of school performance). Additionally, children who can regulate emotions are better at self-soothing and therefore experience negative emotions for a shorter period of time. Unfortunately, it is a developmental skill that is not present at birth. It must be fostered, or taught, through parents, teachers, and counselors. By naming feelings, labeling children’s feelings, and teaching children that feelings are normal and ok to express, adults can help children to develop this extremely important skill.
Sam attended weekly counseling sessions that included games to help Sam express his feelings, identifying new feeling words, and eventually working on coping skills to use when he experienced negative emotions. Through this training, Sam was able to express to his classmates or teachers when he was beginning to get frustrated. They were then able to assist Sam in calming down in appropriate ways. Sam’s time outside the classroom decreased and his overall academic achievement increased. He is just one example of how fostering emotional literacy can change the path of a child’s behavior, self-esteem, and overall success.
Rebecca Roebke, LCSW