Model emotions

The importance of adult role modelling for children’s emotional development

Leah Davies offers educators ten tips for supporting children as they learn how to manage their feelings and grow emotionally.

Denying young emotions

Most educators agree that children’s emotional well-being contributes greatly to their social and intellectual development. However, adults have traditionally denied children’s feelings by saying things such as, “You shouldn’t feel that way!” or “You’ll be fine. Forget it.” Negating children’s strong emotions can result in fearfulness, confusion, shame and resentment, which can interfere with their learning. When negative emotions are suppressed, they usually resurface and cause problems. Children who are taught to identify, express, and cope positively with their feelings develop useful life skills.

How children learn emotional management

Human beings experience a variety of emotions that cannot be categorized as right or wrong. What is important is how children handle their feelings. Children learn by observing the significant others in their lives. Adults who honestly express their feelings in constructive ways foster children’s emotional growth. When educators model self-understanding and emotional maturity, their students are more likely to do the same.

Enhancing children’s emotional development

Here are ten tips for educators to help children grow emotionally:

  1. Help the children gain an understanding of their feelings through the use of books, board games, puppets, interactive storytelling or role-plays.
  2. Teach children to identify and verbalize their feelings, as well as to read the emotional signals from other children and adults.
  3. Watch a child’s facial expressions, posture, play or art work for signs that a child is experiencing a strong negative emotion. Then offer constructive ways to defuse it, such as painting, dialogue or taking a “time out.”
  4. Accept emotional responses as legitimate, even if you don’t like the behavior the feeling produces. For example, when a child hits, the feeling of anger is demonstrated. Stop the child and say, “It’s okay to feel angry; it’s not okay to hurt others. Talk to me about what you’re feeling.”
  5. Explain feelings to a child by reflecting the observed emotion. For example, say, “You seem sad” or “You seem upset.” Then, if the child confirms your reflection and begins talking, be quiet and listen.
  6. Observe the child’s non-verbal behavior for clues as to how he or she is feeling. Listen for the content of what is being said, as well.
  7. Avoid negative statements like, “Can’t you do anything right?” or “What’s your problem?” These comments discourage open communication and suggest that when a child does not behave perfectly, he or she is “bad.”
  8. Avoid moralizing (“That was wrong of you!”); humiliating (“I can’t believe you did that.”); lecturing (“You should have known better.”); denying (“You’ll be okay.”); pitying, (“Poor you. It’s all their fault.”); and rescuing, (“I’ll take care of it.”). Instead, listen patiently and nod your head appropriately. Remember that questions can often lead the child away from the real problem or cause the child to stop talking.
  9. Problem solve with the child by encouraging him or her to think of options and decide what constructive action to take.
  10. Keep lines of communication open. You might say something like: “Emily, I am glad you told me about your mom’s illness. It must be hard to have her in the hospital. Please know that I care about you and that I am here if you want to talk again”.


Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Leah Davies received her Master’s Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. Her professional experience of over 44 years includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.

See more from Leah at her Kelly Bear resources website

This article is used by kind permission.

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