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Mindfulness Training: Developing Emotional Literacy in Young Kids

When you teach kids … how to recognize their feelings, understand where they come from and learn how to deal with them, you teach them the most essential skills for their success in life. …Additional data concludes that “young people with high EQ [emotional intelligence] earn higher grades, stay in school, and make healthier choices. Psychology Today, Why We Need to Teach Kids Emotional Intelligence

When we engage in mindfulness activities with kids, we have an opportunity to see how their minds work: what they’re thinking about, what makes them sad, what makes them happy, what colours they like, what happened at school that they may have forgotten about. And because we’re “just talking,” not teaching or testing, they have emotional space to remember the day, and we can take the time to really listen to what they’re saying.

In these conversations, we can teach them what Dr. Daniel Siegel often refers to as “name it to tame it.” Children learn that naming their feelings can help them respond with kindness, self-awareness, and empathy. We can also help by talking more about our own feelings, being honest when we feel sad, angry, or fearful. For example, I might say, “I’m feeling frustrated with this traffic jam. I’m going to take some deep breaths to relax.”

It’s never too early to start developing emotional literacy

When children develop emotional literacy -- the ability to recognize and label the emotions that they are feeling in themselves and others -- empathy increases at the same time. So the first step in mindfulness training for children is to teach them to recognize and identify their own emotions.

Stories are a great way to help them imagine and associate the word for an emotion with the actual experience of feeling that emotion. When talking about feelings that come up in the stories, encourage them to think about how each emotion feels in their body, asking the questions:

“When you feel sad, where would you feel it in your body?” 

“When you feel angry (or happy or excited), where do you feel it in the body?

Whenever I ask these questions, I get responses like “my tummy hurts,” “my face feels hot,” or “my head hurts,” which are similar to what we as adults may feel in response to those emotions.

Explain to them that feelings are like little seeds we put in our brain, and it’s okay to feel all feelings, even the mad, angry, and sad ones. Tell them: “Learning to know and describe what you’re feeling is important. It’s like growing a garden in our brain. When we can recognize the angry, mad, and sad seeds, we can learn to use mindfulness tools to grow seeds of peace, calm, and happiness.”

Tips and games for emotional literacy training

At school:

In addition to stories, try introducing and adapting games and songs featuring feeling words, such as “If you’re happy and you know it,” with new verses: “If you’re frustrated and you know it, take a breath,” “If you’re disappointed and you know it, tell a friend/teacher/parent,” or “If you’re proud and you know it, say ‘hooray for me!’”

Here are some games to play with young children (remembering to change or modify to suit the children’s level of growth and understanding.)

  • Play “musical feelings.” Cut pictures from old magazines of faces that represent various feelings. Put them in a container and pass it around the circle as music plays. When the music stops, the child holding the container selects a picture and names the emotion. Ask them to show how they look when they feel that way, or to describe a time when they felt that way. For even more fun, pass around a small mirror that they can use to look at their own expressions.
  • Make a “feeling face collage” with the cut-out faces and help kids label the emotions.
  • Play “feeling face charades”: Take turns freezing an emotional expression and asking others to guess what the feeling is. Ask them to think of a time that they felt that way.

(Adapted from Vanderbuilt University.)

At home:

  • When you’re reading a bedtime story, help them to name and talk about the characters’ emotions.
  • When watching TV shows or movies, pause the show and ask if your kids can tell by the body language and the words what emotions that person is feeling.
  • Use this free printable coloring page to draw faces for different emotions. Ask, “Have you ever felt those emotions? “Can you relate to how that person feels?”
  • Use thesefree Emotion Cards to work on your kids’ relating and empathy skills.
  • Watch the movie “Inside Out” and ask questions. Encourage your kids to talk about the movie and what it tells them about emotions
  • Play the board games “Q’s Race to the Top” or “Guess How I Feel?”

Mindfulness training for young kids in Vancouver

Mindfulness and the related skills of self-awareness and emotional literacy are taught to young kids (8-10 years old) with our classes for kids. We also provide mindfulness classes in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland for parents, schools and teachers. Contact Shahin for schedules and class descriptions.

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About Shahin Najak

Shahin Najak is a Mindfulness Coach and speaker, teaching in the Vancouver, BC area. She is certified as a Yoga Instructor and Reiki practitioner, as well as a Jack Canfield (author of Chicken soup for the Soul) Success trainer.
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