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November 13, 2018

Social & Emotional Foundations for Early Learning

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How to nurture your child’s emotional growth during the early years.

Your child’s social and emotional skills are just as important as their academic development. To learn more about how families can nurture the emotional growth of their little ones at home and in child care, we spoke to Dr. Elizabeth K. King.

A little background.

Dr. Elizabeth King is the assistant professor of child and family development at Missouri State University. Prior to that, she worked for the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley. That work has nurtured her passion about the impact that early childhood programs can have — especially with children’s feelings. “I am interested in how we can support teachers to better support toddlers’ emotional development,” she says.

During one of the research studies Dr. King worked on, she got to spend a lot of time inside classrooms with toddlers. There, she noticed that there was a difference in how teachers treated boys and girls when it came to how they expressed emotions.

“We’ve all heard the narrative: If a boy is expressing anger and kind of being more physical, people say, “boys will be boys.” But with girls, I’ve found that teachers are more likely to talk about positive emotions. So the potential here is that we’re socializing young girls to experience and express positive emotions.” – Dr. Elizabeth King

Whether you’re raising a boy or a girl (or both), you can do a lot to nurture emotional skills. But that impact isn’t limited to your home. Read more below to find out about all the places that children learn to manage feelings — thanks to Dr. King’s insights.

There are things you can do so your child thrives emotionally at home and in the classroom.

When your children are at home, they are more likely to get one-on-one time with an adult. So, whenever they experience emotions, they can talk through them at home. But in classrooms, that is not always the case. Teachers can struggle with giving each child proper attention and ensuring that the class can meet its goals.

“If children have a good relationship with their teachers, they will trust their teachers and come to them when they are experiencing anything emotion: positive or negative. Also, ensuring they approach emotions with respect and understanding. Not discouraging or minimizing emotions immediately. But really trying to figure out what it is a child is feeling.” – Dr. Elizabeth King

Ways you can model this approach at home:

“I see you crying, you must be sad. Why are you sad?”

Using language that is specific to emotions is a great tool.
When adults are with a child experiencing an emotion, labeling that emotion and focusing on why an emotion is happening shows you are noticing and understanding how that individual child is expressing an emotion.

“Do you feel angry? I see you clenching your fists.”

These types of questions vary, depending on where your child is developmentally. So you might not be asking an infant “how are you feeling?” But you can say “your face has a frown, are you feeling sad?” Even before an infant is able to talk, they are still taking this information in.

Model and explain.
“Adults can model and explain their own emotions so that young children can see what an appropriate way to express is. As you continue in the later years, you might notice children in kindergarten are better able to say “I’m feeling sad because I miss my dog”. They will have the skills to actually reflect on their emotions.” – Dr. Elizabeth King
Remember: Reward positive behaviors.

Some of the best conversations about feelings can happen when a child is playing.

You don’t need to hand out extra snacks or buy any fancy toys. Giving your child attention whenever they engage in positive behaviors is a big reward. Try these ideas for positive attention:

  • Active Listening: Your child is learning how to label their feelings. Give them an opportunity to explore what they are feeling.
  • Observation: “I notice you are crossing your arms, is something bothering you?”
  • Mirroring: If your child is sad because their play date went home, you can frown and share their sadness: “It’s sad that play time is over. I already miss Frodo too.”
  • Self-Talk: Talk about what you are doing, thinking, and /or feeling. “I’m frustrated because I burned the cookies and I was really excited to eat them.” “I feel happy when you hold my hand.” I feel hungry, I think I will eat something.”
  • Parallel Talk: State what the child is doing, or possibly thinking or feeling. “You are singing a song.” “You feel sad that we need to leave.”
  • Vocal and Verbal Reflection: Let the child know you are listening. Let them know that you accept what they are saying. Repeat the word or phrase exactly how they said it or model the correct pronunciation.
There are many tools out there for learning about emotions.

You don’t have to have sit and have an emotion conversation every time. Learning can happen in a moment when children are playing — in fact, kids learn better when they play! Costumes or dolls are a great tools for kids to act out scenarios and explore actions and consequences. Books where different characters experience various emotions can also help you and your child label and model emotional behaviors.


Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, Vanderbilt University.

Build Your Child’s Brighter Future!

Want to dive deeper into the emotional health of your little one?
Check out our Play and Learning guidance about social-emotional growth for:

About Dr. Elizabeth K. King: Dr. King is the assistant professor of child and family development at Missouri State University. Her research and professional interests focus on the preparation and support of early childhood professionals to facilitate children’s development and learning, with an emphasis on promoting young children’s social emotional development. Specifically, her research projects explore young children’s social emotional competence in early childhood classrooms, early childhood teachers’ emotion language, early childhood teacher preparation: practicum experiences and cultural competencies, and early childhood teacher work environments: professional development, compensation, and time supports. Dr. King has a doctorate in human development and family studies with doctoral minor in educational research methodology. She also has master’s in human development and family studies from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and has a bachelor’s in psychology from Pennsylvania State University.

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