One of the challenges of teaching children is that they are still learning how to cope with and express difficult emotions. As adults, we sometimes take for granted our ability to subdue strong difficult emotions until we are ready to deal with the causes of them in a productive manner. Because young children haven’t learned that ability yet, they often resort to disruptive expressions of the emotions like crying, yelling, sulking, etc. As a teacher, this can often be distracting and disruptive to you and your students. It’s important to have a solid strategy for helping children understand and deal with challenging emotions, which teaches them an important life skill while also helping your class run more smoothly. Here is the process I use with my own students:
1) Identify the cause of the emotion. If you have multiple instructors on the mat, it’s best if one of them can bring the child to the side so they can talk without distractions. In my classes, I usually take on this role. I then ask the child, “What happened that made you upset?” This past Saturday, I asked one of our Tykes who had gotten upset and he told me that one of the other students kept getting in his way when they were playing ninja dodge ball with the instructors and because he couldn’t see, he kept getting hit by the ball. He thought the student might have been doing it on purpose too. If the child is too upset to listen and speak, I might also take a few moments to guide them to take a few deep breaths to help calm down.
2) Identify the emotion. Once the cause of the emotion has been identified, I ask the child, “How did this make you feel?” The child I was dealing with last Saturday said emphatically that he felt bad. Children haven’t learned as many words to describe emotions, so it’s sometimes helpful to give them other words. In my situation, I reworded his response to show that I understood by saying, “I see. You felt frustrated because you weren’t able to dodge the way you wanted. Is that right?” Asking for confirmation keeps the child engaged in the process rather than dictating to them.
3) Identify positive solutions. Once the emotion is identified and understood, it’s time to discuss what will help resolve the situation. When the child is a little older, they might have some good ideas of their own, in which case, you can ask them what might make them feel better. If they’re unsure or hesitant, you can suggest some positive solutions. In my situation, the boy told me he was quite sure that the other boy had done it on purpose, so I asked him if he would like to ask him if that was the case. I also asked him if it would make him feel better if the other boy apologized. He said it would. We called the other boy over and I asked him. The other boy really had been clueless about having obstructed him, entirely focused on his own dodging. The boy who had been upset accepted this. I then said to the other boy, “Even though it was an accident, it’s always good to say your sorry to help others feel better.” He then told him he was sorry.
4) Re-integration. As with all people, sometimes it takes a few moments to get back to a normal emotional state before you feel like re-integrating with a group. I will ask the student first if they’re ready to come back to class. If they say yes, we carry on. If not, I’ll tell them take can take a few moments to sit out and breathe before going back. Be sure to check in with them after a few minutes to see how they’re doing.
The way I look at it children are really not all that different than adults in terms of their emotional needs. They just need to feel understood and supported when it comes to emotional challenges. And when you give them the opportunity to learn how to handle difficult emotions, you’re setting them up with a valuable life skill that’s even more important than the physical techniques taught in the class.
Now over to you. Do you teach children? If so, how do you help children dealing with difficult emotions? Please feel free to share in the comments.