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Terrible Twos. Threenagers. Fearsome Fours.  These are years marked by tantrums and meltdowns — palpable reminders that young children haven’t yet learned how to regulate their emotions. But rather than wait for them to outgrow this phase, caregivers can use this window to teach emotional literacy skills that will yield immediate and long-term benefits.

Increasingly, research confirms the efficacy of explicit training in emotional intelligence starting at a very young age. According to multiple studies, preschoolers who participate in social-emotional skills programs exhibit less aggression and anxiety and become better social problem solvers. While these outcomes may make for a more peaceful classroom environment, the benefits outlive preschool: prosocial behavior in early childhood is strongly linked with future academic performance and mental health.  In other words, when children learn how to calm themselves down, use language to express their feelings and treat others with kindness, they are laying the foundation for future success and wellness.

Even without a formal curriculum to draw on, parents and early childhood educators can do a lot to foster young children’s emotional literacy.

What Parents and Teachers Can Do

1. Name emotions

Reflective listening is a hallmark of effective counseling. Therapists listen to patients and then reflect back what they hear as a way to strengthen the patients’ self-understanding. Toddlers and preschoolers have limited expressive language skills, but parents and teachers can “listen” to their behavior – be it yelling, pushing, crying, or withdrawing – reflect it back, and help them put a name to what they are feeling. It might sound like this:

  •      “You are mad! Baby brother ripped your picture and you are MAD.”

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The Benefits of Helping Preschoolers Understand and Discuss Their Emotions