Emotions in the Early Years

Such big, big emotions that come from such little bodies.

The early years are a critical time for children’s development, and as they learn about the world around them, there’s equally a lot of discoveries and new feelings going on inside.

Children aren’t born with the innate ability to identify their emotions and communicate their feelings for a couple reasons:

*They don’t know how to identify one emotion from another (or even what an emotion is!),

*They don’t have the words for what they feel because emotional intelligence is a learned skill, and

*Brain development tells us self-control doesn’t begin forming until the upper brain starts to develop around the age of 7 and doesn’t fully mature until around the age of 24. 

Little kids literally can’t stop themselves in the middle of a tantrum, outburst or when they’re upset.

Emotions are complex and for young children who are trying to understand all about their feelings and how to express them in an appropriate way, navigating these complexities is not easy.

It’s never been a more important time to teach children about their emotions.

Early years classrooms are the perfect place to start learning about them. If children can explain how they are feeling and understand the emotions of others, they will have the best start to their school experience.

Why Talk About Feelings?

If we make talking about emotions a priority at home and in our classrooms, our youngest children learn early on how to self-regulate and express themselves. There are five reasons why children need to learn to talk about emotions:

Understanding the reason behind the emotion

To help them feel more in control

Negative emotions can lead to negative thoughts

It means they can ask for help

It helps them to be a better friend

We have all experienced a frustrated child who can’t explain how they feel. They show angry, physical behaviour towards adults and other children without understanding why. We can help our children understand the emotions behind their behaviour.

What Feelings Should Children Know?

I was shocked to find out there are 27 human emotions! No wonder young children can struggle with them. In school, we stick to the common feelings children are likely to experience.

They are:

  • Timid
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Happy
  • Sleepy
  • Surprised
  • Scared
  • Silly

Children learn to identify two major emotions, ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ at an early age. It is important they move on from putting everything into these two groups. For example, understanding that someone might feel scared, rather than sad, will help them learn how to respond appropriately.

It’s very human to try to minimise or ignore negative feelings, after all, we want our children to feel happy. But the only way to get children understanding is to talk openly about all of them. Dismissing unhappy feelings doesn’t make them go away.

Some children will come to school already able to express themselves. Others will need your help. Boys in particular may have experienced the old-fashioned idea that showing emotions is a bad thing. It’s crucial to show them it’s healthy to talk about feelings.

Emotional Development by Age

Early Years Outcomes provides helpful guidance about what you should expect at different ages.

16 to 26 months

Is aware of others’ feelings, for example, looks concerned if hears crying or looks excited if hears a familiar happy voice. 

This is the perfect time to start naming emotions for young children. Draw their attention to body language clues.

22 to 36 months

Can express their own feelings such as sad, happy, cross, scared, worried. Responds to the feelings and wishes of others. Aware that some actions can hurt or harm others. Tries to help or give comfort when others are distressed.

Children can play games to learn the names of common emotions. They are becoming more aware of the feelings of children around them.

30 to 50 months

Aware of own feelings and knows that some actions and words can hurt others’ feelings. Begins to accept the needs of others and can take turns and share resources, sometimes with support from others 

It’s at this point that children become a lot more social. 

40 to 60+ months

Understands that own actions affect other people, for example, becomes upset or tries to comfort another child when they realise they have upset them.

These older children start to understand that their actions can have a direct impact on another child. They realise that emotions don’t just appear; there’s a reason behind them.

Emotional Development Activities

There are so many games we can build into our everyday lives. The key is making them engaging. The more hands on the better!

2-3 Year Olds

Have fun whilst learning the names of common emotions.

Here are a few suggestions:

Mime an emotion and see if they can guess what it is. 

Get your children pulling faces to match the feeling you call out.

Sing ‘If You’re Happy and You Know it,’ but change the emotion for each verse. For example, ‘If you’re sad and you know it, make a frown.’

Play snap and matching games with pictures of different feelings.

When you read stories, point out the emotions characters are feeling. 

Draw the faces of different emotions and telling stories about them.

4-6 Year Olds

These older children will be able to play games and activities that help them develop empathy skills.

Try these:

Pick the emotion you are feeling. 

Identify the emotion from clues. This is a simple way for them to see how people might behave when they feel a certain way.

Choose an emotion and discuss a time you felt like this.

Think about practical things they can do when someone feels each common emotion. You could create a book or instruction manual.

Show pictures of each emotion and hide one of them. Can they guess which is missing?

Invent scenarios for each emotion and use role play to bring them to life.

We want to help all children talk about and understand their feelings. Many children struggle to understand how their behaviour links to emotions. Social and emotional learning is at the heart of our early year’s curriculum. It is an inclusive and unthreatening way to get children talking.