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What is Emotional Literacy and How is it Important in Managing Child Behavior in the Classroom or at Home?

We see children act without thinking. We refer to them as having poor judgement. Underneath their behavior was a feeling state, typically an unsettling emotion. Not knowing how to interpret or what to do with the emotion, the child seeks to discharge it quickly in order to restore oneself to a better feeling state. However, having acted without thinking it through, the child inadvertently makes their situation worse by virtue of the poorly chosen behavior. This cycle continues and the child appears out of control.

Helping children to key in to their own feelings let alone those of others and in view of those feelings find a way to respond reasonably can be challenging. It is challenging for some adults too. It is as if we need to slow down the immediacy of a response so that the feeling can be better processed or understood and the response can then be better attuned to the situation. This is what is known as emotional literacy.

Teaching emotional literacy to children is less about a lecture and more about the parent or teacher engaging in the behaviors of emotional literacy through which the child may learn observationally. The parent or teacher creates the conditions for this incidental learning by their managing their emotions constructively first, then empathizing with the child and next responding in a manner that is respectful and nurturing.

Consider these two scenarios:

The teacher assigns some seat work that if not completed during class, will remain for the student as homework.

A student then appears agitated and distracted. The student fidgets and is disruptive to another student near by. The teacher looks sternly at the agitated student thinking to extend a non-verbal message  to settle down. The student’s behavior escalates. The teacher continues to give sterner and sterner looks to settle down. Eventually the student is sent to the Principal’s office.

Given principles of emotional literacy, upon the teacher’s recognition of the child’s agitation, rather than a stern look which may be felt as shameful by the student creating greater emotional distress, the teachers goes calmly to the student and crouches beside the student. The teacher breathes slowly and quietly exuding their calm. As the student settles, the teacher says quietly and privately, “I noticed you appeared upset, what’s up?” The student responds by saying she didn’t really understand the assignment and was afraid that even if taken home, by not being able to do it, would get into trouble with parents and teacher alike. The teacher reassures the student that she won’t get in trouble, re-explains the assignment until clearly understood and the student settles into work.


It is after school and near dinner time. The parent is making dinner and the aroma of the food beckons the child to the kitchen. The child is hungry and can’t wait for dinner. The child complains and the parent tells the child to wait. The child complains louder about their hunger and the parent sends the child to his room.

Given principles of emotional literacy, the parent realizes that the hunger of the child is felt painfully. Instead of telling the child to wait which to the child feels like the parent doesn’t appreciate his pain, the parent has the child stand on a chair and help prepare the meal. The parent holds the child near with one arm around the child’s waste and says, “I’m hungry too, it’s so hard to be patient when so hungry. With you helping me like this, we’ll both feel better soon.”  The child settles down and they enjoy each others company to make a dinner that now takes a bit more time to prepare, yet does feel better.

In view of the scenarios, the onus is on the teacher or parent to first manage their emotions constructively so as not to provoke an escalation in the child by creating more troubling emotions. Next the teacher or parent expresses empathy through their observation and then connects with the child to figure things out without creating shame, blame, embarrassment or resentment. The child responds reasonably and the underlying issue is resolved in a way that teaches how to manage feelings constructively.

Emotional literacy in the teacher or parent is key to facilitating self-regulation in children. Self-regulation is the ability of the child to sooth oneself when emotionally distressed and create solutions to that are functional. In the above examples, the student/child can learn to remain calm, express the underlying issue and seek resolution. The teacher/parent can reinforce those processes as observed simply by providing positive feedback in the moment or through reflection at a later time.



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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847  


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker in private practice. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider Gary an expert on child development, parent-child relations, marital and family therapy, custody and access recommendations, social work and an expert for the purpose of giving a critique on a Section 112 (social work) report.


Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.


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