Yes, it is a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. For the longest time, I thought of it in terms of teaching all the cognitive and motor skills a child needs to succeed. But recently I have become convinced that the first and most important thing that we need to teach our children is about emotions and values. It is only when children learn to manage their emotions and come to value others’ wellbeing that they can succeed in learning the social and academic skills they need to lead happy and productive lives.
My wife, Georgia, directs a preschool. She is a highly skilled teacher, trained in direct instruction, with years of experience in teaching concepts. However, only recently have she and I gotten into teaching about feelings. Her preschool adopted the PATHS Preschool Program which was developed by Celene Domitrovich and Mark Greenberg and have been introducing emotion coaching techniques that John Gottman has written about. They are teaching children about their emotions and ways to deal with their own and others’ emotions.
When children become upset, it’s an opportunity to help them learn about their emotions. Rather than trying to quell the emotion, teachers label it in a warm and empathetic way that matches the emotion of the child: “Oh, you are feeling angry because he took your truck!” Often this sympathetic approach helps calm the child. At the same time that it teaches them about what they are feeling. Rather than learning that it is bad to feel bad, they learn that it is normal to feel bad. Then teachers help children figure out what they are going to do next. In the process they learn that noticing their feelings can be information that guides them to take effective action.
Children are learning the rudiments of values in this process. Strong emotion usually occurs when a person wants something or wants to escape from something. For example, a child might cry because someone took a toy away from. Teachers help children say what they want. It may seem like a long way from “I want that toy,” to “I want my life to be about caring for other people.” But by helping children notice their feelings and the needs and desires they result from, we are building their skill at saying what they want in life. Over time, kids can learn higher order needs, such as wanting others to share or to not hit. In nurturing environments, what can emerge are values like caring.
Research by Mary Rothbart and her colleagues at the University of Oregon shows that children’s ability to engage in “effortful control” where they don’t do the thing they are most inclined to do—like yell or hit—is the basic building block for more and more complex forms of self-regulation. If you have a 12 year old who does her homework before watching TV, you have a child who is developing self-regulation. Before she learned to put off TV until her homework was done, she probably had thousands of experiences where she was guided and reinforced by you for resisting her first impulse and doing something helpful or useful.
There are a couple of things that worry me, about the concept of effortful control, though. First, I don’t think it is as useful to think in terms of controlling emotions as it is to think in terms of accepting them and acting effectively. The work on psychological flexibility  shows that trying to suppress emotion does not work. Accepting and moving through ones emotions seems like a better move. And by “moving through” them, I mean letting the emotion happen and letting it dissipate—as emotions do when we aren’t trying to control them—and doing what seems most effective in the situation.
Second, I think the notion of effortful control—as well as the concept of self-regulation—obscure the role of consequences in behavior. Nancy Eisenberg  wrote a very nice summary of effortful control. It describes how infants don’t show it, but around 36 months children do. What isn’t mentioned however, is how children’s behavior is reinforced in thousands of interactions with parents, siblings, peers, and other adults.
I mentioned this to Georgia the other day and she talked about the importance of reinforcement in teaching self-regulation. I asked her to describe how she teachers self-regulation. For a detailed description that helps you to see how key reinforcement is to the process, you can go to my post, Georgia Teaches Self-Regulation.
So a key ingredient in nurturing environments is patient, skilled teaching that helps people get better and better at having their emotions, getting clear about their needs, and finding effective and cooperative ways to meet those needs.
I want to thank Georgia Layton for helping me get clearer about teaching self-regulation.
Tags: Good Teaching