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Making new friends at school…with your feelings

I am sitting in my office staring at a list of “71 Kindergarten Readiness Skills”. As I scan the sheet, even I am intimated by the amount of information required to start kindergarten! Matching, alphabet identification, sorting, shapes and patterns fill the list. Yet, for all the readiness I see very little about social interaction and NOTHING about emotions. I look across to a deflated and scared mom whose child is struggling to reach the goals.

As children progress and develop we tend to skip the feelings needed to learn. We shut down mad, sad and scared in favor of writing one’s name or sitting at circle. What would happen if, instead, we took the time to invite mad, sad and scared to join our circle and, better yet, figured out how to be friends with them?

As a teacher turned play therapist, I am astounded by the lack of importance placed around emotional awareness. Development has become synonymous with cognitive intelligence. But in our quest to raise smart children, we have seriously missed the mark. We have ignored the foundation of all learning and development: feelings. To say feelings play a minor role in learning would be foolish. The importance of emotions in all areas of development is unavoidable.

Learning to handle our core emotions opens up a world of opportunity in the brain. Max, for example, has a total meltdown around not figuring out a math problem. This tells us that he is not only struggling in math but also in the subject of feelings. If the brain perceives that it cannot handle feeling sad or disappointed around not understanding a concept, it is going to hijack any chance of learning. There is no way on God’s green earth Max is going to understand a complex math problem when his brain is experiencing distress around being sad about the possible outcomes. On a neurological level, Max is experiencing a level of fight or flight that does not leave room for complex thinking. The meltdown is inevitable. And the math problem has to wait.

In order to play the developmental game, we have to be able to be friends with our emotions, even the sad, gross, icky ones we would rather ignore. Mad, Sad and Scared get to come to class too. Because, chances are, they are going to have a lot to say about the new spelling word on the board you can’t seem to remember. The examples are endless, yet the principle is the same. In order to learn and develop to our highest potential we need to be able to understand and cope with our emotions.

Let me make a clarifying point here. Understanding and coping with our feelings is not the same as being happy and even tempered all the time. It actually is the opposite. It means letting your child get mad, scared and even sad. Once these feelings are no longer seen as a threat, we can learn, grow and thrive.

Want less meltdowns, better relationships and higher school performance? Make friends with the feelings. The allowance of feelings is the keystone to remembering that spelling word, or figuring out the math problem. Just look at the brain. When our emotions are seen as tolerable we are not walking through the world in a distressed survival state. We can turn on our thinking brain to try and figure out the equation rather than get hijacked by the emotions and fall into a puddle on the floor.

The friendship your child makes with their emotions early in life will follow them through life. They will get to be sad when they get left out of a game, scared when they start a new class and even mad when they have to put away the video games. The difference? Your child can see their feelings as tolerable and in turn the feelings are less intense and less lengthy.

Worried your child is not emotionally ready? It is never too late to start! As a parent or caregiver, you get to set the tone of tolerance. By allowing and even encouraging your child to invite some of the harder emotions to play, you are telling them their brain no longer needs to respond to them as a threat. The saying goes: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Those unpleasant, loud, difficult emotions are less of an enemy when encouraged. Validate the hard feelings and let that set the stage for success.

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