Learning & Development: Well-Being: Part 2 - Strength of feeling

Marion Dowling
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Young children need to learn to identify and verbalise their feelings with the help of adults who can empathise with them, says Marion Dowling.

Feelings affect everything we do - how we feel about ourselves, how we regard and behave towards other people, the choices we make in life. This message is echoed throughout the Early Years Foundation Stage and is summed up in a responsibility for providers to 'ensure support for children's emotional well-being to help them to know themselves and what they can do' (Practice Guidance for the EYFS, 2008, page 24).

Because children's emotional development is so important, this suggests three clear implications for our work.



At the start of their lives, young children need to experience positive feelings, and happiness should feature highly. Happy memories from childhood can nourish us throughout life and we can draw on them in difficult times. To ensure happiness, though, there are some necessary ingredients and conditions involved.

Feeling safe, loved and valued

People who have experienced being loved are able to love; our children who are loved are the loving parents of tomorrow. This means that a secure attachment is a basic requirement for any child.

If a baby is physically and emotionally close to one person initially (usually his birth mother), this makes later separation from her more tolerable, rather than less. From birth, every day that this significant person can be with the baby, to discover him, help him to know her, meet his needs, give him pleasure and take pleasure in him, will contribute to a fund of confidence and inner peace. Even a brief few weeks of this relationship will offer the baby a good start. In short, love does not meet all needs, but without love, children won't flourish.

Loving relationships, of course, start at home. Our role as practitioners is to establish a sound second attachment which is premised on the role of the key person who demonstrates professional love. This means:

  • - getting to know a child - really getting under her skin
  • - setting boundaries that help a child feel safe rather than restricting her
  • - taking a child seriously and respecting her thoughts and ideas
  • - understanding a child's behaviour while not excusing it
  • - showing the way, through modelling attitudes and actions
  • - sharing something of yourself, your time, patience, ability to listen and your views and experiences.

These requirements are bound up in showing unconditional regard for children, loving them for who they are, rather than for what they can do and achieve.

Question: How well do you demonstrate unconditional regard for your key children?

Being curious and involved

Babies are naturally curious and the intellectual search to find out is strongly present in early childhood. We all recognise the deep feeling of pleasure that comes from doing something that really interests us. Children will share this when given rich, real and relevant experiences, and an adult play companion who is interested and encouraging.

Children are learning deeply when they are absorbed in pleasurable activity and puzzling things out for themselves. We know that this doesn't happen, though, if they are rushed through a series of activities.

Involvement grows over time, allowing children to mull things over, practise and apply what they know and try out new ideas. And this will happen when they are given opportunities to explore and play in ways that make sense to them.

Being challenged

Young children deserve more than a benign environment. They enjoy and thrive on a bit of intrigue, mental and physical challenge. Adventurous experiences can be sadly curtailed by over-rigorous applications of risk assessments.

Being in loco parentis means taking an approach of a sensible parent, and sensible parents don't wrap their children in cotton wool. From an early age, children need to start to judge their own limits. If they are not allowed to be adventurous, they cannot experience the satisfaction of learning to manage physical risk.



Often, adults who have emotional problems can track them back to difficulties in childhood when feelings were repressed. If we are to prevent these problems later in life, practitioners should build a climate that helps young children to feel, think and talk about their feelings.

Young babies cannot handle their emotions and are dependent on their carer to interpret their signals of distress - a hungry cry or wriggle of discomfort or tiredness. Over time, if the baby's signals are recognised and responded to, they begin to trust that their parent or carer is always there to respond and 'make things better'.

The most effective provision is where adults are really tuned in to these unique signals and show 'contingent care', which is a bespoke response to the baby's actual needs rather than what the carer thinks he might need.

Given this optimal start, the baby is helped to be calm and to start to manage his behaviour. A toddler who has been loved, respected and listened to, starts to show care and concern for others. For example, three-year-old Emily was aware that her cat was unwell. She approached him and gently covered him with a blanket, murmuring, 'You'll soon be better Tigger - yes, you will, but you must be quiet now and go to sleep'. Emily was echoing the empathy that her mother had shown her when she was ill.

Children will initially express passionate and intense feelings through physical actions - leaping with joy and excitement, stamping with frustration and fury, huddled with misery. Noting and acknowledging these responses, we can help children to start to recognise and put language to their feelings.

In this way, we can help them to build up a store of emotional words. Children will be stirred by simple sensory experiences such as listening to sounds and music, gazing at and touching interesting and beautiful things, tasting and smelling. If they are encouraged to talk about their reactions, this will alert them to recognise similar feelings on other occasions.

Question: What have I done this week to help children become aware of their feelings?



Increasingly, we recognise that young children have worries. We know that some are disturbed about acrimonious arguments within the family and violence they see portrayed through the media. Other common worries centre on being alone and lost and moving into 'big school', not having a friend and not knowing what to do.

Some fears may appear slight and irrational, but they matter if they make children concerned, anxious, frightened or on edge. These negative feelings can take up a lot of space in our working memories and affect our competence and confidence. We describe this when we say 'I just can't think straight'. Children may not have this vocabulary, but the impact on them is the same.

The recent influx of immigrant families to this country has meant that their children are forced to make massive adjustments very rapidly, being faced, for a start, with a new country, new neighbours and an unfamiliar language. (See box.)

Affirming fears and worries

Adults respond to children's expressed feelings in different ways. One study suggested that while positive feelings are usually always acknowledged and welcomed, negative emotions are regarded differently in ways that can affirm or dismiss them.

For example, when Stefan showed that he was afraid of being left in the dark, his mother tried to reassure him by saying that there was nothing to be afraid of and that he would always be safe when she was nearby.

While this response is well intentioned, it is giving two messages: that Stefan had no reason to have this feeling, and that he is safe only so long as his mother is around.

By affirming fears and worries, practitioners and parents can encourage young children to explore, to try to understand what they are feeling and to do something about it. Helpful approaches include:

Empathy - trying to understand and identify with the child's fear

Explanation and discussion - encouraging the child to explain the fear and then discussing together how it might be dealt with

Exploration and expression - enabling a child to represent his fear through talking, drawing and painting or through movement and role play

Confronting the fear - facing a fear together - for example, overcoming a fear of dogs by looking at pictures of them, stroking a furry toy dog, observing the behaviour of a puppy, looking at a dog from a distance and gradually moving closer to it.

Question: How much do you know about what worries your children?

Providing a realistic emotional environment for children

Young children who are emotionally vulnerable desperately need a calm and safe environment. However, occasionally the nursery that provides calm therapy consistently can be repressing emotions. Children have the right both to witness and to experience different feelings, and living in a bland emotional atmosphere can produce dull people.

A strong relationship between adults and children is founded on feeling. In such a nursery, children understand that the adults care for them, laugh with them, share their tragedies and excitements, and occasionally become cross when boundaries of behaviour are broken.

Children are too often exposed to sudden and irrational displays of anger from adults who themselves are not emotionally in control. In the nursery, they can experience anger expressed in a safe environment and for reasons that they can understand. So long as the love and care are prevalent, given this healthy emotional repertoire, children will flourish and grow.

Marion Dowling is an early years consultant

Next: Zest (Nursery World, 8 April)


Sorin, R (2003) 'Validating Young Children's Feelings and Experiences of Fear' in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Vol 4, No 1, pp 80-86


Irma, three and a half years old, was a new arrival at the children's centre. She had recently moved from Lithuania with her young parents. Both of them worked shifts at a local hotel and were accommodated in a mobile home which they shared with another Lithuanian couple. Only Irma's dad could speak a few words of English, and all conversations at home were in their mother tongue.

Irma's dad stayed to settle Irma in at the centre for the first day, but after that he had to return to work. Irma attended for extended hours, but because mum and dad started work very early, an elderly Lithuanian lady brought her to the breakfast club and one of her parents collected her in the evening.

During her first four days at the centre, Irma appeared stunned. She made no protest when left in the morning but she refused to take off her coat and sat by the wall hugging a scruffy toy rabbit called Dong. No gentle persuasion could get her to participate in any of the nursery experiences.

There was no dual-language assistant who spoke Lithuanian, and so Irma's key person, Gay, approached Irma's dad and asked for help to learn a very basic vocabulary. He returned the next day with a list of words and Gay practised them with him.

On Monday morning Gay approached Irma holding another toy rabbit. She pulled two large carrots out of her pocket. Gay smiled encouragingly and, using her newly acquired language, she said very haltingly, 'Hello Irma, this is Paulo and he wants a rabbit friend. Would you and Dong like to take care of Paulo? Here are some carrots for breakfast.'

Gay repeated her message and suddenly Irma shot out her arms to hold Paulo. Gay withdrew and observed. Irma cuddled the two rabbits tightly; she picked up a carrot and offered it to each one in turn, crooning quietly.

Irma's resistance to settling in at the centre was unsurprising, given the massive changes involved in moving to a new country. Gay recognised that Irma would only be approached through something familiar. Irma's dad really appreciated Gay's readiness to talk with his daughter in Lithuanian and proved a useful resource. Gay also observed Irma's attachment to the rabbit and recognised that this might be a way to link with her.

Following the initial breakthrough, a day later Irma moved with the rabbits into the book corner, where she shared some picture books with them. A week later, on entering the centre, she took off her coat and looked to Gay to show her where to hang it.

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