Understanding and Nurturing Emotional Competence

Children need to learn to recognise and understand their emotions so they can gain control over what the emotional brain is telling them. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of feelings but also to take account of what you think before you decide on a course of action. The emotional brain is powerful and learning to manage it is a major life achievement. Learning to coordinate the emotional and the rational brain has been compared with learning to ride an elephant[i]. The human may try to think and plan where he wishes to go but the animal beneath him is hugely strong and powerful and not totally predictable.

There are 5 skills which children need to manage their emotional wellbeing.

Recognizing your emotions: being able to monitor your feelings from moment to moment allows you to decide what to do.

Managing your emotions: being able to self-regulate strong feelings avoids you being at the mercy of powerful emotions which can undermine what you set out to do

Self- motivation: is managing the conflict between seems attractive in the short term and working towards longer term goals. Resisting the power of our emotional impulses requires considerable self- discipline and restraint.

Recognizing emotions in others: empathy allows us to recognize what others may be feeling and theory of mind allows us to separate their feelings and needs from our own.

Developing and maintaining relationships: the art of relationships depends upon sensitivity to the needs of others and fluent social skills to build rapport and trust.

These 5 skill areas develop gradually over the course of a lifetime. Some people learn to ride the elephant while others have only limited control. Developing emotional competence is rarely achieved without sensitive adult support. .

Recognising emotions

Children are particularly at the mercy of powerful emotions, their vulnerability and need for protection is acknowledged by nature which provides them with super-strength emotional reactions, which alert the child to potential danger and also makes sure that any adult in a 500 yard radius can’t ignore the fact either. This reaction is called attachment behaviour, designed to protect the child and keep adults tuned in to ensure children are safe. Attachment behaviour persists throughout childhood but becomes more muted as young people gain confidence in their ability to handle situations by themselves or with the help of friends.

Babies first become aware of their feelings when they are reflected back to them. A smiling child who is smiled at in return and who senses matched body language and tone of voice begins to recognize enjoyment. An anxious baby becomes soothed by the reassurance shown to them which recognizes their anxiety and holds them safe from it. The synchrony between child and parent mirrors and matches the child’s feelings and allows the child to recognize what is happening. Later the words being used add meaning and the language of emotion is shared.

Managing emotions

When a child is engulfed by their emotions they cannot stand back from them and need an adult to provide reassurance and practical support to:

  •  help them feel safe and protected from harm even if objectively there is no threat
  • build trust that the adult will be consistent and reliable in helping them manage strong feelings
  • reduce the over-aroused physiological state which accelerates the flight or fight response
  • teach the child the language to recognize and label this pattern of feeling


This is based on a section on emotional wellbeing in What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful by Jeni Hooper, Child Psychologist. Published by Jessica Kingsley ©



[i] Jonathan Haidt uses this metaphor in his book  The Happiness Hypothesis. Arrow Books 2006

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10 ways to support a Flourishing Childhood.

Source: 10 ways to support a Flourishing Childhood.

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Every little bit helps.

I’ve always believed that how we look after the vulnerable is the essence of a civilised society, hence my career in psychology and my interest in promoting wellbeing. I’m not comfortable with any narrative that assumes individual responsibility alone will be sufficient. I’m a striver but that’s not the only reason for my successful transition from a council house to a professional career. There are many reasons why it is more difficult for some to be self-sufficient and it’s not all about personal qualities, a hostile environment is an equally a tough barrier to the good life. Here’s a little story of a couple of recent incidents that brought this home to me in a very emotional way.

I recently moved to a small coastal town in Norfolk. It’s a brilliant place to live, so close to nature and fabulous bird life. One odd thing though, is that Mallard ducks have moved out of the countryside and into town. Natural ponds are getting rarer and food is harder to find so they have become dependent on living in the streets and people’s gardens. Many of my neighbours complain about them, without realising we are partly responsible for their plight. The mantra here is don’t feed the ducks then they won’t come into town, let them look out for themselves. I’ve been watching the 2 ducks which have settled in our street, the courtship phase was very cute and they found our block of flats a good place to come begging. Twice a day they would hop over our low wall and strut up and down until someone saw them and put out some food. At this point I was following the mainstream and wasn’t one of the feeders. Then a few weeks ago we saw the female duck with 9 ducklings but within days there were only 4 and with a sad heart we went away for a few days. On our return she had just the one and I saw her one morning desperately trying to get her precious last duckling to climb onto the wall so they could get food from my neighbours. It broke my heart and for the last few days I have been down twice a day to refill a water tray on the pavement near the wall and to provide food. Perhaps too little too late but I couldn’t stand by. Yes the adult ducks made a bad choice in choosing our street; the large detached houses opposite have mostly gravelled or paved front gardens with highly manicured flower beds. Many have dogs. I have no idea where these ducks sleep but I have done what I can.

Poverty is a hostile environment which stunts development of both children and families. The relentless struggle for basics is stressful and the risks of depression are high. Striving and more striving, with little to show for it can lead to a feeling of helplessness which drains you of all energy. Escaping poverty without support is a tough call and I have no idea why some people delude themselves into thinking that anyone can do anything if they only put their mind to it. We can all do a little something to make a difference to those who need help, we just have to decide what we are going to do and stick with it.

Since moving here and semi retiring I’ve had the time to volunteer to support reading in a local school. Those with significant needs are intensively supported by the school but we volunteers focus on building fluency for those who need practice and a strong sense of self belief. Being a fluent reader is central to everything that happens in school and is a predictor of achievement. Several of the children rarely read at home, their reading logs get lost and parents work long hours. When we started each child was self-conscious about their reading ability and how their reading logs exposed family life. I decided this was an opportunity for Growth Mindset in action but to be honest when I started at the beginning of the year I did wonder whether it could possibly have impact. Well each and every child has made good progress and at the heart of this is the self-confidence they have gained as they see themselves as having some control of the learning process. At the end of every seession I discussed with each child how they could find a time and place to read independently as well as with adults. This blossoming self-efficacy “I can do this” has paid off. On my last visit one 7 year old told me as she got up to go back to class. “I love reading now, and writing. The more you can do the more interesting everything is” and then she skipped off back to class. How’s that for an unsolicited testimonial about the truth that every little bit helps.

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5 a day for play

 Play has a Purpose

Play is important and has a pivotal role in a child’s learning and development. Children want to play because it is fun and fascinating and their motivation to play is similar to hunger, thirst or tiredness in ensuring their bodies and brains get what they need. Human beings are clever, resourceful and creative. These amazing capacities of the human mind start early in life and depend on our being curious to learn and explore through play. It is as important that children play as it is for them to receive a high quality education. Education builds on the natural capacity to seek knowledge which is refined through experimental and exploratory play. So play is important, it has a primary role in creating the foundations for learning. However quality and variety of play is vital and a balanced menu of play can be compared to a balanced diet in creating a healthy body and mind. Just as we try to avoid a junk food diet, despite its attractions, so we should also ensure that our children are not relying on a narrow, restricted range of play or even falling into the trap of over reliance on electronic games.

file000266980809Here’s my selection of a top 5 requirements to create a happy, healthy play experience.

5 a day for play

  • Be active –get your body moving throughout its whole range both indoors and outside.
  • Be generous with playtime – it’s a core activity for childhood so play needs to move up the priority list to have impact on a child’s development and progress.
  • Think variety – physical play, social play, constructive play, creative play, fantasy play and games with rules are the varieties of play and each contributes to the capacity to learn.
  • Think ages and stages – as children change over time so does their need for different types of play. Avoid trying to race ahead, the brain is like a strong building and needs firm foundations.
  • Encourage independence and self-reliance – play puts children in charge of what they do and teaches them to explore, to experiment and to plan activities as part of the quest to learn about themselves and the world around them.

Types of play

Physical play – essential for developing mobility, strength and flexibility this is your child’s equivalent to your sports or exercise regime. The drive to move is highly motivating to children and consequently nature gives children high energy levels so they can accomplish this important aspect of their developing body and brain. Climbing on, over and under things, crawling through confined spaces and twisting and twirling around stationary objects is all part of the daily testing out of what my body is capable of doing now. As growth and development brings increased capacity with it then the need to test and extend what is possible is always there. Many parks and children’s play spaces have great adventure equipment but equally a natural environment of woodland or open space is fun to visit.  

Social play – the ability to communicate and get along with others gets plenty of practice through social play. Parents are the young child’s first social play partner but as children get older they also look to their siblings and their peers to have fun together. Social play usually incorporates at least one of the other forms of play as children decide what they want to do together. Younger children struggle to play together and share but this begins to come together from around the age of four and improves over the course of early childhood. The give and take of relationships is a complex life skill which challenges us throughout life so as much early practice as is possible is definitely an advantage

Constructive play –working out how things go together and creating structures is a fun part of childhood whether or not you plan to be an architect, builder or engineer. From wooden bricks though ready-made construction kits or re using things around the home – all children love to make things.

Creative play – painting, drawing, modelling with play dough are early forms of art which sharpen observation skills, develop manual dexterity and exercise the imagination. Later on some children will enjoy writing stories or making up plays and mini dramas to act out.

Fantasy play – going beyond your immediate world and experience is not only absorbing for children but allows them to explore other possible ways of doing things or imagine what it is like to be someone else. Fantasy play gives a child control, whereas in the adult world they have limited say in how things are done. Fantasy play is also a great way to deal with scary or difficult feelings by imagining what you could do if the problem went away or if you were powerful enough to decide what should happen. It’s no coincidence that superheroes are important to children, superheroes can do all the things children wish they could do but can’t.   

Games with rules – most of life has rules and codes of conduct which for the most part we work out for ourselves by observation rather than through formal instruction. Games with rules build that capacity to learn a set of expectations and to practice abiding by them even when it isn’t what you would choose to do. Games with rules teaches children self-discipline and to share with others.

Play is as important as a healthy diet so what would you choose as your 5 a day essentials?

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It was a lovely surprise to be nominated by @kim_benham for  #TwitteratiChallenge . Kim is an inspiring and dedicated early years professional who writes at https://sparklingpreschool.wordpress.com/  When I read Kim’s blog in full I realised that I too could now nominate five colleagues. How to choose? There are so many brilliant people to choose from. Here are the five people who I consider offer something unique and special on Twitter to inform and inspire both parents and professionals to help children get a great start in life.

My passion is to share with people what we know about children’s wellbeing so that every child gets the chance to flourish at home, in school and with their friends. There are so many people here in Twitter Land that I will never get the chance to meet in real life and maybe others who I’ll now look out for at conferences and workshops. I look to folk on Twitter not just to share similar interests but also to shake up my views and add something new. I hope to never stop learning, so many thanks to all those folk on twitter who come into my view, not just those I have nominated below.

  1. @Elsa_support Debbie Palphfryman is an emotional support assistant, ELSA, who is brilliant at developing and sharing resources to help schools nurture children’s emotional wellbeing. She regularly tweets links to ingenious resources which might be just what you are looking for. If you haven’t come across her yet do look her up.
  2. @Mr_PaintPots aka David Wright. I look forward to finding his inspirational tweets and quotes which always get to the heart of what is important in the lives of little people – offering a great environment for play. He is also involved with the Southampton area #MenInChildCare – children need great male role models – as well as all the wonderful women who share a passion for early years. I used to work in Southampton and did meet some brilliant guys working in child care in the city although I never met David.
  3. @talk4meaning Twitter is all about communicating and Michael Jones who is a Speech and Language Therapist and now a consultant and trainer has real expertise in what works to help children become confident communicators. Previously a consultant to Every Child a Talker there are some great resources on his website too.
  4. @inspiredtree Inspired treehouse is run by 2 mums who are also occupational and physical therapists. They offer a wealth of ideas on physical and sensory play which is not just fun but also nurtures healthy development.
  5. @sb_campaign The Summerborn Campaign folk are fearless champions for parents who want their summer born children to start school when they are legally entitled to and not to have to take up a place at just 4 years old. I admire their determination to find what is right for their child rather than follow the slow creep of the schoolification of early years. In my view what all 4 year olds need (not just those with summer birthdays) is a play-based learning experience with great staffing ratios and a brilliant indoor and outdoor play environment which few if any schools can offer. So I back these feisty parents in their efforts to be heard.

Thanks to @TeacherToolkit  for starting #TwitteratiChallenge. Now Debbie, David, Michael, InspiredTreehouse and Pauline at Summer born your challenge is to find five colleagues and share! Have fun!


The 3 @teachertoolkit rules are: 

  •  You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life.
  • You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost and (the rules and what to do) information into your own blog post.

What to do?

  • Within seven days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you rely regularly on and go to for support and challenge. They have now been challenged and must act as participants of the #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • If you’ve been nominated, please write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post within seven days. If you do not have your own blog, try @staffrm.
  • The educator that is now (newly) nominated, has seven days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post and identify who their top five go-to educators are.






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Why children are highly sensitive to stress and here’s how you can help.

Summer is on its way but so are the exams and tests which can be such a source of stress. SATs and GCSEs will be starting shortly and most schools annual reports now give far more assessment information than previously. Children are exposed to increasingly high expectations of what they should be able to do at each stage in their lives and the scrutiny of their achievements can be unrelenting. Although many adults thrive on this adrenaline-high lifestyle it takes its toll on our children who are far more vulnerable to stress.

Have you noticed how many children are far from happy?  A happy, healthy child is busy, energetic, and carefree.  In contrast many children now have intense episodes of panic, prolonged bouts of tearfulness, frequent nightmares, fears of being left alone and extreme temper tantrums. They can be grumpy, non-compliant and generally out of sorts. This is not normal for childhood and assuming it is immaturity or a sign of a child’s prickly personality can lead us to ignore tell-tale signs. Frequent signs of stress are a warning sign that all is not well. Some may say that modern kids are spoilt, have too many material goods and have become self-centred.  But there is another explanation: modern life is too stressful for children.  The reason why is linked to their hyper- sensitive reactions to stress.

Children have the most brilliant biological survival systems to protect them from danger. Their stress response is more sensitive to potential threat and more finely tuned than an adults.  This makes evolutionary sense because children are more vulnerable.  Nature protects children by making them ultra-aware of any potential threats or dangers.  The child’s body and brain are more designed to automatically detect possible dangers.  Immediately there is a surge of adrenaline and cortisol which is needed to create the flight or fight reaction.

However children cannot protect themselves, so they have to react powerfully to attract adult attention to get the protection they need. These automatic alarm systems are rather primitive, and can’t distinguish real danger from false.  They are designed to be fast rather than accurate.  They work by detecting either external signs of danger or by reading increased internal signs of stress from raised heart rate and breathing which has not been caused by exertion.  If your heart rate and breathing increase, so the brain reasons, there must be something going on.

For the 21st century child these internal stress reactions are triggered by being bombarded by noise, having too much to do or being rushed from place to place by an adult in hurry.  Raised expectations at school, too much homework and not enough time to play all raise stress levels.  All contribute to a speeded up life which increases heart rate and speeds up breathing which eventually results in meltdown. So what can we do?  Not everyone can, or wants to slow adult life down but children can’t take the pace so need your help. If the world keeps adding pressure to your life here are some of your options.

1) Build up the pleasure to pain ratio: Barbara Frederickson’s research from positive psychology has found a ratio of 3: 1 positive experiences is the tipping point for wellbeing.  It’s unrealistic to expect to sit back and let life give you 3 times the pleasure to pain but you can increase your ratio by creating good memories to draw on and by slowly and deliberately anticipating and savouring something special that is still in the future.  So when the present world is dull and routine you can revisit the past or imagine the future with equally good results for your wellbeing.  At the end of each day find 3 things you are grateful for and encourage children to do the same.


2) Find time to slow down: Children can benefit from as little as 5 minutes a day slowing down their breathing and heart rate to create a calm but alert state of mind.  More is better, but learning the skill will allow a child to repeat this for themselves when needed.  Yoga or other slow exercise which concentrates the mind works well as does slow breathing techniques (breathing in and out to a slow count of 4 from 5 to 10 times is also effective).  Some schools are experimenting with child-friendly forms of meditation which not only calm emotions but also improve concentration and learning.  A stressed child does not learn effectively as both concentration and memory are adversely affected by stress.

On the home front, a slow, warm bath and a bedtime story are also very calming and help promote deep sleep which is restorative.

3) Turn taking and sharing: Family occasions like shared mealtimes or playing board games encourages children to wait and listen to others. This is not only slows things down and creates calm, (with practice) but also helps our bodies to entrain to each other.  Entrainment is a biological process where we become in tune with others who we support and depend on. Heart rate and breathing tends to become similar allowing the adult to help he child become soothed and calmer more quickly and easily. Being in tune is less likely when we all do our own thing, and only meet up occasionally, despite being in the same house.  Being a part of a strong social group helps children feel safe and protected.


4) Create a Treasure Chest: Building memories to draw upon creates precious moments that can be savoured again and again.  Give your child a special box to collect photos, drawings, tickets from days out, postcards, small objects and anything else which will trigger intense pleasure when recalling a past event.  Look at these treasures together to recall happy times when your child needs their spirits lifted.


5) Plant Golden Seeds

Being under pressure and being judged for your achievements is a commonplace of modern childhood.  Childhood is no longer a time of innocence and freedom to explore and grow at your own pace.  Many children are now on a fast track timetable to accelerate achievement.  Sadly this often backfires.

Instead offer your child the gift of appreciation, to acknowledge who they are now, and to signal your belief in their potential.  Your observations and comments will show your appreciation which will fortify them through tough times.   A golden seed is true recognition from others which creates faith and optimism for the future.  Tell them what you see rather than what you wish for.

Lastly be alert to your child’s expression of the uncomfortable emotions of fear, anger and distress, they exist as a warning that all is not well.  These emotions can be triggered by a lifestyle which is not threatening or dangerous but is stressful or too fast and too busy.  Children run on slow time.  You don’t have to totally change your life but do try small steady changes.  Decide what the smallest thing is that you can start doing atoday that will create the biggest difference to your life.



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How to support your child’s learning, no the answer isn’t supervising homework.

Do you want to spend your time standing over your child to check homework or would you rather help your child develop the values, skills and knowledge to be independent and self reliant. Some children are born with powerful drive and determination but many more learn how to learn through everyday experiences which shape their thinking and behaviour. Children need key skills to settle well into school and to flourish. These skills can be developed through play and everyday life. Once you know what you are aiming to do it becomes a natural part of life. You don’t need expensive equipment, just a few minutes every day will be enough to create real results. Here are some practical ways to guide your child to do their best at school, without turning your home into a classroom.

Encourage creative and imaginary play: 
Make sure your child has some time every day to do their own thing. Encourage your child to choose what to do. The ability to concentrate is strongest when children choose something that interests and excites them, where they lead the game rather than follow passively. Watching T.V or playing on games consoles may be absorbing but it isn’t developing an active mind. Play allows children to become totally absorbed, this is called ‘flow’. When a child is in flow they lose track of time and can carry on with what they are doing without adult help. Children need to develop this ability to manage their own time and be independent. This also helps at school because they will have learnt how to settle to work and focus their concentration. Successful learning is self managed, and although teachers can inspire and inform, they cannot not supervise each learning step. Play is therefore important as the foundation for work. It’s also fun and it does you good.

Work to your child’s strengths and abilities: Every child has a unique combination of abilities and it is rare to be good at everything.  Notice what your child enjoys doing.

  • Do they love numbers?
  • Are they good at putting things together?
  • Maybe conversation and stories excites them
  • Perhaps movement and sport.
  • Do they love music?
  • Or maybe nature fascinates them.
  • Perhaps they are good at sensing other people’s feelings
  • Or at managing to keep themselves calm in a crisis.

It is useful to look at learning ability not as a single intelligence or IQ but as multiple abilities  These may be:

  • linguistic-verbal (spoken and written words)
  • logical-mathematical (reasoning and problem solving)
  • visual/spatial (seeing and imagining)
  • bodily-kinesthetic (body awareness and movement)
  • musical-rhythmic (sound and patterning
  • interpersonal (interaction with others)
  • intrapersonal (feeling, values and attitudes)
  • naturalistic (classifications, categories, and hierarchies)

Children enjoy having the time to use their strengths regularly. Don’t be tempted to spend more time improving skills that are weaker than is spent on using and enjoying achievements. Your child will gain energy and excitement from using their natural capabilities. Motivation and persistence grow from those experiences of doing the things we love.

Be confident that ability grows from learning and practice: Don’t think about learning ability as being fixed.  Children who believe talent is fixed, “you have either got it or haven’t” tend to see challenges and mistakes as threats to their self image.  This sets off a stress reaction making them angry, anxious or likely to freeze in panic.

The secret of success is to see learning as a form of growth.  The more you do the better you get.  Celebrate each step on the road to success.  This is an optimistic view which creates confidence.

Choose realistic goals: Learning is more like a series of small stepping stones to cross a river than a steep hill to climb.  Be realistic about what your child can do, based on their age and interests. Think stretch not strain.

Let your child’s skills and interests set the pace: Notice what they do and what excites them and use that as a launch pad into other interesting experiences. If you take too much control, your child may become stressed or switched off from learning. Use the 3W’s: wait, watch and wonder which will help you become attuned to your child’s natural skills and interests.

See mistakes as challenges not problems: Errors show us how we are doing so far. Seeing mistakes as short term setbacks can be helpful.  Mistakes provide information on where to go next.  They are sign posts for learning not roadblocks.  Children with a growth mindset can learn to welcome them as challenges.  Children with a fixed ability mindset see them as proof that they have reached their limits. One view creates energy, the other is draining.

Praise effort not achievements: The driving force for success is effort and persistence.  Praise your child for their commitment and for the approach they have taken.  Notice how they go about a task.

  •  Have they planned it?
  • Are they well organized?
  • Do they find ways around a problem?

This can be useful everyday, when doing ordinary tasks at home, like tidying the bedroom or packing a school bag. Praise your child for getting involved and trying to do things for themselves.

Turn negatives into positives: Sooner or later all children get discouraged and need help to get re-started. If for example, your child says ‘it’s no good I can’t remember’ you could take time together to find out what will improve their memory.  You can have fun experimenting with different approaches.

  • Do pictures and mind maps create connections to help them remember.
  • Maybe they learn through listening and talking – rhythm can help, try putting something to music or into a rhyme.
  • Are they practical and do they like to experience something first hand to help them learn? Could they make a model or imagine walking through a house with different parts of what they want to remember in each room?

The biggest secret of all is discovering that learning can be fun.  Once your child believes that they can be successful, they will continue to try, whatever the setback. They will enjoy exploring and using interesting ways to learn and practice. They will want to learn and will appreciate encouragement from teachers, friends and family.  They will feel confident about themselves and the future.

Yes you have guessed it; the real secret of successful learning is finding a positive attitude which helps you to keep going and not to give up.





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The Power of Play: 10 reasons why children play to learn

Children at play are not playing about. Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity” Michel de Montaigne 16th century writer

Children learn through play, but equally importantly, play teaches children how to learn. Psychologists from the early days of infant watching have been in no doubt that play drives development in the early years. The inner life of small children is considered fascinating by most of us, nature’s natural parents, but sadly there are others who are impatient with child logic and flights of imaginative fantasy. These adults in a hurry prefer the fast pace of modern life and see value in finding short cuts to speed up everything they do. They are easily convinced that childhood is a candidate for a makeover to ensure more happens in less time. Recent government reviews of child care have taken this stance encouraging structured, adult-led groups to start teaching maths and literacy early. This appeals to those who believe play is a poor use of a child’s time.

We need to speak up for small children who can’t speak out for themselves. When we look at the early years carefully we see that children make an amazing journey from helpless baby to capable and confident young child. The combination of play and high quality relationships at home and in pre-school creates this transformation. It is a miracle but it is also one we can understand and explain.

What does play contribute to a child’s development? How does playing help a child to build their skills, step by tiny step? Why does play act as such a powerful motivator to ensure the child is avidly curious to learn about the world? Play is not just a way of passing time; it is the engine and power house of child development which is special for 10 important reasons.

  1. The brain thrives on gaining knowledge. A child has a mind of their own from the beginning and sets out to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Play is what happens when a child follows their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them.  Small children are mini scientists exploring and testing out what they find. They ask questions and make judgments. “What is this?” “What can it do?|” “How is it like other objects I know about?” “How is it different?” If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs.
  2. Play develops language and communication. Children learn the language they need. A busy child at play will share what they are doing with an adult by commenting and asking questions which have a powerful relevance to what they are doing. The concept of sustained shared thinking acknowledges the importance of starting from the child and allowing their needs and their world view to shape the dialogue between adult and child. This builds the child’s confidence as well as developing knowledge. When adults ask questions or attempt to teach new concepts a child soon loses interest if it doesn’t resonate with what they are doing. When you observe this you can see the child’s unease and anxiety at being taken out of their comfort zone.  
  3. Play is fun and makes us happy: when you think back to your early childhood what are your treasured memories?  Maybe you remember a special toy fondly or the time you went on an adventure in the woods or built a den.  Children value their achievements. What makes a child feel competent is what they learn to do for themselves.  That’s why children want to keep models they’ve made or have their art displayed at home.
  4. Play reduces stress by helping children feel comfortable and in control.  “I can do what I want and need to do” Children typically have much less freedom than a generation ago which makes them tense.  I believe that some of the rise in behaviour problems is linked to this limited opportunity to gain satisfaction and achievement through play.
  5. Play helps children discover their strengths: children are attracted to activities they can soon learn to do successfully. Once one level is mastered they move onto the next challenge. Play gives a child the freedom to experiment and discover what works well for them, what skills they have and what they can make happen. Playing to your strengths not only builds a child’s competence but creates confidence and excitement at the prospect of learning something new.
  6. Play makes practice fun: if you have something to learn you need to rehearse it and repeat important steps many, many times for the skill to develop.  Play is the perfect system for practicing developing skills whether it is learning to climb or becoming a more skillful communicator. Watch how happy children are to repeat things which interest them.  This experience of playful practice helps children to recognise and accept the importance of practice in other areas of learning once they get to school.
  7. Play builds a child’s ability to concentrate. Play is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration for the young child. Learning to concentrate emerges from play as a pleasant side effect. Young children are designed to concentrate on what interests them and find it more difficult to concentrate on something led by an adult. A child’s concentration span increases the more experience they have of deeply absorbing play. Learning to shut out distractions is an important part of this. When a child has restricted opportunities for uninterrupted play this has a direct effect on their ability to control their attention.
  8. Play teaches organisation skills. Play may start with a spontaneous idea, but it quickly becomes planned and self-managing.  “What shall I do now?”  “Where shall I take this next?”  Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. As a child’s brain develops, this skill becomes more established. This vital cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning. Children who have well developed executive function will be successful in education. The Plan, Do, Review process is designed to reinforce this developing skill.
  9. Play helps a child become self-motivated which is vitally important as children make their way through school. Teachers can’t oversee every detail of a child’s work. Children who have experience of successful learning through play will become more active learners who are not passively dependent on adults overseeing every learning moment. This belief in their competence to learn will transfer to classroom learning.
  10. Play nurtures creativity – the ability to use what is available in the room or in your head to make something new out of the familiar requires a powerful imagination. The imagination is not just a pleasant place to visit; it is where all discoveries, inventions and new ideas are incubated. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way.  Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity. The danger for children who are over scheduled with little free time is that it saps creativity. The areas of the brain which manages reflection and imagination are switched off when we areengaged with a demanding task.  The imagination needs space to work its magic.  That’s why our best ideas pop into our heads on a walk or in the bath.  If we over schedule children they don’t have time to dream.


Jeni Hooper is an Educational and Child Psychologist. She is the author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.



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What works to support children’s wellbeing and resilience.

Wellbeing and resilience are not skills you are born with, nor can they be handed on by wise advice, they are skills which have to be learned. Developing the skills which create wellbeing puts a young person in control of their own destiny. They will know how to make good choices, avoid temptations and create a life that brings them happiness and fulfillment. The path to maturity and independence is long and has twists and turns along the way. Over protection may avoid hazards but leaves young adults vulnerable when they need to make decisions. It is better to be prepared through independence gained slowly and carefully. Until a child feels secure and competent in what they are doing they will need the people in their life to offer support and guidance in making choices. Here are 10 strategies which will help to build the competence and self-knowledge to maintain their wellbeing.

  1. Look at the world through the child’s eyes to be aware of both how they feel and what practical skills and thinking strategies are needed to manage a situation successfully. What will work best for them?
  2. Set realistic expectations based on both what suits the child and what their age and stage of development will allow. Children can be ahead in some areas and less so in others. Aim not to set expectations which are possible but not too big a stretch.
  3. Warmth and rapport are the top qualities which influence others and sustain relationships. Advice falls on stony ground when someone instructs rather than supports. Think Connect rather than Correct. A child looks for positive and constructive feedback to let them know how they are progressing. Adults however are only human and we need to ensure our own needs and feelings do not get in the way.
  4. Circles of support. There is a saying that it a takes a village to raise a child. This is true not only for the child but also for adults who are responsible for the child’s welfare. You need others to turn to who can step in at a practical level or just listen and let you let off steam. Sometimes that support network is within your local community but for many people now online social support has become increasingly important.
  5. Focus on building strengths. People who feel competent are more likely to be confident. The greater the child’s competence the more likely they are to cope with what they find challenging. What strengths can be used to make any changes needed? .
  6. Create strong boundaries which keep a child within their zone of competence. Firm boundaries are like scaffolding, providing support until a child demonstrates sufficient knowledge, skills and maturity to handle that situation independently.
  7. Provide lots of supported practice. Most children now grow up in small families and spend their days in school with others the same age. The opportunities for learning by observation and example can be narrower now than in previous generations when children played outside in mixed age groups. Think about what might broaden their experience and provide good role models.
  8. Accept mistakes. Progress rarely goes in a straight line. When things don’t go according to plan we can either become frustrated and demotivated or we can explore what this tells us to inform what we do next. A growth mindset helps a child live with mistakes and profit from them.
  9. Be aware of other influences. Role models shape children’s thinking and aspirations. They can either inspire and inform or make a child feel dissatisfied with themselves. The child’s peer group is hugely important as a source of belonging and building identity but can also play up a child’s vulnerabilities. Similarly the media offers images which attract a young person but if they are too far out of reach they cause deep dissatisfaction. You can help them consider and make sense of these influences for themselves. Equally you can draw attention to role models who are resilient, or very optimistic or passionate about doing something well.
  10. Celebrate success. When you focus on what is happening right now rather than any lengthy “to do list” you start to notice what is going well and what you can savour and feel grateful for. Young people need to develop the habit of being in the moment and appreciating what is happening around them and what they are capable of contributing, too much negativity is draining.



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Emotion Coaching: helping children to understand and manage powerful feelings

Children’s behaviour is often problematic because they are trying to solve a problem of their own. Learning to understand your emotions and identify your needs takes time and often a child’s solution is both impulsive and centered on their own needs.

A child is not trying to create a problem for others but often this is just what happens. To learn understand themselves and others better, children need sensitive guidance which helps them to look at every aspect of their behaviour to find a better solution. I call this Emotion Coaching, because it is designed to work from the outside in, teaching a child to recognize the thoughts and feelings which contribute to their behaviour. This is based on the groundbreaking work of John Gottman in his book The heart of Parenting.

Emotion Coaching may take longer than offering a quick solution of your own, but it is more effective in calming the situation. It also gradually teaches the child how to find their own solutions. Empathy is at the heart of this approach. When you acknowledge, and try to understand your child’s feelings, you will help them to make sense of their own emotions. It will then be easier to find solutions which work for them.

There are 5 stages to take you from acknowledging the problem to finding a solution. The Emotion Coaching process is the key to helping a child learn how to integrate the emotional brain with rational thought. Emotion Coaching is designed to identify and acknowledge the child’s feelings and how they impact on behaviour. Only when this has been successful will you be able to identify what new behaviours and skills need to be learnt and practiced.

Your empathy provides a close connection with the child, and improves communication so that you can explore together what has happened to them and why they are feeling this way. It helps the child to feel less stressed, and more supported, so that they can consider what has happened and plan what to do next. It is a vital principle of all coaching that the coach does not advise or direct. You may see a solution, but what you are aiming for is to help the child understand themselves better. Then they can make informed choices and plan genuine change.

When you talk to a child about their feelings you need to keep your views private, to avoid inhibiting the child from finding what works for them. While being given a solution may be a quick fix, it doesn’t teach the child how to think through and solve problems for themselves.

Monitor your own feelings: it is also important to be aware of how you feel about powerful emotions. Your empathy and connection with your child will be affected by your own values and beliefs about strong feelings. Do you avoid sadness or perhaps you fear anger? It is not unusual to “catch an emotion” when someone is upset so that you also feel something of the same strong emotions that the child is feeling. If you are uncomfortable with any of these feelings, you are more likely to try to resolve things quickly to restore your own peace of mind.

Equally, barriers to communication can be created when you are inclined to pile on the guilt or create shame in the hope this will prevent repeats of the behaviour. When over used, these strategies can create secondary emotions which make it hard for a child to be open and honest with you about what they are feeling.

For many people, their own upbringing may have been tough-minded, demanding that emotions were managed quickly and effectively as a sign of self discipline. While self discipline is the ultimate long term aim of behaviour coaching, the route to this goal has to be taken slowly. First the emotional brain needs to be calmed, not suppressed, to allow rational problem solving to take place.

If a child gets the message that strong feelings are unwelcome, they may try to hide them. This is rarely a successful strategy. It will lead the child to swing between the extremes of trying to keep feelings hidden and then swinging back into melt down when they can no longer manage the swirl of emotions. Often, it can be small things which cause the final melt down, which leaves the adult both surprised and vaguely irritated. “What a lot of fuss over nothing” Emotions are powerful and do not go away satisfactorily unless addressed.

The best way to help a child learn self discipline is this gradual process of sharing and guiding. Emotion Coaching works with the child’s level of understanding to help them resolve any strong feelings which are causing them distress. The process adapts as the child matures and strengthens their ability to make good choices.

Step 1 Tune into the child’s feelings. This is straight forward if the child’s feelings are acted out, as younger children often do, but can be harder when the signs are less direct like withdrawing or not joining in. You may need to observe what themes come out in a child’s imaginary play or their comments about stories or DVD’s

Step 2 Make it clear you can resolve this together. Creating closeness and a willingness to share the child’s feelings will establish the right environment to teach new skills. Unresolved emotions rarely dissipate and the child’s body chemistry is likely to remain in “flight or fight” mode so getting in early will also avoid the situation escalating.

Step 3 Listen and validate the child’s feelings.  Aim to enter the child’s world so you can reflect back their feelings and help the child accept and understand what they feel. This also allows the child a safe space to step back and see what you see. It breaks the powerful hold that emotion has over the child when it absorbs all their attention to focus on the object of distress. Encouraging the child to talk helps them to understand themselves, as well as be understood. “You are feeling angry” is a statement of fact necessary to begin unraveling what is going on.

Step 4 Label the feelings for young children especially, emotions are experienced as unpleasant but indefinable. Children gradually learn to identify what they are feeling through experience and through being given support and the vocabulary to describe what they feel. Children often use words like hate to cover aspects of anger shading from frustration, annoyance and irritability through to dislike and anger. I hate you can mean a variety of things. This can be uncomfortable to hear but by talking together gradually shades of meaning are identified.

Let’s listen in on an emotion coaching session between Tom and his father. Tom is 8 years old, and has a younger sister, Lara aged 4. She hero-worships her big brother but her following him around is unwelcome. Lara has just come into his room and has started playing with a Lego model he is very proud of. He shouts at her to leave it alone, which she ignores, leading to a scuffle as he tries to push her out of the room.

Here are the stages Tom’s father followed to help him decide how to get along better with his sister. Let’s assume dad has gone through steps 1 to 4 above to let Tom know he understands he is angry and that he wants to help him. They have got to the Step 5 where they are ready to problem solve.

Step 5 Problem solving this is a guided approach which begins by dealing with the immediate situation caused by Tom kicking his sister. The inappropriate behaviour has to be acknowledged before focusing on the future. It is important that Tom understands that his feelings are not the problem, it is his behaviour towards his sister which is unacceptable.

  •  Set limits for behaviour: Dad has to make it clear to Tom that although he understands why he felt frustrated with his sister it was not, and never would be, OK to push her or hurt her in any way.  Dad says: I know you are angry but it was not OK to push your sister” “it is never acceptable to hurt people when we are angry with them” We need to find a way for you to work things out with Lara when you disagree.
  • Identify goals: Now Dad and Tom will be looking for ways of expressing anger and managing disputes between the siblings. “How can you get along better with your sister”
  • Explore options: If Dad were to give Tom a set of rules it might work but it is likely to crack under pressure. It is better to help Tom come up with a range of options. Dad is aiming for win/win for both children but initially Tom only sees the solution only from his own perspective. “I think she should be banned from coming in my room or playing with my toys.” Dad knows this isn’t ideal but decides not to reject this option out of hand. Instead he asks further questions to explore how well it might work in practice. “When will Lara get to play with you? Is it fair for only you to decide? What else might help you to get on better?” This questioning helps Tom to think of things from his sister’s perspective and develop some empathy with her.
  • Weigh up their merits: they end up with 2 options: either asking Lara to knock to see if Tom is busy or agreeing that bedrooms are private spaces but offering to play together downstairs or in the garden instead.
  • Making the choice: Tom decides that he could make it work best if he asked Lara to knock to ask if he was available and if he was busy he could agree a time to come and play a game later. They decide that the next step is to say sorry to Lara and to ask her what she thinks of the plan. Fortunately she is happy with this and can see the advantage of not having her big brother come into her own room either unless she agrees.

It can work to use this approach with both children particularly when it is not clear what happened.

It may not always be possible to use emotion coaching close to an event. If the child is very unsettled, they might need to be offered some quiet time doing something distracting. “I realize you are feeling very angry and I do want to help you, but first I think you need some quiet time to help you settle”

Find something calming and repetitive to help them take their mind off what has happened. Young children are often willing to do a helping task but with an older child who remains volatile may need a planned strategy of activities which will engage them successfully until they are in a calmer and more receptive state to begin emotion coaching.

Once the child’s rate of breathing and heart rate has settled, you can begin the behaviour coaching cycle acknowledging how they are feeling and working towards a possible solution. You should also look for other signs that the stress response is diminishing like skin being less flushed.

There is a more in depth look at emotional wellbeing on pages 65 to 97 of my book What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.




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