Three-, four-, and five-year-olds express a wide range of emotions and are able to use appropriate labels such as mad, sad, happy, and just okay to differentiate their feelings. During these preschool years, children’s emotional states are very situation-specific and can change as rapidly as they switch from one activity to another. As children develop from three-year-olds into five-year-olds, there is an increasing internalization and regulation over their emotions. As three-, four-, and five-year-olds acquire new cognitive and language skills, they learn to regulate their emotions and to use language to express how they and others feel.
Three- and four-year-olds’ emotions are largely on the surface. At one moment in the classroom, Matthew is laughing uncontrollably about the funny faces that his friend Nathan is making. Within a split second, Matthew is sobbing because Nathan stuck his tongue out at him. “I was just making a funny face,” said Nathan. Three- and four-year-olds are beginning to understand the different emotions that they experience, yet they have difficulty regulating these emotions and using appropriate labels to describe the emotions. Their emotions are very connected to the events and feelings that are occurring at that moment (Hyson, 1994).
Three- and four-year-olds also have difficulty separating feelings from actions. If they feel something, they express it. If they want something, they try to take it. Delaying gratification and controlling impulsive feelings are often a challenge. Their natural curiosity can often lead them into trouble. Matthew began building a bridge with blocks. His intense focus and his desire for the blocks did not allow him to see that Nathan was already using the blocks as part of his construction site. A tug-of-war over the blocks evolved into a hitting match. Four-year-olds can often use physical means to solve conflicts instead of verbally negotiating their needs (Hyson, 1994). Teaching children appropriate ways to express their emotions is an important milestone in their development. Conflicts that arise over two children’s need for the same object are common; children are learning how to solve conflicts in socially acceptable ways (Hazen & Brownell, 1999).
Three-year-olds experience emotions in extremes. When three-year-olds are angry, they often express their emotions through temper tantrums or some physical display. The same is true when they are happy, expressing their joy through uncontrollable laughter and/or squeals of delight. It is as if the Tickle Me Elmo doll were modeled on them. The slightest event can bring uncontrollable laughter. Once they begin, it is difficult to stop them from laughing.
Four-year-olds begin to understand that the expression of extreme emotions can have an effect on others around them. Every time four-year-old Nina has a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants, her mom removes her from the situation and won’t let her have her favorite toy for a limited time. Nina is beginning to understand the relationship between playing with her favorite doll and having a tantrum.
Four-year-olds are beginning to develop a sense of humor. Four-year-olds may laugh simply to make others laugh. They will be amused at the things that adults do. This silliness is accompanied by a fascination with “potty” humor where words such as “poop” and “pee” can result in hysterical laughter from a group of four-year-olds. They are also beginning to understand the nature of a joke, when people say things for the sole purpose of being funny. Four-year-olds can spend endless amounts of time telling the same corny riddle or joke over and over and laughing each time.
At the beginning of three-years’ age, children also begin to have fears that they can identify. They want to sleep with a night-light on and will not go down into a dark basement alone. Monster books, such as There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer (1969) and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963), appeal to them. The books affirm what children already believe, “that monsters are really there,” but through the books the children are able to keep their fears in place. These fears and concerns are still present with four-year-olds. However, they are beginning to understand that a dream is different from something really happening and are beginning to distinguish between what they did and what they dreamed.
Four-year-olds are also beginning to understand that others have feelings, too (Denham, 1998). One little boy came into Matthew’s class with a big bandage on his knee. The teacher asked him what happened, and he said he fell when he was chasing his sister. Matthew said, “It must have really hurt.” Matthew touched his own knee where a scrape was healing. He said, “I fell off my bike the other day and cut my knee really bad. It was bleeding. I bet you cried; I did when I fell.” Being able to understand how another person feels is emerging.
Separation from parents or primary caregivers can sometimes be difficult, especially at school, and can be the cause of emotional distress (Denham, 1998). On the first day of preschool, three-year-old Nathan and four-year-old Kenyatta both cried as their mothers left the classroom. Nathan held on to his mother’s leg as she tried to leave. Nathan’s mom still heard the cries as she waited down the hallway. When his mother peeked back into his classroom 10 minutes later, Nathan was still crying and asking for his mom. Kenyatta, however, was happily playing at the sand table. Three-year-olds, since they are less interested in playing with other children, are more interested in staying with their primary caregivers. For four-year-olds, fears concerning separation are typically short-lived and are harder on parents than on the four-year-old.
Five-year-olds are beginning to regulate their emotions and express their feelings in more socially acceptable ways. For example, Sally tells her mom about what happened in school. “I was really mad at Lisa today. She always wants to be the mom when we play house, but I want to be the mom sometimes.” Sally’s mother asks, “Well, what did you do about it?” “I used my words like you told me to,” said Sally. “I told her I wanted to be the mom today and she had to be the baby, but she said, ‘No!’ I stopped playing with her, but I’ll play with her tomorrow because she’s my best friend.”
Five-year-olds are beginning to separate their feelings and actions (Denham, 1998). For example, Sally is beginning to use her words to express her feelings. This allows her to express her anger or her disappointment in a socially acceptable way. Five-year-olds are beginning to delay their wants and desires. They are learning to wait their turn for a toy and listen when someone is speaking.
Five-year-olds are beginning to internalize socially acceptable behaviors. If they see something that they want, they ask for it (Greenspan & Greenspan, 1994). If they are told that they cannot have something, they are learning to deal with their feelings of either disappointment or anger. Although natural curiosity is strong in five-year-olds, they are beginning to learn the limits of this curiosity. Instead of grabbing a train off a classmate’s chair, they may ask if they can see it.
Physical aggression and temper outbursts are beginning to wane. As children are able to express their feelings in words, the behavioral expression of emotions begins to decrease. Unfortunately, verbal insults toward peers can surface at this time. Children often use “potty talk” to express their dislike for a child or situation, calling a classmate a “pee pee face.” At this age, children also are learning to distinguish among a wider range of emotions. They can label facial expressions that show when someone is happy, mad, sad, tired, or disappointed.
Five-year-olds are very fun loving and affectionate. They love to laugh and make others laugh. They are discovering jokes, but they do not yet understand the logic or semantics needed to make their own jokes funny. Many kindergarten teachers have heard the one about why the chicken crossed the road. “Because he was a chicken,” says five-year-old Matthew, who then laughs uncontrollably. Crying becomes more situation-specific. Five-year-olds are learning to control their tears. Tears are usually the result of feelings being hurt by a peer, physical pain, or frustration. At this age, these incidents are occurring less frequently.
During the first days of kindergarten, there may be tears for some children. Some children are sad to leave their mothers; others are afraid of the unknown situation. These tears, however, do not last long. It is rare to have five-year-olds crying beyond the first month of school.
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