It seemed clear to the teachers that Seth was unable to keep his strong feelings from overwhelming him so much that he could not control his actions. According to Stanley Greenspan (1997), a child psychiatrist who has studied children's emotional development extensively, one of a child's earliest tasks is to learn to integrate feelings into a sense of self—to know that a person can move from playful joy to anger, and back to joy, all while remaining the same person (pp. 68–73). Here are some suggestions for helping children recognize and understand their feelings:

  • Give children words for their feelings.  "You're angry because Josh took the wagon you wanted."  "It looks like you're feeling sad about saying goodbye to your mom this morning."  "I can see that you're so excited about spending the weekend at your dad's that it is hard for you to settle down for a nap."
  • Incorporate knowledge about feelings into the curriculum.  Read books about feelings in general or about children coping with particular feelings.  Use puppets or dolls to present vignettes of common situations, such as a child talking a toy from another, and ask children how they think the character might feel.
  • Encourage children to reflect on their own feelings.  For example, help them make personal books with pages captioned, "I felt sad when....., I felt happy when...." and so on.  Be sure to include the full range of feelings, both positive and negative.  Children can illustrate each page with a drawing, or you can take digital photographs of them acting out the facial expressions corresponding to each feeling.  Children will enjoy looking at themselves in a mirrow as they ty out these expressions

But children need more than a name for the powerful feelings that seem to take over their bodies. Children—and adults—need to learn to manage those emotions so that they don't become slaves to their own passions. Another psychologist, Daniel Goleman (1995), argues that this type of emotional intelligence can play a larger role than conventional I.Q. in one's happiness and success in life. Adults help children manage strong feelings by removing insofar as possible the circumstances likely to trigger outbursts and by teaching children specific strategies for calming themselves when things happen to upset them.


Frustration is frequently the initiator of troublesome behavior, and it takes a considerable amount of time for a child to learn to cope with it. Frustrations arise

  • When the child is stopped or thwarted in some desired activity—when the child is riding a tricycle and another child builds a barrier in the road, for instance
  • When the child fails to get something that she has waited for—when a child has waited for a turn to hold the bunny and a quick spring shower requires a shift of children and activities indoors, for example
  • When there are insufficient toys and equipment and the child doesn't see anything to use as a substitute for the desired one
  • When the child attempts or is encouraged to attempt activities that are too difficult for him or her
  • When a change in familiar routines, people, or activities occurs

Children (like adults) respond to frustration in a variety of ways. Some children react by withdrawing for a while and then seem unable to regain their momentum. Psychologist Jean Piaget (1962) explained that once young children make up their minds about something, they get “centered” and find it very difficult, if not impossible, to think of another solution or to change direction (pp. 235–236). The frustrated child often cries, gets angry, and may strike out, either to get whatever is desired or just to relieve tension. Anger is a common response to frustration. Angry children may hit, push, bite, cry, scream, or have temper tantrums. Of course it is unrealistic to think that children could, or even should, go through life without experiencing frustration. Acquiring the ability to cope with frustration is an important part of emotional development. Adults who seek to guide that development, however, do have a responsibility to help keep the level of frustration within manageable limits for the particular children in a given setting. Knowing that two-year-olds can probably tolerate less frustration than four-year-olds, you will make sure to have several duplicates of popular toys in a toddler room. On the other hand, you might expect the four-year-olds to be able to wait for their turns with the new wagon. Furthermore, you will tailor your age-based expectations to the particular characteristics of the children in your care. While turn-taking may be an appropriate goal for four-year-olds in general, many factors might make it less appropriate for any particular four-year-old. Children who have never had opportunities to play with other children, for example, or children who have never had their own toys might find sharing especially difficult. A child whose coping skills are already taxed by a disability or by an abusive home life may have a much lower threshold for frustration than a child without these challenges. Remember that the ability to share requires a feeling that one has enough of whatever is being shared. Once you are sure you have eliminated sources of unnecessary or extreme frustration, you should then concentrate on ways to help children learn to manage their reaction to frustration. Recognizing children's feelings and encouraging them to express those feelings are good starting points. After children have become calm, you can help them think of strategies for coping. For example, children can sometimes wait a turn more patiently if they “sign” their names on a waiting list for a popular toy, thus assuring that they will be next.

Managing Anger

Anger is a normal human emotion, although its experience is often frightening, both for the person who is angry and for those who witness the anger. Some adults, perhaps because of their childhood experiences with their own or others' anger, are particularly disturbed by anger in children. Nevertheless, children have a right to feel and express anger. It is our job to help them learn how to manage their anger so that it does not overwhelm them. It is also our job to intervene when children lose control of their anger and become violent or aggressive, so we need to make a clear distinction between children's feelings of anger and their behavior. Goleman (1995) reviewed several research studies and concluded that a cooling-down period, away from the situation that triggered the anger, can help get feelings back under control—but not if the angry person uses that time to rehash the reasons for the anger (pp. 57–65). One popular strategy for helping children manage their anger is to teach them the “turtle technique,” that is, to “take time to tuck [inside an imaginary shell] and think” instead of reacting immediately when something happens to make them angry (Hemmeter & Fox, 2007). Some people find that vigorous activity, going off alone to a tranquil place, or becoming engrossed in some enjoyable activity can serve to defuse anger. Depending on the particular child, you might try suggesting one of these alternatives, but only after you have recognized and accepted the child's feeling as legitimate. The idea, in other words, is not to cajole a child to snap out of an emotional state, but to help the child gain enough control to be able to express that emotion appropriately. Note that the suggested activities defuse anger because they absorb the child's attention, gradually moving it away from the angry thoughts, not because they provide a way to vent the anger. A popular notion, many years ago, was that venting, such as pounding clay or hitting a doll, served as a kind of safety valve for letting off steam. According to Goleman, however, such ventilation serves the opposite effect, increasing rather than decreasing angry feelings (Goleman, 1995, pp. 64–65). As an early childhood professional, then, you will use the principles of indirect guidance to minimize circumstances that evoke anger. You will use direct guidance to teach children how to express anger in appropriate ways and will gently help them do this when they do become angry. As we noted earlier, stories and picture books can provide models of children coping with strong feelings. Or you can help children role-play situations using small figures, puppets, or dress-up clothes, so that they have some idea of how to respond when things irritate them in real life. Finally, you will intervene when their anger boils over into actions that harm themselves or others. It may sorely challenge your professional skills, but you need to remain calm. Becoming angry yourself will only make things worse. Keep your voice low and quiet, squat down, and look the child directly in the eyes. Remind the child of the limits she has overstepped, staying nearby to assure that the behavior stops. Make it clear that it is the behavior that is the problem; you are not rejecting the child personally, nor are you condemning the child's feelings. You may need to remove the child from the group with an explanation like, “Komiko needs some time to think.” Tell the child, “I'll listen if you want to tell me about what is bothering you.” When the child begins to regain control, you can suggest alternative play activity based on your knowledge of what the child likes, does well, or finds rewarding. Mentioning that “the green tricycle is waiting for someone to ride it,” or “the children in the sandbox are making birthday cakes,” can redirect a child's activity and change the focus to appropriate alternatives. Avoid rushing the child back to the situation in which the problem occurred. Remember that it will take time for children to develop the skills you are trying to teach them, and you will probably have to repeat the above sequence many times. You should see some progress, though. A child who appears constantly angry, or who makes no progress toward self-control, should prompt you to look for reasons. Are your responses to the angry outbursts somehow rewarding for the child? Is some aspect of your program or environment creating tension? Is there something going on in the child's life outside of your program that is creating turmoil?