One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is to help them become ‘emotionally articulate,’ i.e. able to recognise, express and manage their own feelings. This is a skill developed over time, as the terrible twos –when tantrums are often caused by a child’s frustration at not being understood or listened to—give way to increasingly mature and reasoned behavior around the age of 3 and 4, when the 4+ assessments for entry into selective independent schools take place.
As a mother of four, I have been through this developmental stage with my own children several times. I know first hand they won’t have all reached the same level of emotional maturity at that age and may thus react very differently to meeting new people in an unknown setting where they will be expected to follow instructions and rules. As a former teacher who used to conduct 4+ assessments at a top prep school, I also have a clear grasp of what the schools are looking for.
So aside from worrying about whether your child can write their name, count and answer questions to a story, how can you best prepare them emotionally for the day?
What many parents fail to understand is that the 4+ assessments focus more on a child’s behavior rather than their literacy. Above all else, the teachers are trying to confirm that the child can remain calm in a foreign setting, integrate with a group of children of the same age, follow instructions, share and cooperate, as well as show signs of curiosity and overall “school readiness”.
With this in mind, it becomes obvious that informed, consistent and positive parenting, rather than tutoring aiming to develop literacy, is what is needed to help the child do well on the day.
Taking a long-term view, emotional intelligence (EQ) is arguably more important to successfully get through life than IQ. In fact employers are now increasingly looking for ways to measure EQ when recruiting. An employee’s ability to take feedback neutrally or a manager’s skill at boosting his team’s morale ahead of a key presentation are now regarded as more important than their test scores.
Unfortunately, just as emotional intelligence is finally recognized as a tremendous asset, our children’s mental health seems to be deteriorating at a rapid pace. A recent study revealed, for instance, that one in four girls now have depression before they hit 14. In my work as a parenting coach/educator speaking to thousands of parents, I have also witnessed families increasingly raising issues such as their child’s self-esteem, anxiety, anger, eating disorders, self- harming and depression.
My view is that solid foundations begin right from the early years and that consistent, enlightened and compassionate parenting paves the way to a healthy childhood and adult life.
So what does that practically translate into on the day of the assessment?
First, parents need to remember that the most effective way to respond when a child of any age is experiencing a difficult emotion, is to acknowledge your child’s perspective and empathise. That doesn’t mean you have to agree or give in. But during meltdowns, parent should avoid the following: denying feelings, trying to reason, giving advice, asking questions, showing pity or defending their position. What children need first is simply empathy: acknowledge their upset so they feel heard and understood.
So if your child starts getting upset because they don’t want to go into the classroom to be assessed without you, the first thing to do is to get them to calm down. This can’t be done by bribing, threatening, cajoling, shouting, reasoning etc. Their reptilian brain has kicked in and they are in fight, flight or freeze mode.
Instead, remember that all children’s behaviour is a way of communicating. “Whilst we can find our child’s behavior to be unacceptable at times, his or her feelings should never be.” (Haim Ginott)
Using the analogy of an iceberg, the tip of the iceberg is a child’s behavior – this is what parents tend to focus on and react to. Instead parents need to really address the main issue – the child’s feelings and emotions – this is 90% of the problem under the surface.
Parents can act as an emotion coach for their children, and help them to regain their composure, by using ‘reflective listening’. Acknowledging and labelling emotions has proven to have a soothing effect on the nervous system, helping children recover more quickly. This technique is the basis of many forms of psychotherapy.
Next time your child is experiencing a difficult emotion:
1. Put your own emotions and wishes to one side and really observe your child. Look at their body language, tone of voice and truly listen to what they are saying.
2. Imagine how your child is feeling and reflect that back to them in words. You can take an educated guess and even if you are wrong, your child will still feel respected, validated and heard. For instance if your child can’t do something rather than saying “Don’t be silly it’s easy” say “You look really frustrated. You have tried so many times.”
3. It also helps to describe their resistance for instance “I know that you wish I could stay in the classroom with you the whole time. You don’t want me to wait outside.”
This approach may look like it will take a bit longer and you may think you won’t have the patience or self control to implement it on the day, but it’s really best to first listen and talk through the emotion before addressing the unwanted behaviour.
Once the emotion has been fully experienced –and verbalised by the parent—the child can often move on.
It takes practice and determination to stay calm and empathise, especially during public tantrums/meltdowns. However it is by modeling serenity, good emotion control and expressing feelings calmly at a time of crisis that parents can best teach their children to become more emotionally articulate.
Do this effectively and your child’s long-term mental health and wellbeing will benefit enormously.
Emotion coaching is just one of many skills taught on my 10 week ‘Positive Parenting’ course which parents can join at any time. For more details see here