Reading your Child’s Emotions


    New initiatives from nurseries teach children emotional intelligence, reports Kate Freud

    Having skipped into nursery every day for six months, one morning my typically sunny two-year-old Jago dissolved into a fit of rage and tears and refused to go in. He was his usual self at home, and his teacher reassured us he didn’t seem unhappy at nursery, yet his refusal to go became a daily battle of wills. We tried every trick in the book; persuasion, negotiation, bribery, to no avail until one day, three months later, he moseyed into nursery without a backward glance and normality was restored. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

    Any parent will tell you that young children are famously difficult to read, but if Jago had a way of expressing why he had taken against nursery – fear, feelings of abandonment or even an issue with another child – it could have spared us a great deal of worry. Like many parents, it’s times like this that made my interest pique when I heard about the RULER programme being rolled out in primary schools across London, to teach emotional intelligence to pupils. The acronym stands for Recognising your emotions; Understanding them; Labelling them and Expressing them in a Regulated way.

    Every morning children are asked to plot their feelings on a ‘mood meter’, with red meaning angry, blue for sad, green equalling calm and yellow meaning happy. They are taught to express what has made them feel this way, and then taught how to read their classmates feelings and be empathetic, too.

    The programme was designed by Marc Brackett, a psychologist and head of the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University. Following the unprecedented success of the scheme in the US, Lulu Luckock, a British teacher with more than 30 years experience, is spearheading the trend in the UK, having completed the course last summer. “I’ve always been involved in the pastoral side of the schools I have worked in and am a firm believer in caring for the whole child to help them thrive,” she explains.

    She is now training other teachers in the RULER principles. In a recent Children’s Worlds study conducted by the University of York, England ranked 13th out of 16 countries when it came to life satisfaction in children, with poor body image and issues at school proving the greatest causes of stress. Which is why Brackett, himself a victim of childhood bullying, and Luckock believe the programme could transform the lives of thousands of students in Britain. “Youngsters are growing up with too much information to process and not enough down time,” says Luckock. “As a result they become more isolated. The rise in mental health problems in young people is a frightening reflection of the complicated childhoods of children today,” she adds.

    According to Brackett, if children are better able to label and articulate their emotions, the people around them are better able to support them through their childhood.

    Along with the mood meter, RULER’s other ‘anchor’ tools include the Blueprint to help the children manage conflict, and the Class Charter where the pupils and staff say how they want to feel when they are there. The parents adopt this at home, too.

    “Helping the children to regulate their emotions and take a step back before reacting has made a huge difference in how they communicate,” says Luckock, and parents have noticed a change at home, too. Aly Ganney, mum of four-year-old Leo, says, “It has made Leo a calmer child, safe in the knowledge that we can understand how he is feeling even if it does tend to be, ‘You are making me feel High Energy red, Mummy!’”

    Likewise, Claire Boyle has seen a dramatic change in her son Harrison, three. “He’s now able to deal more calmly with unpleasant feelings, there are less tantrums and loss of control, for both of us!” she says. When Brackett explains, “emotions are the drivers of attention, decision-making, relationships and health” it’s no wonder it’s such an important issue to tackle when they’re young.