Developing emotional literacy through early childhood education and children’s books [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Janet Foster, RECE. Janet is a Professor and Coordinator of the ECE program at Fanshawe College and an Early Years Specialist at Tools for Life. She specializes in emotional literacy and we discuss the development of emotional regulation in the early years through childcare classroom socialization and books!

Emotional literacy is the ability of a child to recognize, label, and understand feelings. First, you have to understand your own feelings and then you can understand others. This is a prerequisite skill to developing emotional regulation, which children need to problem solve and have successful relationships.

Having emotional literacy allows a child to become more socially confident. They are able to read social cues from others when in groups. This pro-social development gives children social skills so that they can play appropriately using skills such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, etc. Emotional literacy is the foundation for further learning and development.

Quote from Janet Foster podcast

Emotions are part of our identity and we feel different ones throughout the day. As children, we have to accept that and learn how to deal with these emotions. We all experience emotions straight from birth but over time, we learn what each emotion represents. Emotional literacy leads to emotional intelligence, including empathy and understanding others’ emotions. The more emotionally intelligent we are, the more we connect with others. It is often viewed as more important than IQ.

Books can be a very important tool in developing emotional intelligence. They provide information to children about feelings, give relevancy and acceptance to their emotions, and provide an opportunity for interaction with caregivers. Using books provides an emotional vocabulary to children. The more vocabulary children have, the less likely they are to display aggressive behaviors. Books become powerful because they are not focusing on any one child, they are giving emotional regulations strategies for all children to develop themselves.


If you want a calm child, you have to be a calm adult. We have to be in touch with our feelings too.”

Janet Foster

As educators, recognize the needs of the children in your room and what they need for emotional regulation. Whatever you determine that is, do your best to provide it!

Recommend resource:

Podcast episode transcript

Janet FOSTER:

So, the child realizes through interactions with you that, “You know what? This is a normal thing, that you’re going to support me.” So, that communication between both of you, it’s that co-regulation that’s so important in the early years, as well.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Janet, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

FOSTER:

Well, thank you for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have on the show with us today Janet Foster. She’s a registered early-childhood educator here in the province of Ontario. She’s a professor and coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Program at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. And she’s an early years specialist for Tools For Life, a great organization that I’ve been very fond of knowing for quite some time now. We’re going to be chatting with Janet a bit about emotional literacy. Janet, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and how you got into early-childhood education and your journey in early-childhood education [ECE] through to today.

FOSTER:

Okay, well, I’m very proud to say I am a registered early-childhood educator. I graduated, though, a long time ago, in the eighties. And I worked in the field and I absolutely loved every minute of it. But I was given another career path as I was working, that I was offered a position at Fanshawe to start teaching ECE.

But I can even go back before that. We used to have a lab school and I was hired there first. And I thought I had the best of both worlds: I got to work with children and I got to work with the students in the ECE program. That led me into actually teaching in the ECE field. So, this year I’ve actually been at Fanshawe for 35 years. And I can honestly say, when you do a job you love, it doesn’t feel that long. And it just feels like yesterday, some days.

So, I teach two courses that I focus on social-emotional learning. I do early development and early relations. And then I teach the importance of pro-social development. As you said, the last five years, I have been also coordinating it. So, it’s just a different side I get to see to challenge me as well.

In the last few years I had the opportunity to meet up with the Tools For Life team. And in a conversation with them we talked about how important it was to have an early years resource because they had kindergarten and above. So, with my what I call my partner in crime, Jan Blaxall, who is a retired professor from ECE program, we worked together for many years, for our passion, both as social-emotional. And together we developed the Tools For Life early years resource for [ages] two-and-a-half to four-year-olds. So, that was really exciting, to put all our years experience together and to actually make a resource.

And the Tools For Life team was awesome because they were able to develop all the resources. We did say to them, a year ago maybe, that we need books in here because books are so important. And they again challenged us and said, “Would you like to write some of your own?” So, we did. And we are going to be releasing our books on emotional literacy that deal with four basic primary feelings of sad, happy, angry and scared as well.

So, I would say the field of ECE is a continual professional development for me. And as I said, I’m enjoying every moment of working for the early years because I’ve also been able to become a training specialist for them for the early years. So, I get to connect with ECE’s again.

RON

Awesome. And Janet, we’re here to talk to you today about emotional literacy. Let’s start off with the basics. What is emotional literacy?

FOSTER:

Emotional literacy is the ability of a child – and then anybody – to recognize, to be able to label and to be able to understand feelings. First, you have to understand feelings in yourself and then you can understand feelings in other children, as well. We’ll talk about children here. And it’s a prerequisite skill to emotional regulation. And we need emotional regulation in order for children to be successful in their relationships and also to problem-solve. We need children to have the ability to acknowledge when they’re feeling overwhelmed and how to deal with that.

And the benefits from that, having that emotional literacy, is the child will become more socially competent because they’re not only able to read emotions in themselves, but they’re able to read social cues of others. And children, even adults, we’re in groups for a long time in our lives. That social aspect is so important.

RON

Yeah, absolutely. And that was something that you mentioned as well when you were talking a little bit about what you’re doing at Fanshawe College. You mentioned pro-social development. What is that?

FOSTER:

Pro-social development is giving children those social skills. You need emotional development first, you’ve got to recognize your emotions. And then you go into the social development. We tell children to go and play. But if I don’t have those pro-social skills to play, play won’t work. I need to know how to take turns; I need to know how to compromise, negotiate; I need to know how to problem-solve; I even need to know how to enter into a group to get accepted. And then if there is a conflict, can I problem-solve in order for play to continue? Or will it break down?

RON

Yeah, so it sounds like emotional literacy is almost like a foundational bedrock for a lot of other learning and development that happens at a young age?

FOSTER:

Oh, absolutely. Emotions are part of our identity. And you feel emotions, different emotions throughout the entire day. You don’t just have one emotion. So, we have to accept that and we have to accept how to deal with those emotions, as well.

RON

How much of our emotional literacy is like an innate human being thing, versus something that’s taught, if that makes sense?

FOSTER:

We all have emotions, emotions are there at birth. But it’s recognizing what your emotion is. If an infant is crying, I’m communicating because I know I need something. But as an infant, I may not know what I need at that moment but I know I need something. So, the same with toddlers. So, what emotional literacy does is it starts to label. And eventually children start to understand the different feelings that they’re going to have.

RON

So, that labeling part is as a pretty key aspect of the… I think what you mentioned before is that “recognize and then label”?

FOSTER:

Oh, yeah, because emotional literacy therefore leads to emotional intelligence with children. And that emotional intelligence is about how well a person copes with their feelings, whether they have empathy for and whether they get along with others, as well, which turns into the social, as well. And the more emotionally intelligent children start to develop, the more emotionally intelligent we are, the more we’re connected to other people. Therefore, the better we are to get along with people.

RON

Yeah, and I find what’s interesting is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized more and more that this emotional literacy or emotional intelligence or whatever you want to call it is so critical in every aspect of your life – personal, professional, social, etc. It’s almost surprising that I feel like it’s taken this long for us to put the emphasis on it.

FOSTER:

Do you know, I’m going to tell you that I don’t think it is surprising for ECE’s because we’ve been doing it. Do you know what I mean? Like, we understand that emotion and that connection as well, too. But if you go back, research says emotional intelligence is actually more important than IQ because if you can connect to people, if you can get along, if you can regulate your emotions, you’re able to work with people. And we’re social beings. And it starts in the early years.

RON

Totally, that’s a fair point because even if I think back to when I was a child, I do recall going through some of that, the recognizing and labeling of feelings. But then it just kind of stopped when you went into the grade school programs.

FOSTER:

The academic takes over, right? Yeah, and the thing is, and I will say, schools are recognizing that social-emotional learning is becoming just as important, especially Covid [19] did a number on children, as well, and adults. I can’t imagine a young toddler always seeing somebody with their face covered and not being able to figure out how they’re feeling if we’ve taught them social cues of their face, as well.

RON

Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re seeing that. And I think the K-12 school programs, I think, it’s a big institution, let’s call it, quote-unquote, sort of takes a little bit longer to move. But I think we are seeing the wheels starting to move there, right?

FOSTER:

Yes, it could be a lot more. I am not going to it’s the best yet, but everybody can constantly improve on the social-emotional.

RON

Yeah. And one thing you mentioned before was about children’s books. Where do those come into play with emotional literacy and helping facilitate learning about emotions?

FOSTER:

Well, what we want to do with emotional literacy is we want to give children that self-awareness recognition. And if you use books, we know books are powerful. You read any books, even as an adult, all the books that you read, you go, “Wow, I got something from this.” So, if we give books that deal specifically with feelings for children, I believe there’s three major things that happen here. We give them information and that’s the adult-child exchange.

So, you may not have a label for this feeling yet, but this is how your body is feeling. Here is a word for it. So, the adult and the child interact there. It then gives relevancy to children because the child sees this meaningful connection, not only between you and their home life. So, you are that extension in the childcare field and you’re taking them seriously. And number one, it’s acceptance. They legitimize children’s emotional responses. And again, children start to learn that, “You know what? Emotions are just part of you. You’re going to have any kind. And I’m going to be here to accept it.”

And I think for young children, their emotions can also be from real situations or imaginary situations. And we just want to give the message, “You know what? Here is an emotion. It’s just emotions. But let’s talk about how to deal with those emotions that are important.” It gives children, when you use the books, it gives them feeling vocab now that they’re developing.

And I truly believe the more we give vocab to children and words to use, we’re going to decrease their aggression because they’re so impulsive. “I know you hit. You’re angry. You have the right to be angry. You don’t have the right to hit. So, let’s talk about why you’re angry.” So, the child realizes through interactions with you that, “You know what? This is a normal thing, that you’re going to support me.” And the books just reinforce it throughout the day, as well. So, that communication between both of you, it’s that co- regulation that’s so important in the early years, as well.

So, if you get books that deal just with feelings, it’s going to name the feeling; it’s going to teach children what the feeling might look like. When you’re happy, your cheeks go up; when you’re mad, you might close your mouth, your cheeks go down. It talks about different things that could cause that feeling in yourself or maybe others and ways to show the feeling and maybe how to change your feeling.

So, the book becomes powerful because it’s not centering on one child. It’s giving strategies for all the children. So, in the heat of the moment, you can say, “Oh, this is like the book where so-and-so did this. Is that how you’re feeling?” And the child then can remember what maybe happened in the book to be able to come up with some situations themselves.

RON

Is there an advantage to you, as the adult, having read that book and experienced that book together with the child so, you can make that specific reference that you mentioned? It’s like the book, versus just using that language, which I’m sure is also very powerful, but having gone through that experience together?

FOSTER:

Absolutely. I think if you’re looking at the field we’re working in, co-regulation is the number one thing. You have to model and have to help the children express feelings. So, you have to figure out how to do it. I believe books are powerful. But then you have to do it the rest of the day, as well, to reinforce that feeling, to reinforce maybe the situations that were in books as well, too.

If you want a calm child, you have to be a calm adult to children, as well. So, I even said, we have to be in touch with our own feelings. You can even say to children, you might be reading a book about angry and you might say, “Sometimes I get angry.” And they’re like, “Oh, my educator gets angry?”

And then you can say, “But when I do, I got angry this morning because I went to eat a cereal at home and somebody ate it all. I was a little angry, but I think I was angry because I was hungry.” And then you talk about that situation with children. They see that emotions go beyond the self-awareness. It’s now the awareness of others, too. And for us in the ECE field, co-regulation is the number one thing to do.

RON

Cool, very interesting. And I always find these conversations so fascinating in early-childhood education because they’re actually so complex and so important. And you’re trying to boil down these really difficult and complicated learning and development journeys and processes that children go through in simple terms. And it’s challenging.

And that’s what we’re doing here, I guess, as well. Because I was thinking as you were saying, like, the labeling being really important for children with emotions, I was thinking, as an adult, too, it’s so important. Like, you used the word “co-regulation” and that being really important. Like, it’s great to see these concepts which we apply as children and our youth and for the development at that age. Those carry on, which I think really provides a lot of validation to the science behind that, I guess, is really where I’m going with that.

FOSTER:

Oh, absolutely. And it’s coming up with those developmentally-appropriate ideas for children. And I give the example is, when my children were young, and I do this in class, I teach them to breathe in the flowers and blow out the candle when they’re feeling angry. And I use that all the time myself. I was laughing one time, I was in the car and traffic and everything. And I had this feeling also. And all of a sudden I started saying to myself, “Janet, just breathe in the flowers, blow out the candle.” And you know what? It calmed me right down.

But you’ve got to find what works with every child. And that’s what the feeling books will do when it talks about how to handle different situations. When I worked in the field, I remember I had a punching bag – and this will age me, it was called Bozo the Punching Bag. And it had the sand and then it would bounce back and forth. And I would teach children what angry felt like. And I said, “Sometimes you feel so angry, you have to hit. I can’t let you hit other children because that will hurt them. But I can let you hit this because it doesn’t have feelings.

“And when you go to hit this, that tells me that you might need my help. And when you’re done hitting, I’m going to help you.” And I would go over there and some children would just go and they’d smile and say, “I’m angry.” But they were practicing. So, I would play the role, “Oh, you are angry. What are you angry about?” And then they would have to make up something.

Then some days, children really needed to do it. And then you can tell when they’re done because the shoulders go down, right? It’s [exhale] moment. And then I would say, “Wow, I’m so proud of you. You came over here, you didn’t hit anybody. Instead, you’re over here hitting. What’s the problem?” And the child learns, “You know what? There’s different ways that we all cope with different things.”

I’ve had people say, “But isn’t that aggressive?” No, because if you let it out physically, then they’re ready to talk to you. And eventually, they’re not going to want to get up and go punch the punching bag because that interrupts their play. Eventually they’re going to learn the words that we’ve taught them. And it’s going to magically work one day in play. And they’re going to go, “Wow, I’d rather use this than keep getting up.”

So, it’s a process. And you do different with tod’s [toddlers] than you do with preschoolers, than you do with school-age. It’s a building that you completely do. And as I think, children love books. And that’s the catch that you can start doing. And then you figure out, “Okay, in the book, here’s all different ways. Let’s talk about it in our room. What makes you feel good?” And a child might go, “Well, I like to hit play dough,” or, “I like to play in water.” I’m going to make sure I have water here. I’m going to make sure I have play dough for you. Or it could be… we used to do stomping mats. If you just need to stomp – because some children need to physically get things out – it’s recognizing the needs of your children in the room.

RON

Yeah, that’s a great story. I know my two-year-old likes to do the stomp. It’s actually really cute, I will say.

FOSTER:

And put bubble wrap over top. And then the bubble wrap you can say, “Wow, those are big stomps, are you really angry?” And then it becomes a lot of times, after they start popping, they start laughing.

RON

Right.

FOSTER:

And then they’re doing self-regulation and they don’t even know it, right?

RON

Speaking of development and learning, we’re also trying to support our listeners with their own professional development and learning. I was just wondering if there’s any resources you’d be willing to share that might help them in that process?

FOSTER:

Sure. I’m going to talk about Tools For Life because it’s something I’m really excited about. Jan and I, we have figured between us, we have 70-plus years in the ECE field together. So, we were pretty excited when we put this early years resource. And it’s for two-and-a-half-year-olds to four.

But Tools For Life is an evidence-based, social-emotional learning resource that influences positive child development all through the school systems, not just the early years, as well. I’m talking about the early years because that’s where our specialty is. And the early years resource supports educators within childcare centers and community agencies.

I would even go as far as to say it’s good for kindergarten. In Ontario, we have K-1 and 2, JK to kindergarten. They’re still four years old. They would benefit from this one, as well. I was talking to someone in the kindergarten field and they said, “A lot of children coming to kindergarten now, that’s their first social experience.” They’re not even in childcare.

So, we have children in childcare who’ve practiced these social skills. Then you’ve got another group in the room that haven’t. So, this early years resource should be really positive for them, as well. And it’s all developed about what we believe in, and that’s play and exploration. But we also believe in the educator leading the ideas.

And the early years resource is all about building self-esteem. We look at self-awareness, to self-control, to self-concept, and then eventually to awareness of others. We’re very excited, we’ve just developed four books on feelings: happy, sad, angry and scared. And our books, we feel, are a little bit unique from our knowledge of emotional literacy.

So, each book is set up the same way: at the beginning of the book, it has real pictures. And real pictures speak to children. And it shows them what the feeling may look like. So, this is what happy looks like. Your cheeks may be up, your eyes might be wide open. But there’s real pictures so children can compare to it themselves.

Then we were very lucky. We had two illustrators help us in the story aspect. And there’s three key concepts that follow in this story. It talks about, when do children have this feeling? How do their body react when they have this feeling? And how can they manage that feeling, as well?

And then we added a little fun at the back. There are emotional literacy songs that are included. It’s to the basic tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. But we also recognize people may not know that. I grew up in the culture of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. So, we have a cue code on there that you can use on your phone. And when you use it, it takes you to someone actually singing the song for you. So, you can learn the song as well. Because we thought that would be really good for English As Second Language, as well.

And then at the back of the book, we have where we’re going to share the book with your child because we think these books go beyond childcare. They go to parents. as well, too. So, we have all this interactive at the back that they can do with their child or early-childhood educators can do. And then we added more real pictures at the end so you can just have a conversation with your child about more calming ideas about what they can do with that feeling.

So, if you go to www.ToolsForLife.com, there are the resources on there that will show you for the early years resources and then the kindergarten and higher up. The website is going to have the e-books that will be available for happy, sad, angry and scared. And then we will be getting printed versions are going to be coming, as well.

RON

Awesome. And for all of our listeners here today, I’ll just say again, Tools For Life is a great resource. I’ve known the founders for a long time. The website is www.ToolsForLifeResourcescom. There’s a specific section there for the early years, really encourage you to check it out. And Janet, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!

FOSTER:

Oh, thank you. I should say, too, Jan and I also have a blog on the site that you can go to. And we talk about childcare, as well.

RON

Awesome, wonderful. Thanks so much, Janet!

FOSTER:

Oh, thank you for having me!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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