Take the emotion out of emotional learning

The key to social emotional learning is to take the emotion out…

Have you ever noticed that the best time to teach children about social emotional learning is often when emotions are running high? I am sure I’m not alone. As a mother, in my home there are times I feel that my role is to manage everyone else’s emotions. Have you had one of those days when one child is in a rage because maths homework is stupid, another child is categorically refusing to return to that school to be picked on again and then the one child who is usually happy is sitting in the corner bitterly disappointed because he didn’t make the football team?

This would appear the perfect moment to start a family conversation about feelings and how we behave when we feel bad. However, when emotions are running hot, trying to help is more likely to see all three children exploding and walking off before you have sat down.

Before you know it you’ve caught this terrible negativity virus and joined the kids by ranting and raving about all the things that are annoying you. How can we teach important lessons about emotional and social wellbeing when we often end up acting as badly as our children?

My 11-year-old daughter Sara taught me the key to learning about emotions is to take the “emotion” out of emotional learning.   She created an app called Positive Penguins, which is based on positive psychology. It brought to life four positive penguins to help children pinpoint their automatic – and all too often  – negative thoughts and help them challenge these thoughts to change their behavior.

We all have self-talk and much of it is “broken”.  Your child might not like to try new things because he/she doesn’t like to fail. The belief “I don’t want to fail” is “broken” as we will all fail at times. My son has a belief that life should be fair, but of course life isn’t always fair and he hurts badly when he sees injustice. This “broken” self talk can really make children feel down.  The Positive Penguins app aims to help children understand that their feelings arise from these thoughts or self talk and they can challenge them to change the way they feel.

Things happen but how we respond to things is up to us. Parents can use positive penguins with their  children to empower them to choose their feelings. Its major features include:

  • The app will ask you: What happened? What was the situation? This is usually pretty clear eg. I can’t do my homework, the mean kid bullied me today.
  • The app will then ask you: Why is that situation making you feel this way? This is the heart of the app and the toughest part for kids and adults, but the key to resilience.  For example. “I can’t do my homework is not making me angry” becomes “I am angry as I don’t like to be wrong”. “The mean kid bullied me today” becomes “ “I feel bad because I don’t think others should treat me that way.” This is a nice belief but “broken” – kids will be mean but you can choose to be the victim or to do something proactive about it.
  • The app then takes you on a journey to meet four positive penguins and challenge your belief.
  • Once kids start understanding that no situation or person makes them feel a certain way – only their own beliefs do – they can then challenge the beliefs and see what they can do about making the situation better.
  • In time they will do this naturally and with out the need for the app.
  • You may need to help younger children type in their response.

By focusing on the positive penguins rather than the problem we found our emotion faded and the clarity needed to understand the situation from different angles helped create new possibilities. Positive penguins is more than just an educational tool. The real benefit is that it creates the space to focus on really valuable conversations about feelings and consequences.

Kids need to know that negative feelings are normal. We reportedly have 12,000 thoughts a day and 75% are negative, resulting in hundreds of negative feelings a day.  Kids also need to know that they choose their feelings based on the their self talk.  Challenging this self-talk must become second nature if these kids are to be successful at creating optimistic futures for themselves.

Sara and I share a dream to inspire others to challenge their thinking and create new possibilities for their futures.

What do you do to challenge your thinking each day?  Try taking the emotion out of emotional and social learning.  You might be surprised to learn the self talk your children are hearing…


“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

Eleanor Roosevelt