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Children's Emotions and Mental Health

Children's emotions. How are they linked to mental health? Emotional Literacy changed my life, I mean it, it really did. My old manager will testify to witnessing the spark that was generated in that first training session, it lit a flame that I could not put out, I would try and suppress it a little, as I was still working within a system that felt contradictory to what I was learning but I couldn't, for me it was like a final piece of the puzzle being slotted into place, I've talked about this before, many times, but when I was writing assignments and researching I just kept thinking, I should have known this sooner, I should have known it as a child, I should have known it as a parent.

So what is 'it'? 'It' is Emotional Literacy, but more importantly it's how that links to child development. I love child development, observing children whilst they play and learn is one of the things I used to value most about my role pre-BTG (you can read more about the prime areas of learning and development here), Using those observations to plan activities and scaffold learning in a way that helped children towards their next steps was a pleasure and a privilege. I also enjoyed sharing that information with the families I was working with. I suppose what was really eye-opening for me was what we now know about a child's developing brain, and how that knowledge had shifted and grown over the years, thanks to advances in technology. It was fascinating to me that what we used to believe about a child's brain developing by the age of five wasn't true, it continues to develop into our mid/late 20's, and the part of the brain that fascinated me the most was, unsurprisingly, the emotional brain. The frontal lobe, the part responsible for judgement, impulse control, reasoning, predicting the consequences of our actions. Learning more about how this continues to wire and develop through puberty and early adulthood helped me to understand my own experiences from a very different viewpoint, I was able to be kinder to myself and have empathy for the teenage Jennifer; something that I had never been able to do before.

We all know the rest of the story of how Bridge the Gap then came to be (if you don't then you can read more about that here) and what we now do. We support long-term mental health by supporting children's emotional development, whatever stage they are at, we meet children where they are and we get to know them, helping them to feel safe and secure. We observe their comfort levels around emotional learning and plan for their next steps in accordance to that, we use their own interests and learning styles to engage them and plan sessions that are unique to each child. Sound familiar? Yes, those early years roots are the backbone of what we do at Bridge the Gap, we still use all of these skills to create a holistic support that is never about fixing a child and always about empowering them and the eco system around them. It's why I'm so proud to shout about my early years roots, I know how valuable my experience in this field is, I had over 21 years on the floor doing this work, I was able to spend the last years in settings embedding emotional literacy into my interactions, I was able to complete placements in secondary schools and see how that translated across the stages and ages in children's lives. I knew in my gut that this was a vital step to supporting the ever increasing mental health crisis, doing this work proactively and at the same time giving children a sense of belonging all made sense to what we knew about child development.

So emotional literacy is what we deliver, for most children that starts with us creating a safe place and a therapeutic relationship to play, listen to stories, create and learn strategies. We give them positive interactions that still drip feed emotional literacy skills, so that we can then build upon those foundations with more targeted learning, each child is different and unique and we are adaptable to that.

A hand holding a seedling to represent the quote of nurturing emotional literacy development and how it helps to raise more emotionally intelligent adults.
Nurturing emotional literacy skills to support long-term mental health.

Emotional literacy refers to the ability to recognise an emotion we are experiencing, being able to read and listen to physical clues to that through our feelings, know those quieter more subtle emotions underneath the louder ones as we grow. It's understanding why we are feeling the emotion, understanding the context. It's also knowing how to respond healthily to those emotions AND being able to put it into action - two very different things! Finally, it's about being able to take into account the feelings of others and adjust our responses in accordance to that, I like to call this 'the interface to the outside world', it's having social skills and building healthy relationships, it's having authentic resilience and good self-esteem and being able to problem solve. It's being able to accept difficult emotions and not being fearful of them. It's living a fulfilled live where happiness is not a constant search for perfection or an end goal, it's living life now and appreciating all of the moments that exist within that. Wow, it's a lot right? Yes, which is why that doesn't happen over night, wiring the brain takes years, heck, I feel like I'm always still learning and growing and I'm definitely a lot older than 25! While emotions are experienced throughout the brain, the frontal lobe plays a crucial role in emotional literacy. Let's explore the connection between emotional literacy and the frontal lobe, shedding light on the brain's significance in our emotional intelligence.

  1. The Frontal Lobe: The Control Center of Emotions: Situated at the front of the brain, the frontal lobe is responsible for a range of cognitive functions, including emotional regulation. It plays a pivotal role in understanding and interpreting emotions, as well as modulating our responses to them. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe, is particularly important for emotional literacy.

  2. Emotional Recognition and the Frontal Lobe: Emotional literacy begins with recognising and identifying different emotions in ourselves and others. The frontal lobe, specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, aids in this process by helping us perceive facial expressions, body language, and vocal cues. This region of the brain is involved in connecting emotional stimuli with their corresponding emotional responses.

  3. Emotional Understanding and Empathy: Understanding the emotions of others and empathising with them is another aspect of emotional literacy. The frontal lobe, along with other brain regions like the anterior cingulate cortex, facilitates our ability to infer and understand the feelings of those around us. This enables us to respond appropriately and show empathy, fostering deeper connections and social bonds.

  4. Emotional Regulation and Self-Control: Emotional literacy also involves regulating and managing our own emotions. This is where the frontal lobe, comes into play. It helps us exert control over impulsive reactions and engage in rational decision-making even in emotionally charged situations.

  5. Emotional Literacy and Cognitive Flexibility: The frontal lobe's influence extends beyond emotional regulation to cognitive flexibility, which is closely intertwined with emotional literacy. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to adapt and switch between different tasks, thoughts, and perspectives. By facilitating cognitive flexibility, the frontal lobe enables us to consider alternative viewpoints, explore creative solutions, and adapt to changing emotional contexts.

A faded image of a head with an actibe brain inside, there is an overlay of a box that holds the quote around  empathy and the link to emotional literacy and the frontal lobe.
The significance of the frontal lobe in supporting mental health is clear to see.

Emotional literacy is an important skill for navigating the complexities of human emotions and relationships. While emotions involve various regions of the brain, the frontal lobe plays a central role in emotional literacy it helps us develop emotional intelligence and enrich our social interactions. By nurturing our emotional literacy skills, we can enhance our well-being and build more meaningful connections with others, which we know are important aspects of supporting mental health.

Hopefully you can see why I fell in love with emotional literacy and why we value it so highly at Bridge the Gap, this stuff matters, really matters and if we had a school system that had emotional literacy embedded across curriculum (we have an online curriculum ourselves if you are interested for your school please get in touch) we could have a significant impact on children's positive long-term outcomes. If we had a system that prioritised this development what a difference it would make! If we are taught about this ourselves then we can drip-feed it at home, creating an environment that creates emotional acceptance.

I haven't a wand to wave, but I have a belief and vision to share, and that vision is for every child to have hope and to know that they are enough, that they can get through these difficult feelings and challenges.

I want every child to know that they matter, they are loved and they are not alone...

You can find out more about how to support this development at Bridge the Gap in a variety of ways. We offer FREE resources, run an active YouTube channel, online courses and community sessions for children and parents. We also run a 1:1 service for children, offering child centered emotional support.

Join Jennifer for a LIVE webinar on Emotional Literacy, you get access to the recording for 14 days afterwards. Just £5!



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