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Teaching a child about to understand their emotions is a challenging task, when it comes to a child with autism the struggle can be even harder. Learning to recognise and regulate emotions is not easy. In fact as an adult we are constantly adjusting ourselves so our expectations of children should be set lower. You might wonder where you begin. I am sure there are many different methods I wanted to share with you what has worked for us.
The Basics – where to start with emotions
You can start with two basic emotions, Happy and Sad. With Ariella we were struggling badly with communication and understanding which then was leading into challenging behaviour. On recommendation of A’s private occupational therapist at the time, we were introduced to a red and green card visual.
Red and Green – Feelings cards
The plan was that both us and nursery would use a consistent approach. When we saw that A was sad (or a variant of that emotion like angry) we would show the red card and say “A is feeling red, sad/angry”. We would then ask her to try and calm herself down and let us know when she was ready to play again and “Go Green”.
You can use this same approach with your child to introduce basic emotions, green – OK/Happy and red – stop/sad.
In Ariella’s case we waited until she had calmed down and showed her the green visual and said “Are you ready to go green? Happy?”, or “Are you ready to play again?”. It took a very short time before she had picked up this system and was able to say “A is RED”. I knew she had great capacity to memorise visual content but I was astounded to hear her using it in context the very next day.
It might take longer for your child, you might have to adapt the wording that you decide to use depending on their personality and their abilities. However It is a great way of starting off understand of very basic emotion. It was the very early journey of learning emotional intelligence and from which we have been able to expand.
You can download a copy of the red and green card here. You can print them and bind them, it’s worth carrying them around with you so that they can be used at every opportunity.
Expanding on the basics – other emotions
Rather than moving straight onto new emotions we focused on self regulation, it would be much more motivating and practically useful for A to recognise her emotion is “Red” and know that she can bring herself back to “Green”. To do this we started with another suggestion from A’s therapist, using a wheel. With this A understood the benefit of being able to identify her emotions for both of us.
The wheel has been quite good as it starts to expand on the middle ground between happy and sad but is still very simple. You can apply this method with your own child too!
Early years – self regulation wheel
You can start with a simple wheel, red to green. I’ve created a template which you can print off below, I recommend you laminate the sheet and the arrow and use some paper fasteners to attach the arrow.
It may take some time for your child to pickup on this approach but once the first basic emotions are locked down it should be easier to introduce and expand on these.
Self regulation actions for young children
To compliment this I would recommended self regulation calming actions which you can download here. These help suggest actions that your child can do to calm down, it’s easy to tell a child to calm however offering practical solutions that they can do alone shows how to actually achieve this.
I recommend you print and laminate this red action card which you can use with the wheel/gauge. You can say “A you are feeling red/sad/angry, what can we do to calm down?” and list each action explaining. I use these when A is very upset and past the point of verbal communication still now, regardless that she knows how to do each of these the prompt is often enough to remind her to self regulate. When they have calmed down you can move the gauge/wheel to green again.
If you have an older child whom has mastered this skill already then moving on to a mindfulness app like Calm for children would be useful. It is supported on both iOS and Android devices and offers some lovely calming stories, meditation and sleep methods.
“Calm is the leading app for meditation and sleep. Join the millions experiencing lower stress, less anxiety, and more restful sleep with our guided meditations, Sleep Stories, breathing programs, masterclasses, and relaxing music. Recommended by top psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts.”
The downside is there is a subscription for the service but I use this app myself and I find it very valuable.
Exploring other emotions
Introducing new ideas and new information has to be highly motivating, over the last year we have noticed that A has quite an interest in photos of herself. She enjoys cause and effect also, we wanted to combine both of these things together in a way that could be used to help her learn what her face looks like when she is feeling different emotions.
We decided to use our phones but you could use a mirror. Our iPhone has the ability to map your face to Emoji’s, A will sit and do this for a long time. We can model what faces look like and describe the emotion when asked “Can you show me happy?” and so on it helps her learn that this is a happy face.
Recently A has begun dipping her toes into dramatherapy, if you have yet to come across this branch of therapy it is defined as…
Dramatherapy is a type of psychotherapy using the art forms of drama and theatre. It is one of the Creative Arts Therapies which include, art, music, drama and dance/movement. … Dramatherapy sessions offer a space to express feelings and enhance spontaneity using various methods including play, storytelling and movement.http://www.dramatherapist.net/what-is-dramatherapy
In short sessions are the perfect place for A to express her thoughts 1:1 with a trained therapist, to give you an example. Throughout the week we might have a worrying situation pop up for A, a new fear or a happy situation that becomes quite fixed in her mind.
These sessions allow her to explore and talk about that incident. An example, when a fire alarm went off while she was at nursery and she was very distressed. We can relay this prior to the therapy session directly to the therapist and they can bring up this memory and coordinate their props.
Visualising the internal
During this particular session A was able to draw the scene, which is the first time we’ve seen such a descriptive image produced. Usually her art is quite abstract, she was able to label that the “dots” were the noise of the alarm and describe how she felt.
You could explore emotions through art with your child, it doesn’t have to be in a professional setting but I do think it has been helpful to build a safe relationship outside of the family to discuss emotional wellbeing.
It’s useful to talk around these incidents so that positive reinforcement can be built in, another example working on balloons. A was quite frightened of balloons due to a popping memory at a party last year, since a therapy session and discussing this with balloons – playing with them and seeing that they can be fun and that popping is okay. A’s favourite item this week is her balloon which she took home from therapy.
Hopefully you can see how this therapy is rather beneficial in exploring situations that occur and how the child feels in that situation. However to do this they need to understand and be able to link emotions to events, so you might now be wondering other than the emoji face mapping how else did we achieve this?
How are you today visuals
We have a visual “How are you feeling today” chart which I’ve created my own version of you here. You can download it if you need for your own uses, print, laminate and buy sticky velcro (both sides). One side attaches to the chart and the other to the visuals.
You’ll need to cut around each visual feeling/emotion. I think this is really helpful up on the fridge, you could add some sticky magnets to the back of your chart to do this or just use any kind of sticky tac.
I hope that all of the above will help you begin to discuss and make emotions part of your daily discussions. If your child enjoys reading or looking at books there are some wonderful options, How are you feeling today? by Molly Potty and for an older child Feelings by Libby Walden.
In addition to books and visuals you can also make your own social stories, the more custom made the better. As an example when we were experience some aggressive outburst or an increase in hitting, biting others we introduced a social story about biting.
Within the story it showed a person biting and how each person felt about it as well as the impact of that action, it is a good way of showing children that their actions have an effect on others.
Many books have social stories written into them to help all children understand this, we also used “Hands are not for hitting” book which worked very well for A. They have a “Teeth are not for biting” also but I have not checked this one through.
These books explain to children all the ways in which they can use their teeth or their hands while discussing the emotional impact of their actions, we have found this really effective.
I really hope that the above helps you navigate emotions with your child, as ever please do let me know your thoughts!