What Is The Red Dot? And Why It Can Tell Us A LOT About The Emotional World Of Our Children...

Anyone who knows me in a professional capacity knows that one skillset I feel very strongly that children need more of is ‘awareness’; of themselves, of others, and the relationships between them.

Many children struggle simply because, from a very young age, they’re expected to function in a world that assumes they can understand their feelings, communicate their needs, manage their behaviours and make good choices.(Quite frankly, a lot of adults can’t do these things very well.)

But the component that’s always needed before any of these skills can develop is the ability to recognise their own feelings and needs, and frequently, those of other people as well.

I’m working on an action research project ATM, investigating this very subject, and last week, it gave me the privilege of working with a group of key stage 2 children.

We were testing their responses to a simple tool around ‘sense of belonging’; just a series of simple dot patterns, indicating the relationship between the empty dot within a group of black dots.
And what we found out was really interesting.

Even at 7 and 8 years old, many children immediately noticed the most subtle nuances that the grown-ups hadn’t, like the uneven gaps between the dots.
They identified the discomfort of being excluded; they expressed empathy and came up with solutions, when that wasn’t even part of the task. The task was simply to describe the feelings of the empty dot according to each pattern.

And while some children’s emotional vocabulary was varied and extensive; ‘agitated’ and ‘claustrophobic’, for example; others – even those who had proactively demonstrated bags of empathy – struggled to identify any feeling word at all, let alone one that was appropriate. Instead, they came up with ‘polite’ or ‘clever’ or ‘hungry’.

There were others in the group who could name emotions, but did so in ways that just didn’t fit the pattern; i.e., they felt ‘unhappy’ or ‘worried’ about being included.
In short, they had an emotional vocabulary, but couldn’t apply it to the right kind of experience. 

So, my question today is, how do we not assume that, because children may have reached a certain age or stage; or level of cognitive function or intellectual understanding; they can navigate their social and emotional worlds effectively?

How do we find out, and keep checking in on where children are functioning in these skills? And how do we continually build and strengthen them? Because the implications of not knowing what you feel, or need, is huge, especially for young children.

How many end up on ‘red lights’ or similar sanctions, simply because they didn’t have the awareness to recognise feeling lonely, or afraid, or sad or mad, and thus choose an appropriate response?

    • If you don’t know what you feel, how can you possibly know what you need emotionally?

    • If you don’t have the language to share that, how can you communicate those needs?

    • If ‘making good choices’ or ‘behaving appropriately’ are the end point of the chain, what happens if the links are missing or broken?

Just as generations of adults before have, too many young people spend their childhood inaccurately fostering the inner-belief that they’re somehow incompetent or flawed or weak, when all they need is help with the most basic competencies.

Yes, these skills may come more naturally to some children than others, but others are let down by ‘so-and-so isn’t struggling, so neither should you’ or ‘you’re old enough to know better’. Developing and mastering these competencies needs repetitive, conducive experiences, and practice, practice, practice.

And teaching them does not need to be difficult.

From the brief time I spent with them last week, I know that if we give some children a simple pattern and a red felt-tip and say ‘Show me how you feel’, they can.
But if we ask ‘Tell me how that feels’, they’ll say ‘polite’.

The children who struggle the most are the ones helping most with our research… Those who need ‘better skills’ are teaching us how to teach them.    

Find out MORE about our fascinating evaluation work here.

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