Johanna WeidnerThe Record
Date Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
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KITCHENER — Schoolchildren need to be taught how to distinguish emotions just like they do with colours and shapes.
“You have to put a name on it,” said Debbie Engel, manager of early intervention services at kidsLINK. “Then you start to recognize it like colours.”
Building emotional intelligence in children is the goal of Tools for Life, a practical program taught in schools and available to parents.
“In education we’re really focused on reading, writing and arithmetic, yet it’s those life skills you need,” Engel said.
When children learn about emotions, they can recognize those feelings in themselves and others to deal better with their own emotions while also boosting communication and interpersonal skills. Those skills build resiliency that lead to healthier decisions and relationships down the road and hopefully avoiding serious problems, especially among those with mental health disorders.
“You can have a mental health problem and still be well,” Engel said.
Children’s Mental Health Week is May 6 to 12. One in five Ontario children and youth has a mental health problem — equalling about 500,000.
Anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are among the mental health illnesses children face.
Left untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence and even suicide, warns Children’s Mental Health Ontario.
The goal of Tools for Life is equipping children early with the skills to help them cope when they face challenges.
Benefits of the program are also showing up in the classroom, as found in a recently completed three-year study. Teachers report they’re better able to manage the classroom and students’ behaviour, learning time is more productive and schools are seeing a decrease in peer conflict such as bullying.
Tools for Life is currently being taught in 18 schools across Waterloo Region, both public and Catholic. More than 100 schools have hosted the program since its inception about 15 years ago when it was realized teaching all children had a greater impact than just those who are identified as struggling.
The program starts in child care centres, and then continues in the schools from junior kindergarten to Grade 3. The agency recently got funding to develop curriculum for Grade 4 to 8 students.
Games and activities, such as feelings bingo, songs and an emotions beach ball, are used to teach children the concepts.
“It’s meant to be engaging and fun,” Engel said.
Children learn to recognize emotions and then strategies to deal with difficult ones like anger and frustration, rather than resorting to bad behaviour.
“Kids struggle with what to do when I’m angry,” Engel said.
Activities and information are also sent home to parents to nurture the new skills beyond the classroom. Success for children depends on parents and teachers adopting the program’s principles, too. Workshops are offered to teachers and parents, who can also learn from a free web-based seminar or buy kits for a nominal fee.
“Children are looking to see what the adults in their world do,” Engel said.
Engel said adults don’t realize just how good children are at recognizing emotional cues. But too often when a child asks about a parent’s bad mood, they will deny it.
“Children learn from us, so we need to be able to say I’m feeling frustrated today,” Engel said.
A step further beyond acknowledging the emotion, adults need to tell a child what they’re going to do to alleviate those negative feelings. Children learn through modelling, Engel said, and that includes the emotional skills they’ll need throughout life.
“There is this assumption this is just stuff we should know.”
Find out more at toolsforlife.ca.
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)