Teaching Young Learners and Pre-Teens: Mental State Language in the Classroom

Emotional Development: The importance to children of adults being emotionally present and available.

As children we need to know where our safe place is when things are great and when things go wrong. Secure attachment is formed in childhood. We become securely attached when we feel that our carers see us and soothe us. They listen to us and are present for us when we need their help or support. It makes us feel more confident to go out and explore, because we know where our safe place is if we need it.

When adults show us emotional presence and make themselves available for us, it helps us feel safe. Secondly, they soothe us through helping us understand emotions – what we feel, when and why.

That way we learn to manage all our feelings and not just how to lock the less attractive feelings away. Understanding the many emotions that we have, why we have them and how to manage them will help us become balanced adults. Repressing our feelings, or not having anyone to help us make sense of them, can lead to difficulty managing our feelings and those of others, as adults.

We need to know that our parent, carers and elders are with us in our feelings – that they know and see our mind, not just our tears. When adults are emotionally present and available, we feel worthy of being seen and heard. That what we feel matters. That we matter.

Adults make mistakes. They don’t get things right all the time and they aren’t always there when we need them and how we need them. Luckily, we children can handle being let down sometimes if our carers mend the rupture. Studies show that if our parents, carers and elders are good enough 30% of the time, we will be securely attached children, adolescents and adults.

The argument is that a child who has had this situation growing up, can self-regulate, with a resilient, integrated brain.



Images: These creatures were created to express different emotions by Blanca, aged 7. As is fitting with her age, she is still learning to write in English and in this case her spelling hasn’t yet been corrected as correct spelling wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Communication of ideas was. Translation:  The creature  is a cristal fox called Cristal Clear. “This is about naughtiness.” Blanca sees naughtiness as an emotion – it’s when she feels like breaking rules and being risky.

I See You: Managing Social and Emotional Development

In the previous video (transcript above), I introduced some ideas about the roles of a carer (teachers, elders, parents etc.) in the lives of young learners and pre-teens.  The term pre-teens refers to 9-12 year olds. These ideas have their roots in the theory of secure attachment. Part of our role as teachers of pre-teens and teens is to manage the social and emotional development of our learners  – modelling and showing them ways to deal with things and acknowledging them. This helps us develop harmonious learning environments and harmonious individuals.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned as a teacher and later as a parent, was to “see” the child or young person and let them know that I “saw” them. I mean ALL of them, in ALL their states- acknowledging their distress, tiredness, stress, nervousness, cheekiness, anger, boredom, frustration, playfulness, or high spirits. I learned through my mistakes that often a child that was “naughty” or acting out, was simply needing me to see and hear them in a different way.  I learned to show them that I was really listening to them and let them have a voice. I would let the funny kid know that he or she was hilarious, and laugh with them at jokes. Rather than trying to lock everyone down and squash energy, a minute or two delighting in playfulness together would bring the kids to see that I was on their side. When I did call people in to order, my students were more receptive.



A Tip For the Classroom: Teaching Mental State Language to Help Emotional Development

What we can do in our English classes early on is to feed children words to describe how they are feeling. A child might fall, hurt themselves and naturally have a reaction. Mental state language includes phrases like “that must feel scary seeing that…”, “…that hurt didn’t it?”, or “….that gave you a fright didn’t it?”.

The language shows the child

  • that it’s OK to have the feelings
  • that these feelings are known by someone other than the child
  • that the feelings have names

As language teachers, the lexis of mental states should form part of our teaching. We can use image creation to talk about feelings and think of metaphors and ways to describe them.



When We Try to Shut the Emotion Down Quickly

In contrast, what happens when a parent/carer or teacher shouts “Stop that, No! Get up”! , or panics and gets as distressed as the child? They offer no reflective dialogue to help teach children about their emotional state and how to move through it. Worse still, the child might bury their emotions in order to protect the carer from getting stressed.

Being with children, being the stronger and wiser adult, and feeding them words to describe how they are feeling helps them accept feelings, move through them and regulate them – an important part of growing up. This is part of the concept of being emotional present and available for the child.

Exploring Feelings in Drawing and Art

Drawing can be the beginning of discussing feelings both in writing and speaking. As a way to help develop ideas for expressing our emotions visually we can start with storytelling. Many stories discuss feelings as a subtext to the main story and can be useful lesson starters. We look at ideas in our course: Teaching Pre-Teens & Teens Effectively in the English Language Classroom

Further Reading



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