Editor’s Note: Literacy is a term we use to describe a person’s ability to read, comprehend, and express themselves through the written word. There is another form of literacy, however, that has been shown to be more important to happiness and success in life than a person’s intelligence: emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is the term used to describe a person’s ability to understand feelings, and express them. Today, Donna Falcone draws on her early childhood education experience to introduce you to Bobbie, and show you how she helped children practice and build emotional literacy skills in the preschool classroom.
In 2007 I had the good fortune of teaching the youngest students at a private school, now a charter school, in Scranton, PA. Two mornings each week my classroom would fill with two- and three-year-olds who came to play, sing, snack, and share our sunny, soft spaces.
Every day at noon, after the toddlers had gone home, 25 four- and five-year-olds burst into the room for lunch, stories, play, and rest, following a busy morning in Montessori classes.
On one toddler-free morning, one of my four-year-olds (let’s call her Mary) came to my classroom with her mom for an important talk. I could see tension on her face. Mary was angry and her mom was helping her bring her concern to me. Together they told me what had happened the day before.
Mary’s mom explained that two children (we’ll call them Martin and Amanda), had teased Mary about her Buzz Lightyear sneakers. Mary nodded, wide-eyed, as her mom recounted the whole story to me. This mom and this child were remarkably in tune. It was as if Mary was telepathically speaking through her mama’s lips. Together, they shared that Martin and Amanda told had Mary, in a not so friendly way, that Buzz Lightyear was not for girls. Mary’s mom was quick to say that she didn’t want to cause a problem for the children. She just wanted me to be aware of what had happened because it was important to Mary.
“They told Mary,” her mom reported with a very distraught expression and wide eyes, locked on Mary’s, “that she was wearing boy shoes.”
We paused to consider the gravity of Mary’s feelings.
“And they laughed at me!” Mary nearly shouted.
Mom and I glanced at each other, trying not to overreact, both knowing what a victory this was for Mary, who was often uneasy with speaking out. I told Mary that it was a good thing to tell me this whole story, and I was so sorry that she had had such a hard time the day before.
I thanked them for coming in, and promised I would keep a close eye on things. I told Mary it’s not tattling if someone is hurting you or someone else, so please come and tell me if it happens again and I’ll help you. She agreed and Mary’s mom took her to her Montessori classroom.
In a moment of inspiration, I remembered a technique my friend and mentor taught me in graduate school. I got to work digging through the supply closets for a doll the children had never met before and some props that would help tell a story. Certain that Mary was not the only person in the room who had ever been teased, rather than single her out and risk shaming the other children involved, I decided to invite everyone to talk about teasing.
As the children poured in, they immediately noticed the new doll, perched on a shelf at eye level in front of a backdrop of a yellow WORK ZONE sign and bright orange construction cones. She held a hammer in one hand and her blonde pigtails peeked out beneath a black baseball cap. Blue tears were suspended on her noticeably sad face. I gathered the group for a quick meeting to introduce our new friend before lunch time.
“This is our new friend Bobbie, and she’s very sad today,” I told them with a heavy sigh. Many little faces fell at the thought of a sad doll, and I thought little Rhea might cry herself. “Bobbie is not to play with, so you can look, but don’t touch,” I added with a smile and a wink. “Maybe she will tell us her story after lunch.”
Before we knew it, upwards of 50 hands were washed and 25 lunch boxes were being unzipped and explored. The smells of fruit roll ups and cheese sandwiches filled the room. After lunch, we cleaned up and hurried to our meeting place. The children sat waiting for my classroom assistant, Sam, and I to catch up with them, buzzing about Bobbie and why she was sad. I carefully lifted the doll into my arms as if she were a human child, rubbing her back as I brought her to my ear. She “whispered” to me, and I, in turn, relayed her story to the children in a most dramatic voice.
“She was playing builder…” I said, “and having a great time!” More whispering in my ear. “Then…” I looked surprised. “What’s this?” More whispering. “Some kids teased her!” The children gasped! “They told her only boys can do that.” My voice was filled with pain. “They told her only boys can wear those clothes and only boys can be builders in the construction zone.” My wide eyes exposed my shock and sadness. I held Bobbie close.
The children, including Mary in her Buzz Lightyear sneakers, had a lot of suggestions for Bobbie. “You should hug her,” Amanda said, right off the bat. “You should give her a piece of Halloween candy,” shouted a little boy. Finally, Mary sprung up on her knees as if she might pop and proclaimed “People should be nice to each other!” Everyone agreed.
It’s true that classroom teasing decreased significantly after Bobbie’s arrival, but other issues cropped up over time and she was there to help the children along the way. When Jake was out of sorts about moving to a new house, Bobbie was coincidentally faced with packing and moving too. When Bryan was suddenly afraid to sit with the whole group in circle time, following a fall at home that sent him to the emergency room, Bobbie was suddenly injured and laid up in bed for days. When I was frustrated with my own hearing loss, Bobbie talked to the children about how her ears bothered her, and how too much noise made her cry.
This was more than creative storytelling. The strategy of using dolls to help children talk about feelings was purposefully designed to help children understand themselves and develop compassion by relating to their own experience. Over the next several months, Bobbie helped the children practice powerful emotional literacy skills: identifying feelings, listening to others, feeling empathy, showing compassion, and problem solving.
To learn more about using dolls to help children talk about feelings, and Bobbie’s classroom adventures:
Using dolls to support children’s social-emotional development. Jacobson, T. & Falcone, D. (2009). Teaching Young Children. Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 8-10. Washington, DC: NAEYC
Persona Dolls. Rotondo Bisson, Julie. 2001
Don’t Get So Upset: Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own. Jacobson, Tamar Ph.D. 2008
Teach It: Mixed Emotions in Civil Rights, by Callie Feyen
Teaching Emotional Literacy. Elias, Maurice J. Edutopia. September 9, 2013
Five Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults. Aguilar, Elena. Edutopia. May 20, 2014