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Using Coloring for Self-Regulation and Teaching Children About Feelings



Social-emotional learning involves five key areas: self-awareness (acknowledging one's emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses), self-management (emotional and behavioral regulation), social awareness (understanding and empathizing with others), relationship skills (creating and maintaining healthy relationships), and responsible decision making (making thoughtful choices in a variety of contexts).


According to a meta-analysis, by integrating these five areas into a school curriculum and home environments, children gained social and emotional assets such as improved attitude about self, others, and school, as well as social and emotional skills. These acquisitions led to more positive social behaviors, academic success, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and less drug use, all indicators of higher overall well-being (Taylor et al., 2017). Through the implementation of social-emotional learning, we as educators and mental health practitioners can equip children to be successful in their relationships and increase their self-esteem.


After we work on self-awareness skills, one of the next social-emotional skills we need to teach children is to help them learn how to name their feelings and to acknowledge what their emotions feel like inside their bodies. Interoception is a sense that helps you understand and feel what is going on inside your body. Children need to learn how their physical sensations are experienced when they feel proud, excited, shocked, stress, anger, sad, joy, anxious, etc. If you're looking for more fun creative activities, be sure to check out this post about SEL Directed Drawing and this post which explains how doodling while listening impacts memory.



Strategies to Help Kids Expand Their Emotional Vocabulary


Most children experience a full range of emotions, but many do not yet have the emotional vocabulary to describe all the feelings and sensations that they experience beyond the basic terms like sad and mad.


It’s helpful to start building your child’s emotional vocabulary by discussing what some of the feeling words mean. Here are some activities you can do to help expand your child’s or student’s emotional vocabulary:


  • Write down a big list of feeling words together.


  • Make a face and body posture that matches each feeling.


  • Create a noise to match each feeling.


  • Create “emotional thermometers” for different feeling states and discuss what would make the “temperature” of a feeling change (e.g., from fine to a little annoyed to disappointed to frustrated to mad to angry to furious to enraged).


  • When reading books or watching a movie, pause and ask what your child thinks certain characters are feeling and why they may be feeling that way. Discuss how body language and facial expressions give you clues to other people’s feelings.


  • Play emotions charades (i.e., take turns acting out a feeling nonverbally and guessing the feeling).


  • Talk about your own feelings in an appropriate manner. Remember some topics may not be appropriate for children, so be sure to use good boundaries when practicing this.


How to Model Naming Your Feelings


There is power in being able to acknowledge and name your feelings. In the book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel and Payne Bryson write about the importance of identifying feelings and how we can “name it to tame it”. When we engage the left side of our brain in thinking about the right word to describe our feelings, this can help diffuse our big feelings. Naming our feelings can also help us own them, which can lessen their power over us.


You can model this by using your words to name and express feelings appropriately. It is helpful for our children to see us doing this in our day-to-day lives. They need to see you using your words and naming how you feel, too.



Here are some examples of this:


  • “I am feeling frustrated because your room is a mess.”

  • “I am feeling anxious because I have this big work deadline soon.”

  • “I am feeling irritated with your tone of voice.”

  • “I am so proud of how hard you worked on this project.”


Modeling appropriate emotional regulation can be extremely helpful for developing children. This not only makes them feel safe around you when you express your emotions appropriately, but it also shows them how to properly identify and express their own feelings to you. Plus, we all know that kids are like sponges and they do a lot better with watching and mimicking what we do (rather than what we tell them to do!) Communication between you and a child will improve immensely when emotional identification and regulation are normalized in the relationship.




Is Coloring Good for You? The Benefits of Coloring


A lot of people wonder"How does coloring help a child’s development?" and "Is coloring good for the brain?" Coloring is such a soothing and regulating activity and it can be a great way to work on social-emotional learning skills such as emotional regulation skills. Not only is coloring a fun and engaging activity for kids and an outlet for their creativity, but several studies have illustrated how coloring can be beneficial for people’s overall mental health and well-being. There are benefits of coloring for high school students, adults, and children alike.


Coloring is a calming activity based in mindfulness, meaning that it requires staying present with the practice and it asks for full attention. Participating in any mindful activity is a great way to regulate emotions and increase tolerance of distressing emotions.


For children, coloring can be a way to not only express their creativity but to relax, focus, and be mindful, especially after having an influx of difficult emotions. One study showed that coloring was able to reduce anxiety levels and increase perseverance in young people (Eaton and Tieber, 2017). Another, which asked participants to read for 20 minutes and color for 20 minutes, found that after the 20 minutes of coloring, people reported being more contented, more energetic and calmer than after reading. They also reported higher levels of mindfulness and being “in the zone” (UWE Bristol, 2018). These benefits are what must have made such a huge market for adult coloring books; the practice has positive effects for people of any age!


Art mediums used for coloring also have certain mechanisms by which children’s mental well-being is improved. For example, colored pencils and crayons are considered resistive or dry media (unlike paint), which allows for children to have a sense of cognitive control and safety when working with these mediums (Ichiki and Hinz, 2015, as cited in Hinz, 2020, p. 28). This dry media also elicits “feelings of control” which “can decrease feelings of anxiety early in the therapeutic relationship” (Regev and Snir, 2018, as cited in Hinz, 2020, p. 29). For these reasons, implementing coloring in the classroom and in therapy settings can foster feelings of safety and relaxation. While these benefits are more short-term than long-term (Ashdown et al., 2018), they can be helpful in getting through emotional outbreaks and in fostering positive social and therapeutic relationships, which are skills to be carried into the long term!




Coloring and Emotion Identification


Coloring has known benefits for cognitive creativity, mindful attention, and emotional regulation. As educators and mental health practitioners, there are several ways we can implement coloring in fostering positive youth development. One method is allowing children to take crayons, markers, or colored pencils of their choice and draw out what they are feeling. There is no right or wrong way. This may result in scribbles, an illustration, or words; the premise is to allow them free choice in what they put on the page. The process of creating in and of itself can be calming to many children, but


Being an activity that most children enjoy, coloring can also be used as a tool to target specific social-emotional learning skills, particularly feelings identification! These activities feel fun for children to participate in.


A method I love to use with my students to help them with feelings identification, is using color-by-code coloring pages to teach children about feelings.


These feelings color by code activities are differentiated so there is a key that is presented to children with different emotions paired with a certain color. On higher-level worksheets they may need to answer a feelings question to determine the color such as “Joey’s class lost recess for a week. He feels ________. Color these areas red.”


Since there are several versions included in each resource so you can meet the unique needs of your kids, there are also versions that give the answer: “Joey’s class lost recess for a week. He feels mad. Color these areas red.” There are also questions for self-reflection. For example, the child might be asked to recall a time when something or someone made them feel mad, and then identify that emoji of an angry face on the paper, and then color in each of those areas on the worksheet purple. The variety of examples not only encourages children to identify their own emotions, match them with the appropriate emoticons, but it also builds on self-awareness skills to begin to empathize with another person’s emotions and feel what they might be feeling in certain situations.


Through coloring, children remain engaged and can be active participants in their own social-emotional learning activities. These color-by-code activities are an excellent way to improve the social-emotional competencies of self-awareness, emotional identification, emotional regulation, and awareness of others’ feelings and behaviors.


Since my kids love this so much I have created several color-by-code resources to help children identify feelings, which are perfect tools for teachers, counselors, psychologists, parents, and other childcare providers who want to implement social emotional learning into children’s lives.


You can buy one of these resources individually to try them out, or you can bundle them by the season (Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer), or you can grab them at a huge discount in this year long bundle!


The bundle is huge and comes with 144 pages so you can differentiate the different activities, as well as 24 digital activities which are perfect for telehealth, distance, remote, or hybrid learning, or sharing on a smartboard.




References


Journal of Integrated Social Sciences. 8(1) pp. 1-21.


Eaton, J. & Tieber, C. (2017) The Effects of Coloring on Anxiety, Mood, and Perseverance, Art Therapy, 34:1, 42-46, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2016.1277113


Featured Neuroscience Psychology. Coloring reduces stress and boosts creativity. Neuroscience News. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://neurosciencenews.com/coloring-stress-creativity-8969/


Hinz, L. D. (2020). Expressive therapies continuum: A framework for using art in therapy. Routledge.


Ichiki, Y. and Hinz, L. D. (2015). Exploring media properties and the expressive therapies

continuum: Survey of art therapists. Paper presented at the 46th Annual American Art Therapy Association conference, Minneapolis, MN.


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing Mind. Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.


Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156–1171. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12864






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