In this next few blogs I am going to look at emotional literacy, what it is, why it is important and what you can do to help develop it.
I am involved in a project in South Africa which is focussed on developing emotional literacy in school children. It has been discovered that if a child grows up without much emotional interaction with caregivers their ability to be able to read the emotional cues others and develop empathy is significantly stunted.
As a baby develops it starts to mimic the expressions of those around it. So we end up playing games with the baby, at first sticking our tongue out for example in response for the child to then copy. As these games develop what is happening as we swap facial expressions is that the child starts to learn to 'read' the facial expressions and body language both on the face of the adult and associate their moods and emotions to those expressions, like laughing or crying. We are in effect helping to programme the baby to associate visual cues with emotions.
As the child develops greater acuity in decoding the signals of emotions they also quickly learn to empathise with the emotional state of others. So they not only notice or recognise (decode) when someone is sad or happy or scared, they go inside and can feel the same emotions and understand where that individual is internally. This is emotional literacy.
The problem occurs when a child grows up in a situation where they rarely see others faces, or these facial games that we just automatically play aren't part of the child's learning process. So situations in overcrowded orphanages in areas with high parental death rates from deseases such as HIV/AIDS like areas of South Africa for example or where the child spends most of their day on their mothers back facing inwards tend not to allow for the development of emotional literacy.
The development of emotional literacy doesn't end with mirroring facial expressions. In the west we usually start giving our children picture books at a very early age. When you analyse the content of these books they are full of emotional cues such as expressions and body language. Illustrators of children's books usually include emotional cues even on animals and other non-existant characters in children's books like the Gruffalo story for example. You can tell or decode exactly what any of the characters in that story are feeling just from the drawings. Children in the west are often but nort always surrounded by the building blocks of emotional literacy.
In areas like Africa on the other hand with high poverty rates such books are rare as are the normal emotional signals a child would normally get with one-to-one care. The problem is that emotional literacy is the precrusor to empathy and empathy, it turns out, is what stops most of us turning to crime, abuse and violence.
In the second of the series I will look at the research evidence behind this post, why some people are bullies and a whole load more!