I was teaching primary school when I first realized that boys need extra support to develop their emotional intelligence.
At the time, most of my students were from non-English speaking backgrounds. The boys would often return to class from breaks, upset and overwhelmed by emotionally charged playground experiences. Often these incidents impacted the boys’ abilities to take part in teaching and learning activities throughout the rest of the day. But because the boys didn’t have the vocabulary to express themselves, it was a serious challenge to determine what had actually happened.
Over time, I realised it wasn’t just the boys from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who experienced those challenges — it was all boys.
Feelings are an abstract concept. So it’s a challenge to pinpoint how someone with a limited vocabulary of emotional language is feeling. Often a boy’s range of feelings can be sorted into three categories, and these are the words he will know and use:
However, these categories are extremely broad, and there is a scale of intensity for each of these feelings. Knowing and recognising feelings in their early stages can make them much more manageable. Mild feelings of irritation or annoyance can be much more easily managed than a fit of rage. Being able to accurately identify a feeling and name it is with an appropriate word can be extremely helpful in managing the feeling, processing it, accepting it and moving on.
Parents & educators need to take opportunities to teach “feeling” words, practise talking about feelings and make it a habit in a safe space. However, a boy’s world is not necessarily a safe space to talk about feelings. Boy culture generally demands boys keep their feelings to themselves. Boy culture is changing but it is taking a long time. If a boy can talk comfortably in his home about his authentic feelings, then he knows he has at least one place he can go to express his emotions.
Listening is crucial. Often parents can’t cope when their child is upset and immediately jump into problem-solving mode and try and fix the bad feelings their child is having. Seeing their parent upset can cause the child to regret mentioning anything and make them reluctant to broach the subject in future.
In 2009 I started making my own resource for teaching and learning about emotional intelligence – Mooshuns.
Mooshuns are moody cushions – handmade cushions with different facial expressions designed to help children:
- talk about feelings
- develop their emotional intelligence
- build positive mental health habits.
While many resources are visual and two-dimensional, Mooshuns are tactile – they can be touched, felt and held. Boys are also tactile; having a 3D resource can be helpful when teaching them any kind of concept.
You don’t have to wait for a deep or dramatic experience to discuss feelings. Conversations can be inspired by books, pictures, TV program and toys – anywhere an emotion can be sensed. A tool like Mooshuns can also offer the opportunity to discuss a range of emotions – even the tough ones. We can help our boys by talking about the full range of emotions, giving equal weight to good and bad feelings.