Supporting school-aged children in recognizing and managing their emotions


Montreal, Canada


Life is a journey, with each developmental stage posing a new set of challenges and opportunities for all people. According to the Canadian Pediatric Society’s website, childhood development is a time when your child will reach many milestones, and not necessarily at the same time as other friends or neighbours. All children are different and may hit milestones at different times. These milestones, or skills, include language, cognition, motor skills, and social skills. 

Social skills include: developing self-esteem and self-knowledge, connecting with others, responding to others with empathy, and working together. 

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers; the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. 
— The Wonder Years

As of the age of 5, most children will spend a significant amount of time during their childhood in the context of a school setting.  For many children, this is a time filled with complex emotions such as excitement, anxiety, fear, shame, pride and joy.  Often, a child might experience these emotions in the same day. 


The richness of the human experience is anchored in the expression of a full range of emotions. However, when these emotions are confusing, scary, and overwhelming, children tend to engage in a fight or flight scenario.  When this happens, parents and teachers might observe that  muscles tense up, the child’s temperature rises, she might cry or scream, and she might recoil or act out. 

The role of developmental stages in understanding social and emotional needs 

In order to properly interpret her behaviour and help a child learn how to regulate her emotions (otherwise known as co-regulation), we need to understand not just the specific emotions, context, and personality of the child, but the overall developmental stage that the child is in.

According to a 2017 report on child and adolescent development focused on school-based health promotion and prevention , child development is driven in large part by three main spheres: their cognitive, socioemotional, and physical development.  For example, according to the 2017 public health report, the recognition and expression of emotional regulation is part of socioemotional development whereas logical reasoning and moral aptitude (or the development of the ‘self’ and how ‘to be’ in society) is part of cognitive development.

Entering the School System

When children typically enter into the mainstream school system at age 4 or 5, the adjustment to interacting with so many people outside of the family puts the socioemotional development into turbo drive.  They start to learn what actions and attitudes are considered acceptable or unacceptable to their peers and teachers.


This is a stage where learning to use words to describe simple emotions can help them express themselves during social interactions and is a first step (for children and adults across the lifespan!) to developing the skills to manage emotions.  This naming of emotions can also help children develop empathy by recognizing those same emotions in others and responding in consequence.  In this way, the seeds of cooperation are sown. 

It is important at this stage to help children learn how to resolve their conflicts by demonstrating the language, attitude, and actions necessary to manage their emotions and nurture their relationship with themselves and with others. You can also help them learn others’ non-verbal cues or recognize emotional responses in themselves and others.

By the time a child is 6 or 7, she typically needs support in understanding the complexity of emotions.  For example, when my 6 year old daughter didn’t get chosen to help the teacher in class, she was visibly upset when I picked her up after school.  By creating the time and space for her to use her words to talk to me about her feelings (this sometimes includes me naming emotions to start building her ‘emotional vocabulary’) we both learned that she was happy for her close friend who did get chosen, but also upset that it wasn’t her. Validating these conflicting emotions is vital in developing self-esteem and self-confidence. Then talking about how to act or respond to these emotions is part of supporting her emotional regulation through co-regulation.

Kids typically need support in continuing to develop positive relationships with others, with themselves, and with the world around them.  At this stage, this might be through recognizing their contribution in the classroom or at home, and the contribution of others, and then finding appropriate ways to express their emotions and points of view.


Older children begin to internalize rules and norms

 Once kids are in the older grades of primary school (ages 9-12) their socioemotional developmental stage is intertwined with their ability to reason and problem-solve (this is a cognitive process).  Typically, friendships start to take an important place, although this depends on the family and cultural context.  By the age of 12 most children will internalize rules (this means that they will act in a certain way not just because an adult might reward or punish them, but because they have decided for themselves that a set of rules is important, or not).


The socioemotional development of kids in school at this age is particularly affected by their increased understanding that not everyone thinks or feels the same way.  As parents, teachers, and caregivers we can continue to support them by co-regulating emotions such as anger and frustration and by reminding them of the actions they can take in the event of conflicts.  Supporting and promoting the acceptance of two-way relationships, such as the importance of both offering and accepting help and identifying and resisting negative influences, can also support children at this stage.


Understanding the developmental stage of the child can help us respond and support her valuable emotions in a way that makes sense for her age, her individual path in reaching a developmental milestone, and for her life context.  This is also vital to her cognitive and physical development – her eventual ability to create a healthy lifestyle for herself, feel connected to herself through self-knowledge and self-esteem, and feel connected to the world and to others through cooperation and nurturing relationships.

When to seek help for your child's mental health

Written by Emmanuelle Khoury, Ph.D, social worker.

Montreal, Canada



I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.

Louisa May Alcott

What are we talking about when we say mental health and well-being? And what does a mental health challenge in a child look like?

The World Health Organization explains that mental health or well-being is a state in which a person can cope with normal stresses of life, be productive and make a contribution to the community.

When we think about school-aged children, this might mean feeling stressed or worried about school work, friends, sports, but still being able to deal with it.  ‘Dealing with it’ might mean that the child’s behaviours don’t change drastically, that she sleeps well most of the time, that there aren’t changes to her interest in school or her family life.

Common Mental Health Difficulties in Children

However, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 school aged children experience mental health difficulties.  Click here for some resources from the Headspace on mental health in youth. Some of the common ones include anxiety and depression:

ANXIETY – anxiety is a normal feeling of tension or worry.  It’s a response to stimuli or events in our everyday lives.  Some anxiety can even be helpful.  But if the anxiety is too intense or is non-stop, it may lead to fear, worry and panic. 

DEPRESSION -  everyone feels sad or down, but when those feelings turn to hopelessness and distress it often shows up in behaviours such as mood swings, crying, and trouble concentrating that impact life, family and school


When should you seek help for a child’s mental health?

Much as parents and caregivers sometimes deliberate whether or not to take a child to see the doctor if she’s had a fever for less than 24 hours (it might just be a normal cold or a passing bug!), they may also find it is hard to know when certain moods, behaviours or thoughts are worrisome. 

Signs of mental health difficulties include very typical variations in moods and behaviours that are part of normal development.  These might include loss of interest in school, slipping grades, avoiding friends, changes in sleep patterns, less energy or more energy, and feeling sad or worried.

Parents, teachers, or other significant adults in the life of a child should be concerned when these changes are intense, are constant (it’s not just a phase), and are bothersome for the child or cause problems in her life.  And just like going to the doctor for a fever that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it has only been 24 hours, if your child’s mood, behaviour or thoughts don’t feel right then you can also go see the doctor or consult with a mental health professional.  If your child is older, spend some time asking her about your concerns and take the time to listen to her response.  Your child might be carrying around feelings of fear or shame related to the changes so you can let her know that you are there to help her work through these difficulties.


Some great Canadian resources to get more information include the Canadian Mental Health Association and Kids Help Phone.

For more info on mental health in youth, visit the CAMH website and take a quick course on Youth and Mental Health 101.