Journey to Writing a Children's Book About Emotional RegulationDec 16, 2022
Note: The transcript below may not be exactly the same as the podcast and has not been edited for accuracy
Today I’m going to take a deep dive into why I wrote a picture book, how it can support you in your parenting and ultimately what it can do to help raising resilient children in a way that supports fostering emotional intelligence.
There are so many reasons I wanted to a create a book like The Adventures of Team Brain and there was a lot of research and development that went into creating it. I first learned about the possibilities of using picture books to build skills for our feelings and empathy when I was training to be a Challenge Course Manager. I don’t know if you know what that is, but essentially it’s an obstacle course built on telephone poles developed to support taking risks, building skills, fostering social emotional growth, connecting people in a supportive relationships, fostering leadership development… To be honest it’s a lot of really cool things that I could never do justice in a single thought. There’s also low ropes elements but, to participate on the high ropes course you need rock climbing gear, ropes, harnesses etc. My role was to teach the staff how to rig up the course and do safety checks as well as how to facilitate groups. Each group had specific goals in mind: team work, self-development, perseverance… you name it. People tested their limits and learned so much about themselves and teach other. It was an extraordinary experience. Now in that training workshop, the leader pulled out a picture book. Not gonna lie, at the time I was like… what are they doing? We’re all adults… why are we using a picture book. Let me also tell you, my mind was blown and in that moment I realized the possibilities for using picture books to build all kinds of tools and skills was endless. And this was when we didn’t have the plethora of amazing books now available.
Now another key component of this story was that before this role, another lifetime ago, I was a high performance athlete and spent a lot of time cross-training while going to university. My sport of focus was TaeKwonDo, which was actually my second competitive sport, soccer (football) was my first. Now interestingly, growing up my parents had a rule that I wasn’t allowed to compete at a high level in elementary/middle-school. They felt having free time and spaces for play dates was more important. When I think about this as an adult, I am deeply appreciative of this decision on a lot of levels. My generation is the start of what I call the Invisible Ivy League check list. The unwritten set of expectations for children to have experiences that will equate to life long success, to get into the best schools, to be experts at whatever activities they partake in. I think this approach is problematic for a lot of reasons, especially how it is impacting children under 6.
I also know that part of the reason some parents enrol their children in a lot of activities is an effort to get body energy out and avoid the perpetual nagging that comes with children who struggle with being bored. If you have ever heard me speak live or taken a course you know that one of the things I talk about is how activities for young children isn’t really fulfilling their body energy needs because they spend so much time sitting and waiting for their turn. In a lot of cases it would be a better to hit up a park, playground or go for a walk/scoot/bike. The truth is most young children aren’t benefitting from structured activities, particularly if they have been spending their day at daycare or KG. Their entire day is structured and in a lot of cases there isn’t a ton of movement.
So what children are really missing is unstructured play and it’s negatively impacting their ability to build tools and skills for relationships as well as social emotional skills for regulation. A key component of what helps children to be able to handle all their big feelings is having their body needs met. Although sports do support this, it’s not until children are developmentally ready for them. If I had to assign an age to this I would say 5-6ish is the place to start introducing extra curricular activities, this translates to Grade 1 in most places. There’s nuance to this statement, but as a whole, this stage where there is the potential for more engagement in learning the sport or activity and less figuring out how to keep little bodies from running away, keeping their hands to themselves, listening...
In other words by this point they have started to develop some basic regulation skills that they can apply to engaging in the activity and benefitting from it versus adults needing to spend a lot of time (and sometimes threats) getting them to pay attention, behave and so on. This doesn’t mean you don’t expose kids to sports and activities, but you don’t need a soccer team to expose your child to soccer. You just need a ball to kick about. It doesn’t need to be formal.
I’m aware that sport purists aren’t on board with what I’m saying right now, but sport specialization at a young age is showing it does far more harm then good. As a parent I also recognize how hard this decision can be because if you delay putting your children in a multitude of activities early on, they age out by 10 or 11, which I find very very worrisome. I was recently trying to find a rec level sport for one of my children and was very frustrated that you can’t try it because it’s already too late. It’s competitive or nothing. 13 should not be too late to do or try something at the rec level.
Anyhow another fun by-product of introducing activities to children when they are more developmentally ready is that you will be setting yourself up for more successful experiences overall. At that age when a child can actually engage with the activity they are more able to determine if they enjoy it. So many parents ask me how long they should push or force their child do to things and part of the challenge is that their child is just too young to really make a decision and then there is a habit of quitting or forcing kids to do things when maybe they would have enjoyed it if they had started when they were developmentally ready to do so.
Interestingly, extra curricular activities used to have really strict rules about this stuff. When I first started teaching you couldn’t really join many things before 5 years old. That invisible Ivy League check list for life success has made that murky and forced parents into thinking that earlier introduction to activities is essential. I would argue, building tools and skills for interpersonal relationships and feelings needs to come before and alongside the introduction of activities because that’s what missing from early elementary children and beyond. Kids can function with tons of adult guidance and interaction, but do they do as well in the absence of it?
So what does this all have to do with my picture book. Sports was a major part of my emotional regulation toolbox. In high school and beyond I spent a good portion of my non-scholastic time doing sports or training for sports. I loved it, deeply. First it was soccer… then TaeKwonDo. I travelled the world, I trained around the clock to juggle my academics and my sports commitments. I was young, it was amazing and I’m grateful. Until the day my body couldn’t do it any more and I was still pretty young in the grand scheme of things. I’d seen it happen so many times and never understood what I was witnessing, until it happened to me. By this point I had finished my undergrad and my first Masters degree. I had landed myself a summer job working as a challenge course manager and had the enormous responsibility of setting up a program from scratch. This is where my entire world came crashing down and was rebuilt simultaneously.
I never achieved my ultimate sports goals because they were lofty and nearly impossible and I as a result when I retired from high performance competition, I felt like a failure. Until I went away for a week of training to become a senior outdoor leader to support my new role. In a space where my bronze and silver medals were no longer coasters, as I had heard so many times, they were symbols of commitment and dedication. See here is what sport didn’t teach me. Emotional regulation is so much more than letting off steam. It’s a system where we need to process your feelings and actively build tools and skills for them.
That suppressing your feelings is not always a sign of strength and that you cannot only have one outlet for them. That we each experience failure differently, but sometimes perspective is what we need.
After that summer I headed to work at a private school for a year as a residential don, living and working with 54 teenagers. My mentor was a guidance counselor.
I had the opportunity to share some of my experience running leadership development programs and experiential education activities to support navigating teenage challenges. I continued to pursue my qualifications in outdoor education and experiential learning.
What I was really doing was building my social emotional intelligence and teaching kids how they could too. It just wasn’t called that yet. From there I did another degree, the one that shaped what I do to this day. I think I need to pause here to share how truly grateful I am for parents who supported me on this journey and are still my number one supporters. All that I do would not have been possible without them.
For my Masters in Education I looked at how to use literacy to support fostering social emotional skills and empathy. At the time I was interested in using it as a way to address bullying (what is now understood as empathy and awareness). I’ve woven that focus into every element of my teaching ever since.
Fast forward a few years… okay maybe more like 20 or so… Since then I’ve worked in classrooms, administration, guidance and for 7.5 years I owned a hybrid outdoor and play based preschool. From that leadership training seminar where the instructor pulled out a picture book to help us process the workshop to this day. Picture books and literacy have supported everything that I do.
Here’s the thing. Picture books take the abstract and make them real and tangible. Whether they are your experiences or someone else’s, you can learn what is relevant to you. Brain science and emotional regulation are pretty abstract. What better way to help children understand them than to create a picture book. I recently saw a post about how we view the mind separate from our body and this is one of the reasons it’s so hard to make the connection for building skills and tools for feelings. I didn’t need a research article to tell me this is something that’s missing from our understanding of emotional regulation, just ask kids or try to co-regulate with one when they are pushing back big time!
I like to compare emotional regulation to swimming. In order to get safely across a body of water you need tools and skills. When you are younger you need quite a bit of adult support and as you get better and master your skills you need less. Now here’s the big difference, water is an obvious obstacle. There it is inviting you to come and spend more time as you build your skills. Your brain is this unknown entity, the water you need swimming lessons for, only you can’t see it, but you need it. The Adventures of Team Brain is a playful take on the idea that we have different areas of our brain that need to work together. It starts by taking you inside the Brain Control Centre where you meet Thinking Brain, Body Brain and Emotions Brain. Each brain has some important responsibilities,
but the main message… when they work together things go along pretty well. However, emotions brain can have a hard time with this depending on the types of problems you encounter. Now we I say problems I’m talking about the everyday things, like getting dressed… picking a flavour of ice cream… having to do something hard or uncomfortable. Basically think of things that trigger big feelings…
Now, when this brain takes over it evolves. Think Pokemon for Brains. And this is where you find yourself in a stress storm, otherwise known as the 3 F’s => Flight, Fight and Freeze.
This is that swimming lesson, building skills. First we starting with the basics and then building on from there. Next we need to understand our reactions to problems or challenges, what kinds of things we do on a basic level. Much like a reptile feeling threatened. Only our threats don’t have to be life or death, but our brain doesn’t always realize this. Now what does this mean for us,
it means that we need to be aware of what happens when our emotions brain flips to DINO AND… what can we do about it. After all, we are the super heroes in our emotional regulation story. We are the ones in charge of keeping those three brains working together as a team.
This is where my why came from. As growing research and ideas supported the importance of building tools and skills for feelings with children I started to integrate this into my teaching… and then I noticed a couple key things. One, a lot of kids dislike practicing breathing (or many tools) when you don’t make it fun and engaging and they also don’t like having their feelings labelled for them.
It’s okay… until one day it’s not and when that day happens, it’s epic! Don’t tell me how I feel, don’t tell me to breathe… don’t don’t don’t. This leaves a lot of parents feeling helpless and often triggers their Dino Brain evolution. I’ll leave the why’s for other conversations, but today I want to focus on the… okay what do we do about it piece.
One of the things I know is that we have to make building tools and skills fun and engaging and… make it meaningful. Take that abstract thing and make it tangible. Swimming lessons for swimming… emotional regulation tools for big feelings. The Adventures of Team Brain does this. Takes that abstract idea of emotional regulation and turns into into a super hero story where you are the one in the control. The book is talking to you. It’s helping you understand how emotional regulation works, why we need tools and skills for our big feelings and… it’s a comic picture book… its super fun.
It takes the complexity of needing to take control of tricky moments and teaches kids practical steps. We need to STOP - Breathe - Think - Act. Stop when we are overwhelmed, breathe to calm our mind and de-evolve that dino, think about what’s happening: are we hungry, tired, scared, annoyed, need help… and then act on this thought. There’s no other picture books like it, I know because I’ve been trying to find one. If you could see me recording this podcast, you would know I’m surrounded by bookcases full of books, mostly picture books. So at the end of the day, I wrote this book because nobody else had and it’s something we all need. I wanted to make learning about building tools for our feelings fun and engaging for more kids. It’s not touchy feely or fuzzy, those books are important too.
This book is bold and vibrant, colourful and creative. This book empowers kids (and their caring adult guides) with what they need to show up as the super hero in the emotional regulation story.