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True Colors: Emotional Learning with Lucy

December 19, 2016. By

Big emotions come in small packages; anyone who knows a toddler can attest to that. This fall, when I brought my daughter Lucy to preschool, I noticed a chart posted just inside the door: four rectangles in basic colors were captioned with “How Am I Feeling?” What I didn’t realize was that this would become one of the most active and helpful tools for communicating with my daughter. And this diagram was just the beginning.

Even though everyone from Disney to Miles Davis uses the color blue to express sadness, I wasn’t prepared to see this facet of my daughter’s emotional identity. On one occasion when she seemed a bit down, I asked her what was wrong. She replied, “I’m in the blue.” The clarity of that statement unlocked the door to the diagram I’d only noticed in passing before.

As part of the preschool curriculum, the “mood meter” identified four emotional color quadrants arranged from low to high energy and from unpleasant to pleasant feeling. Red, representing anger and fear, sat at the high end of both energy and unpleasantness. Yellow, or happiness and excitement, is situated at high energy, but is aligned with pleasant feeling. Serenity and contentment were stylized in green: low energy levels, but still a pleasant feeling. And, finally, blue: low energy and unpleasant feeling. Disappointment and sadness.

Identifying and managing emotions are two of the goals of Art with Heart’s publication Magnificent Marvelous Me! Each page of the book is dedicated to social emotional learning goals in a way that evokes play and interaction. An array of animal faces, devoid of color, invites creative expression and emotion identification. A comic-book style storyboard encourages storytelling and engages narrative therapy to describe what is happening to a lost and lonely teddy bear. These colorful explorations of emotions resonated with the Mood Meter, with Lucy’s identification of her own emotions by color.

Together, we explored the colors of emotion. Sometimes there was more than one color. Sometimes we experienced emotions that belied simple correlations, like the happy-sad feeling that accompanied memories of her grandparents. As I’d encountered in the Draw It Out Training I’d attended in the fall, moving across the country was a significant event that caused a lot of emotional fallout. Lucy loved the memories of the home she’d once shared with her grandparents. She also had happy memories with me, and we made more as we drove west together. But she was very sad and afraid at the thought of leaving the only home she’d ever known. All of this created great turmoil in a seemingly tiny package. It turns out that literal steps were being taken on a walking path with the goal of reflection that the teachers had constructed within the classroom.

The walking mandala consisted of a few lines of tape applied to the tile floor whose purpose is to help children clear their heads by completing the circuit as many times as necessary. Children could ask to walk the path at any time to simply watch their feet, regulate their breathing, and relax their minds. From what I was told, my daughter walked that path frequently. I was amazed at her insight into handling and exploring her emotions.

As a child, I’d always kept emotions bottled up after I’d been taught—incorrectly—that some of them were considered dangerous or wrong. I replicated the path as best I could in our crowded house, so that she could take the steps she needed at home, clearing out that muddy emotional water. When children aren’t given the space to process their emotions, there can be trouble down the road. As the cover of Ink About It says, “When ink touches paper, the heart can say what words cannot.”

The orbiting journey of the walking path is reminiscent of the mandala, a circular design found in architecture, art, and nature. The mandala has been used in several religions throughout history, attesting to its usefulness as an outlet for turmoil. This anchoring activity creates emotional awareness and encourages appropriate emotional regulation and processing, the goal of the RULER program (which developed the Mood Meter). My daughter and I have been able to communicate and grow by processing through some difficult emotions due our separation and then moving across the country together. Our worlds happily collide in the classroom, in our home, and in the offices of Art with Heart.

The Mood Meter, the quizzical, colorful squares posted in my child’s preschool classroom, has clearly and cleverly changed my life for the better. My daughter and I now spend time not only talking about the scale of our emotions, but we make it fun—sometimes we talk about how emotions feel (spiky or hot) and where we feel these colors and feelings in our bodies. I am indebted to both of these tools for this new and meaningful dialogue. The Mood Meter and the walking mandala are helpful equipment for dealing with emotions along any path.