Emotional Development in First Graders: The Need for a Stable Home Base

At six and seven years old, children's emotional development is becoming more sophisticated. Some first graders, especially boys, may become more private about sadness or hard emotions and withdraw instead of crying. Others will cry to get help and let their emotions rise to the surface.

Emotional Development in First Graders

As they progress through the first grade, you will see your kids gain a better handle on their emotions and better express what they are feeling. Not only are they more in touch with their own feelings, but they now have a clearer awareness of other people's emotions, which will act as the foundation for the more mature skills of understanding other points of view and showing compassion.

Insecurity and Independence

A major factor in the emotional development of first graders is the struggle between independence and insecurity. At this age, children's sense of security is based on their relationships with parents and with other loving adults. These relationships form a stable base of predictability, safety and caring. Children in first grade are very concerned with pleasing the adults in their life, and often crave affection from parents and teachers.

They also really appreciate predictability and routine. It can be stressful for kids to navigate the school day, where they may encounter different rules than those they are used to at home. School day rituals and the predictability of their home life will go a long way toward giving kids the grounding they need, and providing them with confidence to strike out on their own.

Black and White

Children in first grade are strict judges. They see the world as black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Their emotions tend to mirror this worldview, and you may see moods swing dramatically between wildly happy and terribly blue. They can be rigid, inflexible, and demanding, and there is very little middle ground in the mind of a six year old.

First Grade Emotional Development

This black or white worldview is actually an important part of children's emotional development. They are figuring out their world, learning how things work and what rules they should live by, and one way they do this is by labeling their experience and putting it in neat little boxes of "good" and "bad". This gives them a way to control their world and take meaning from it.

First graders are also obsessed with rules and with fairness, both of which center around their strict sense of right and wrong. They will be quick to point out even the teeniest deviation from what is fair: the sibling who gets a slightly bigger slice of pie, the classmate who gets a pencil with an eraser, the child who got picked twice when he himself did not get called on at all. It can get annoying, but they are learning some important lessons: that being fair means sharing equally and not leaving anyone out, and that bad behavior brings consequences.

Confidence and Criticism

First graders can be confident to the point of being boastful. This is nothing more than simple joy at their accomplishments, and their desire to share these with the people who are most important to them (i.e., you). Laughing Kid They love to show off and to demonstrate their skills, and may cross the line into bragging or gloating.

First graders often have real difficulty coping with failure, and they badly want to do things right. They can become upset if adults don't make a bit of a fuss over their schoolwork or over some helpful deed they did; they want to be noticed. This isn't the time to hold back your praise and appreciation; tell your kids what you like and what you appreciate in them, and be specific. Bragging and selfishness are normal parts of children's emotional development. Be patient; they will grow out of it.

Don't give in to the temptation to "take them down a peg or two" for being cocky. First graders don't take criticism well and can easily be hurt by it.

Other People Have Emotions, Too

Now that your kids can label what they are feeling, they begin to show more awareness of other people's emotions as well. While still very self-centered, first graders understand that other people have feelings that are sometimes very different from their own. They are also able to say why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to begin to empathize with them. Children at this age take a keen interest in peers and younger children especially, and can become very focused on helping them feel better if they are sad or upset.

How to Help Support Children's Emotional Development

1. Provide structure and have regular routines to give a sense of stability and predictability.

2. Look your child in the eyes when she is telling you something important. Take her concerns seriously.

3. Give plenty of opportunities for children to show off their accomplishments.

4. Be generous with authentic praise. Try to make your praise specific and meaningful.

5. Talk to your child about your decisions and rules, especially if something seems unfair to him. You are not justifying your actions, but helping to expand your child's narrow world view.

6. Give lots of opportunities for children to develop practical and physical skills.

7. Be patient with your child. Remember that obsessing with rules or fairness are a normal part of emotional development.

8. When appropriate, point out gray areas or other people's perspectives, so children can begin to see beyond simple black-or-white thinking.

9. Talk with children about their fears and help kids work through them.

10. Dinner time can be a good time to share stories. Find ways to connect after being apart all day.

To learn more about how to raise emotionally healthy and happy kids, you can also take a look at this site on Transforming Child Behavior.


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“ Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression. ”
~Dr. Haim Ginott