Teach Literacy during Temper Tantrums

When your child is kicking and screaming it's a GREAT time to write a letter.

When your child is kicking and screaming it’s a GREAT time to write a letter.

Effective parenting is often counterintuitive. My favorite time to teach early literacy is when a child is wailing or hopping mad.

Sounds crazy, no? The idea of grabbing a pen and paper when a child is screaming, kicking their heels, or simply crying because they miss mommy does seem odd at first. Try it. Writing down a child’s feelings is one of the most effective ways to quickly end the tears.

Writing messages works for the pre-literate child.  You can start as young as age two.

What to do

Write a letter to the person your child is missing or mad at. If your child’s mad at you, go ahead and write the letter to yourself.  You might have to start out: “Let’s say: Dear Mommy, I’m mad!” but after that, take dictation from your child.  She will tell you how she feels. “I feel so mad I could throw a house at you!”  Write down their exact words and read aloud what you’ve written together.  Chances are, she will quickly memorize it.  Let her choose where to put the finished letter (a “mailbox” or pinning it to her door, etc.).  Give her the pen and let her “write” her name at the end. Don’t worry if it’s scribbles. It’s the action that counts.

IMG_3087Why it works

Writing dictated notes during times of high emotion works wonders precisely because the child is feeling listened to and understood. The key is not to give in, (not to give her that extra cookie) but to help her express her intense feelings. Once the feelings are out, tears typically dry up.

Writing it down on paper also gives the child something tangible to look out. She may not be able to read yet, but she can see it. She knows exactly what it says. She can hold and touch it. What’s more, your child just gained an incredible interest in reading/ writing. She recognizes how powerful the written word can be: it can capture her deepest feelings. That’s meaningful literacy. Going straight to the child’s heart.

Even a screaming, kicking child will get interested in what you’re doing.  Speak aloud and do your best to capture her feelings. That gets the child’s attention. She will stop screaming, come over and help you get the right words. After that, the tantrum’s usually over.

Tips for starting out

  • Let’s write that down!
  • Let’s write how you feel in a letter.
  • What should we say?  How about: “Dear Dad,  Caleb is mad. He’s so mad he feels like kicking…”
  • You want your mom right now.  Let’s tell her how you feel.
  • Your letter won’t bring your mom here, but it will tell her how you’re feeling.
  • Here’s a picture of your face crying.  See the tears?

It's OK Not to Share coverUsing dictated letters is just one of the 29 “renegade rules” in the book It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids. Learn more at heathershumaker.com or watch this short video on writing dictated letters.

Have you ever tried writing a note with a young child?  How did it go?  What other tools do you use to help kids express their emotions?

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4 Responses to Teach Literacy during Temper Tantrums

  1. Amy says:

    Heather, I met you a while back at the Ohioana book festival; my son is 25 months. I discovered your book after listening to you on NPR (and also realizing that SYC is only two miles from my house!). We just started writing letters to our son in the last few weeks. I will be honest: I did not think it would work. But it sounded so wonderful that I thought we should do it for practice, so he could “get it” later. Well, he got it right away! It’s stopped every tantrum cold, and last night, the most incredible thing happened at bedtime. Our son was starting to ramp up into a tantrum because he wanted to play with the vacuum at bedtime…and as he began to cry he wailed, “Write note!” My heart must have skipped a beat! We raced out to the kitchen and wrote his note, and that was the end of tears.

    I love your book. I am so glad I discovered it…you have given me the gift of better parenting, because it was not modeled for me. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      You warmed my heart with your story.

      Writing dictated notes is my #1 favorite part of the book, because it’s SO EFFECTIVE and so respectful of the child. But many parents are hesitant to try it. The idea seems foolish.

      Love your strong recommendation: “He got it right away! It’s stopped every tantrum cold.”

      Bravo!

  2. Briana Feinberg says:

    We have had the same experience with our son. He loved it immediately, and now asks to write notes when he gets upset. Sometimes he even finds the solution to his problem and puts it in his note. This is one he dictated last week: “Dear Mommy, I’m crying because of animal cookies. I want to eat them now but Mommy said ‘after lunch.’ No, not after lunch. I want to eat them now. It’s hard to wait. I want to eat eggs and then eat animal cookies. Mommy says ‘OK.’ Let’s eat. Love, E.” He is 28 months old. I also shared this idea with another mom and she used it with her 4-year-old who was terrified to walk past a sculpture of a hippo at the zoo. We met there the other day and her daughter told me “I wrote a note to the hippo asking her to be nice and I brought it with me to give her.” Her mom told me it was the first time they ever walked past the sculpture without a problem.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Love the examples! So glad the hippo turned out to be nice and doesn’t bother that little girl anymore. Your son’s problem-solving is amazing. How wonderful to watch his brain work it out. May you both have many years of writing notes together. Thanks so much for sharing your stories.

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