How to Teach “I” Messages to Children
You’ve probably heard of “I” messages or “I” statements as a helpful communication tool for adults. But did you know that “I” messages are also a great way to teach children skills like emotional regulation, assertiveness, and problem-solving?
Keep reading to learn about the value of “I” messages and how to teach them to your children or students!
Why Teach “I” Messages to Children
“I” messages were introduced in the 1970’s as an effective way to communicate feelings and opinions, free of judgment and blame. Instead of saying, “You make me so mad!” for example, we shift to, “I feel angry when you _______________.”
Often cited as a way for couples to improve communication, “I” messages offer incredible value for children too. Here are a few benefits of teaching “I” messages to the children in your home or classroom.
When we teach “I” messages to children, we also teach them to label their emotions and become comfortable communicating them to others. “I” messages model the nonjudgmental acceptance of feelings. As children learn to identify with their own emotions, they develop empathy for themselves and others.
Identifying emotions is an important step in the self-regulation process. When children understand what they are feeling, big feelings become easier to manage. Saying “I feel angry” instead of “I am angry” is a simple language shift, but it helps children separate the feeling they are experiencing from their identity. Separating the feeling makes it possible to regulate it.
Children who use “I” messages learn to communicate assertively. Assertive communication is not aggressive or rude. It allows us to respectfully and clearly teach others how to treat us. Assertive children can set comfortable boundaries and limits, and they’re more resistant to peer pressure.
Assertiveness and boundary-setting are essential life skills for self-confidence, self-awareness, and healthy relationships.
When we teach “I” messages to children, they learn healthy conflict resolution and problem-solving. When they are uncomfortable or hurt by someone’s words or actions, they have a tool to express their feelings without blaming or judging.
Typically, blame and judgment only escalate conflicts and lead to power struggles. On the other hand, self-regulation, empathy, and assertive communication help resolve problems and mend relationships.
If you’re a teacher, you’ll find that teaching time increases as children learn to solve problems and conflicts independently. And if you’re a parent, you’ll spend less time refereeing sibling squabbles and more time relaxing!
How to Teach “I” Messages to Children
So, how do you teach “I” messages to children? Here are five helpful tips to get you started!
1. Model “I” Messages
Any time you want children to learn a new skill, it’s helpful to begin with modeling. Children learn by example, and they love to emulate the important adults in their lives.
Model “I” messages with your children or students using this simple formula:
- I feel _____________
- When you ________________________
- Because __________________________________
- Next time, please ________________________________________________.
It’s tempting to say something like, “Next time, please don’t do that.” But it’s far more helpful to tell children what to do instead. When you tell children what to do, it creates an image of expected behavior in their minds. Plus, a child’s behavior is often the only way a child knows to communicate their feelings or meet their needs. They won’t know a better way until we teach it to them.
For example, let’s say one of your students gets out of her seat without asking. You could say, “I feel upset when you get out of your seat without asking because it distracts the class from learning. Next time, please raise your hand and ask for permission.” Be sure to use a calm, assertive voice. Say your “I” messages in the same tone you would use to say, “The tablecloth is white,” or, “The ceiling is above us.”
Not only are we modeling “I” messages for children, but we’re also learning healthy ways to communicate our own feelings, wants, and needs. It’s never too late!
2. Coach in Context
Coaching in context is another extremely helpful way for children to learn new skills. If you see a conflict brewing, step in and coach children through the use of “I” messages.
If one student snatches a toy from another, approach the two students. It’s best to go to the victim first, showing you value healing over hurting. Ask, “How did you feel when _______ snatched the toy from you?” The child might answer, “Sad,” or, “Mad.”
Then ask, “Why do you think you felt that way?” followed by, “When _________ wants to play with your toy, what would you like ________ to do instead?”
Once the child has answered your questions, use their responses to give them the words to say. “Tell ______, ‘I feel mad when you snatch my toy because I wanted to play with it longer. Next time, please ask me for a turn instead.’” Again, make sure your tone is calm and assertive. If the child’s voice is too timid or too aggressive, advise, “Match your voice to mine.”
Opportunities to practice in context will help children grasp the concept and value of “I” messages much faster.
3. Post Sentence Strips to Teach “I” Messages to Children
If your children or students are old enough to read, post sentence strips around the classroom or home as helpful reminders.
Write out the formula for “I” messages: “I feel __________ when you __________ because ___________. Next time, please ___________.”
After you have coached children through the use of “I” messages a few times, begin scaffolding their independence by pointing to the sentence strips instead.
4. Practice with Books or Movies
When you read books or watch movies, pause and ask children to provide the characters with “I” messages when they run into problems and conflicts.
If children haven’t mastered the language yet, you can either supply the formula or use sentence strips. Older children can complete fill-in-the-blank worksheets to accompany books or movies.
5. Celebrate Success!
As children become comfortable using “I” messages, be sure to celebrate their successes. Say something like, “You communicated your feelings so helpfully. Way to go!” or, “You helped me understand how you were feeling so we can solve the problem. That was so helpful!” Acknowledge and celebrate positive behaviors to encourage more of them in the future.
By using a combination of these five strategies, you’ll teach “I” messages to children and strengthen their self-regulation, empathy, assertiveness, and self-confidence. You’ll be surprised what a huge difference a few simple sentences can make!