There is so much power behind naming our emotions. We want to teach children a broad emotional vocabulary so that they are able to label their feelings and we are better able to support them and their cognitive development. As children learn to identify their feelings they will often start with the most basic, often referred to as the “core emotions,” or the emotions that are innate and shared by everyone. There are a few models of what those basic emotions are. One widely popular model is by clinical psychologist Paul Ekman (1970), he names 6 basic emotions as sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. In 1990, he expanded this list adding pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement. With all of the research out there on emotions, the studies are far from complete, but one thing is very clear – naming our feelings helps us develop skills to manage our emotions.
Children experience complex feelings just like us; anger, excitement, gratitude, frustration, and joy. Children are not born with the ability to label how they are feeling. Often, we see their emotional expression shown through facial expressions, body language, and behaviors. We need to give children the tools to express themselves appropriately – they need the vocabulary along with an understanding of how emotions feel in their bodies.
Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.Lyman Abbott
From the time babies are born, they begin expressing their emotions. The way we respond to these emotions is the start of helping them in identifying, expressing, and regulating their own feelings. If you drop a pan on the floor in the kitchen, a baby will begin to cry, assuming this loud noise made them feel scared. You walk over, gently pick up the baby, and in a soothing voice say, “That must have scared you, that was a really loud noise”. You have just experienced an important, teachable interaction of emotional expression, labeling, and co-regulating with a newborn. This is just the beginning of their learning about emotions.
Children who are able to label, express, and manage emotions in a healthy manner, often show incredibly positive outcomes later in life. Children are more likely to be empathetic and caring, perform better at school/work, create positive relationships, have fewer behavioral problems, greater resiliency, a positive sense of self, and show greater confidence.
What can we do to teach children about their own and others’ emotions?
Modeling showing emotions
The number one tool we have in teaching emotions to children is modeling; expressing our own emotions, labeling feelings, and talking about them out loud. Tell children when you are feeling pleasant and tough emotions; we all have feelings and it’s important that children understand that it is a normal experience. Model what you want to see and hear from children. Show and talk about your own facial expressions and the way your head, heart, and body feel as you experience your emotions. Children are always watching and listening, so do your best to model what you want to see from them.
Meeting children at eye level
Getting on children’s eye level shows an important message of safety, trust, and care. Move gently, use a calm voice, get down on the child’s level, and make eye contact. Eye contact might be difficult for some children, especially in a state of heightened emotions, so please do not expect them to make eye contact back with you.
Help young children learn to label their emotions by supporting them with statements like, “It looks like you are feeling sad…”.
Permission to feel
We want children to know that it’s okay to feel whatever emotions they are feeling. Try saying something like, “It is okay that you are feeling frustrated, we all get frustrated.” If a child is behaving in ways that are not acceptable, be sure to calmly set limits. All feelings are okay, but not all behaviors are okay.
Let children know you are there for them. “I am right here.” You might also offer a gentle hand on their shoulder or a hug if they desire.
Listening to children
Listen to the child’s perspective as they recognize their feelings. Try not to say anything while they are expressing themselves. Listen without judgment. If there is a pause, go ahead and calmly restate what they are telling you – this shows them that you are listening. If you feel the need, go ahead and ask questions, for example, “tell me more about that”.
Validate and empathize
Let children know that you understand what they are expressing and show empathy (I see you). “I can see how hard that was for you.”
Help to (co)-regulate
Help support children in regulating their feelings, especially the tough ones. Continue modeling your own calm behavior, while encouraging the child to utilize their own strategies for calming. Children are all unique, they will differ in the duration it takes to get to calm and differ in their favorite calming strategies. Introduce children to a variety of coping skills when they are calm and attentive to learn*, they will eventually settle in on their personal favorites.
*Discuss calming strategies outside of heightened emotional moments. In my family and classrooms, we created a “favorite regulation strategies menu”. You could try this too! Place your list in a visible spot so your children can check in with it and make a choice. Here is a link to some calming, breathwork exercises.
Sometimes you need to problem-solve with children “in the moment” for purposes of safety. If this is the case, you need to be firm and clear, set boundaries, limit your verbal communication, and give children an alternative. Other times, problem-solving comes after a child is calm and able to listen and reflect with you. This helps children learn, boosts their confidence, and increases their ability to make better choices at another time. “What could you do instead?” “How can I help you next time?” “Is there another way to think about it?”
It’s important to move on and get our children to move on after tough emotions. Whether it’s connecting with you by reading a story together or sending them back to play with their peers, we want kids to be able to bounce back and move on.
Below are some activities you can use to teach children about emotions. HiMama has created a whole menu of supportive and educational activities targeted around the theme of teaching emotions. You will also find plenty of activities focused on a variety of other themes including numbers, animals, friendship, bugs, and so much more! These activities are appropriate for a wide range of ages and developmental stages including material for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children.
- As you welcome children in for the day, have them tell how they are feeling. Use an emotion wheel like this one here, to support them. You might want to take it a step further and ask classmates how to respond to each other’s feelings. For example, if a child is feeling happy, a friend could give them a high five. If a child is feeling sad, a friend could ask them to read a quiet book.
- Direct children to look at each other’s faces and body language and think about how others are feeling.
- Praise children when they use emotion words when they speak.
- Use real-life examples to teach kids how you respond to emotions.
- While reading aloud ask questions like, “How is the character feeling?” “How can you tell the character is feeling that way?” “Can you show the same feeling?” “Have you ever felt this way?”
- While reading stories aloud, have children raise their hands when they can tell how a character is feeling or ask how characters are feeling and why. Some of my favorite children’s books are, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, The Color Monster: A book about emotions by Anna Llenas, and any book by my absolute favorite, Peter Reynolds – The Dot, Ish, Say Something, I am Love, and many more.
- Broaden emotional vocabulary by tying emotions to the letters and sounds you are focusing on. For example: “What emotion words start with /b/?” brave, bothered, blissful, blue.
- Have children choose a feeling and have them draw a time they felt that emotion. Then have them dictate the story to you. Create an A-Z feelings book for each child.
- Using “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” song and begin replacing “happy” with different feelings. Have children sing along and show the feelings through facial expression and body language. For instance, “If you’re sad and you know it show a frown…”
- Listen to some different types of music such as rock music, classic etc., let the children dance to the music, ask children how the song made the children feel.
Dramatic play activities
- Use puppets to act out different real-life situations. You can take scenarios directly from your class, for example – one puppet takes a block from another puppet. Ask children what the puppets are feeling and show those emotions with their own faces and body. Have the puppet model coping with the emotion and solving the problem. How is everyone feeling now?
- Have a closing meeting where all children tell how they are feeling and why. Using emotion dolls is a great way to foster talking about emotions. FeelLinks has these great emotion plush dolls for children to see and hold to support this type of activity.
- Have children act out feelings with facial expressions and body language. If you want to focus on specific feelings, you can choose books that will show those emotions and then have them act those out.
- Join in pretend play and start conversations that bring in emotional experiences. Help children make their characters even more real by giving them emotions and acting those out.
- Head outside for this one! Blow a whistle and have children walk around like they are feeling excited, for example. Blow the whistle again and have the children walk like they are mad. Repeat the activity until you have practiced several emotions.
- Put on the tunes and have a dance party. Call out different emotions and children will need to dance like they are feeling that emotion.
- Guessing game: Make different emotion faces and have children guess what you are feeling.
- Mirroring: Have children find a partner. One child makes an emotion face and the other child mirrors their actions. Then they can name the feeling they are showing.
- Have children look in a mirror and practice making feeling faces.
- Discuss how colors give us feelings. Use different colors to express feelings in art. For example, red shows a feeling of anger and yellow evokes happiness. Have children color to draw pictures related to their own feelings.
- Children can use magazines to cut out pictures of people showing different emotions. Then they can sort the pictures and even glue them on paper in groupings.
Children are best at judging how something makes them feel. Even if you do not agree with what they are expressing, please do not dismiss or distract from their feelings. It’s important that children learn to cope with all types of feelings; brushing them off will make things more difficult later in life. Children who are able to understand, label, express, and regulate a wide range of feelings will experience long-term benefits to their mental health and wellbeing. All children should live and learn in an environment where they feel emotionally safe and validated – where their feelings are heard, accepted, understood, and met with empathy and compassion.
Do you have any tried and true methods for teaching emotions to children? Comment them below!
Thank you so much for the emotion wheel!
This is a great resource-thank you! I especially love the line: All feelings are okay, but not all behaviors are okay.
I have used the “If You’re Happy and You Know It” song with my almost 2 year old granddaughter, and it is a great shared experience for both of us.
I am going to share this resource with my Head Start co-workers 🙂
I created an emoji mood poster, along with guiding questions, to stimulate conversations around emotion recognition, understanding, labeling, expression and regulation (based on RULER from the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence). I pair those tools with Nursery Rhymes for Kinder Times™, a collection of updated rhymes with music designed to nurture kindness, empathy and gratitude. Fifteen of those rhymes were recently released as an album by Raffi and Lindsay Munroe and available on all major music streaming platforms. Additional teacher and caregiver resources that help extend and integrate the SEL in many of the ways you’ve described in this post will be available on my website, set to launch in a few weeks. I see a lot of overlap in our work and would love to connect. (I actually attended your HiMama webinar and have been in touch with HiMama about doing one of my own!) I will email you through your website. Keep up the great work!
What an incredible tools on the emotion topic! Thank you for the educating us at a broader length!