The ability to identify emotions in ourselves and others, talk about them, and find ways to deal with them in appropriate ways, is an important competency that’s closely connected to academic outcomes, says Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University.
While there tends to be a greater focus on emotional literacy in elementary school, by the time kids reach middle and high school, they’re “figuring out who they are and how they want to show up in the world,” Phyllis Fagell, a middle school counselor and author of the book Middle School Matters tells Edutopia. It is during these transitional, formative years that students—with still-maturing brains and the emotional swings that come with adolescence—need tools to understand and cope with their complex feelings. “The payoff is that kids will actually be in the right headspace to learn the content,” Fagell argues.
Another byproduct is that a heightened awareness of their own internal emotional worlds—and those of their peers—feeds directly into a better understanding of content, Elias writes. Understanding literature, for example, requires understanding the feelings and emotions of characters, while transforming history from a set of “dry and disconnected facts” into something interesting and compelling requires “an understanding of what the individuals involved in the events were and are experiencing.”
Here are 12 strategies, across grade levels, to help students identify and talk about their emotions.
EMOTIONAL LITERACY IN THE ELEMENTARY GRADES
In the early grades, Elias writes, students are still getting to know their emotional worlds, the vast range of emotions they’re capable of feeling, and how to scale their responses to those emotions. At this age, he argues for developing a “strategic” vocabulary that students can lean on. “If one knows only the words sad, mad, and glad, one will not be able to appreciate all the nuances of relationships and understanding in the world,” Elias writes.
Sizing Up a Problem: Help students compare and contrast the relative proportions of problems—someone is reading your library book without permission versus a family member is in the hospital—by having them fill out a Big vs. Little Problems worksheet. Anna Parker, an elementary school teacher at Lister Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, asks students to rate problems on a scale from 1 to 5, and reflect on what sort of response each problem merits. Students discuss why yelling or throwing things because of a missing pencil, for example, would be considered overreacting. Calibrating responses, Parker says, is something she teaches throughout the year, “so that students in the moment will think, 'I can take a second, then I can react appropriately'.”
Emotional Vocabulary Pre-Work: Before teaching students specific emotional vocabulary, Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, an educator, author, and school leader suggests using activities to help them unpack their emotional range. “Challenge students to think of as many types of fill-in-the-blank emotions as possible. For example, can you think of 20 types of happy or sad?” Or ask students to act out different emojis “to explore emotional cues,” writes Fishman-Weaver, which can help kids “name and distinguish” feelings and expand their emotional vocabulary.
Teach How Emotions Work: In the upper elementary grades, students can benefit from a simple crash course on the neuroscience of emotions as a way to develop their emotional literacy, Fishman-Weaver says. You might discuss the basics of the limbic system, the control center for feelings and emotions in our brains. Mnemonic devices can be useful for memorizing different parts: “Hippos’ teeth have awful odor (hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and olfactory bulb),” Fishman-Weaver writes. A basic understanding of these processes and vocabulary can help kids grasp that feeling and thinking are not separate processes.
Visualize Feelings: Tools like emotions wheels, blob trees, mood scales, and mood meters can expose young students to a range of emotions in low-stakes ways—and form the building blocks for developing emotional vocabulary. Hang a simple emotions wheel in the room and reference it during your lesson—ask students to label the feelings of a character in a story, or a historical figure they’re learning about, for example. Or, use mood scales to get students exploring their emotions using pictures of anything from animals to a favorite cartoon character.
Use some of these tools during morning meetings to help students signal how they’re feeling that day, or as a closing activity to get a sense of how they’re digesting what they just learned.
Picture Books: Picture books focused on emotions can help students learn more about feelings—and how to deal with them—in the form of an engaging story. Discussions and activities can focus on helping students label the feelings they’re encountering on the page, writes Elias. “If they’re correct, ask them how they know,” Elias says. “Whether they’re correct or not, point out the variety of ways feelings are shown—different aspects of faces (eyes, eyebrows, mouth, forehead) and postures.”
Peace Corners: To help young students practice self-regulation, teachers at Nashville’s Fall-Hamilton Elementary suggest creating a cozy “peace corner” in the classroom. In this space, students are encouraged to use emotional-regulation strategies like deep breaths, mindfulness exercises, or tools like mood scales to identify the emotions they’re experiencing.
EMOTIONAL LITERACY FOR TEENS
As students head into middle and high school, former high school teacher Ronen Habib suggests leaning into emotional literacy strategies as a means to combat the stress, anxiety, and bullying that many students experience at this age. “We assume [high school students] don’t know how to add fractions, so we teach them, as we should,” Habib told Edutopia. “Why do we assume they know how to self-regulate?”
Gratitude Circle: Use the first few minutes of class to get students to slow down, take stock of their feelings and emotions, and practice gratitude as a means of centering themselves before diving into academic work, Habib suggests. Habib has students sit down right after the bell rings and write three things in their journal that they’re grateful for. Afterwards, they can share out. “These two minutes establish what’s called emotional resonance in the classroom—when brains are in sync in a positive way because people are experiencing positive emotions together,” he says.
Quick Check-Ins: Ask students to share roses—something positive they’re feeling about the day—and thorns, which are negative, or less than positive. A thorn might be something simple, like, “I feel tired,” writes Alex Shevrin Venet, a community college teacher and former school leader. But students may also choose to share something more like, “My rose is that even though I’m stressed out, I got all my homework done.”
A one-word share about how they are feeling that day is another simple check-in activity. At first students might use words like “good” or “bad,” writes Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. But as they get comfortable and increase their understanding—and vocabulary—of emotions, they’ll share words like “pensive, anxious, serene, and frustrated,” Alber says.
Appreciation, Apology, Aha!: Gather students in a circle and ask them to identify something they’ve either appreciated that day, an “aha moment” they’ve experienced during the course of the day, or an apology they’d like to deliver. According to high school dean and former teacher Aukeem Ballard, the brief practice creates “daily opportunities for kids to connect and reflect,” in ways that significantly deepen classroom bonds.
Reflective Listening: To help students place their emotions in context, and practice reflective listening, have students pair up during a morning meeting and take turns expressing how they feel, suggests educator Julia Richardson. Listening partners, Richardson writes, should focus on “mirroring their partner’s language and recalling a time when they felt similarly, if possible.” The activity, which Richardson frequently uses among younger students, can also help teens develop empathy, and put their own feelings or struggles into context—strategies that can create a stronger classroom environment, diffuse arguments, and lead to more resilience.
Connect With Each Child: Simply making a habit of regularly checking in with students can give them opportunities to verbalize their emotions, says teacher David Tow. As he greets students at the door each morning, Tow asks each one how they’re doing that day—and means it. He pays attention to students’ responses, notes them on his roster, and follows up. “If I sense any problems, I might ask ‘Really?’ or ‘You sure?’” These inquiries, Tow writes, help draw students out and give them a chance to express themselves. Connecting with all students at once is impossible, of course. Which is why Tow seeks out informal “one-on-one contact” once a month with each of his students no matter how they seem to be doing. He also sets regular “office hours” where students know they can talk about things outside the realm of academic concerns.
Lean on Literature: Novels and short stories can be used to help students develop “compassion, understanding, and patience for people whose lives are nothing like their own,” writes former high school English teacher Christina Gil. Examining characters like Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, gives students a sense of the ways that “class and birth can limit happiness and the ability to get what we want in life,” says Gil. At Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, students meet in small, daily advisory groups to read novels with themes relevant to their lives and use the stories and characters to initiate discussions about love, authority, or fears, for example. The intimate meetings, says executive principal Sonia Stewart, gives students “the ability to face each other… and have conversations around significant topics.”