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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Boosting Young Students’ Emotional Vocabulary

Teachers can help preschool and elementary students understand and express the connections between their sensations and emotions.

May 4, 2021
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Young students sometimes lack the words to adequately describe how they’re feeling. It takes time to develop interoception, or the understanding of what’s going on inside your body. But teachers can help learners master this skill.

Interoception is known as the eighth sensory system and may range from the feel of sore muscles after a long bike ride to the sensation of warm sun rays tingling the skin on your face. Noticing how you feel and then being able to name those sensations is a vocabulary exercise in itself. Here’s an example to better understand why this matters.

Imagine a scenario with a student who is disrupting her classmates’ work. Think about the difference in response to this student when you are hungry as opposed to when you have had breakfast. Think about naming how hunger feels—a gnawing, rumbling, or irritable stomach—and then pair this sensation inside to how you are feeling overall. You may feel frustrated, short-tempered, or angry. Only you can realize and then name your own sensations. For instance, saying to yourself, “I feel frustrated because I am hungry” is likely an accurate read. After grabbing a snack, return to the student and recalibrate your feelings. With the hunger gone, you might instead feel compassion for this student. Bringing an awareness to our eighth sense, combined with what’s going on in our immediate environment, helps us pause to better understand situations and then productively respond.

Knowing how our body plays a role in why we feel the way we do and naming our sensations to align them with our overall feelings is a life skill. For instance, think about the last time you went to the doctor when something was wrong. Before your appointment, did you try to locate exactly where you were having pain and describe how it felt by forming a comparison or metaphor, such as describing a warming sensation in your calf muscle that mimics tiny push pins tapping on your skin?

If we know that our sensations play an important role in how we interpret our broader feelings and they serve us long-term, then teaching this to our students is important. The root of this work is vocabulary, or the words we use to communicate.

6 Ways Vocabulary Lessons Help Students Express Emotions

1. Link body to mind. Introduce interoception to your students through story. Gabi Garcia’s children’s book Listening to My Body explains how sensations and feelings are interrelated. You may challenge students to draw or write throughout the day to notice and then name their inner sensations to connect this to a bigger picture of how they are feeling.

2. Use high-quality language. The use of high-quality oral language is something to be embraced, especially as children are building their brain bank of words. Sophisticated words are learned well through story, whether that is using rich language in discussion or using audiobooks or a read-aloud to then converse about ideas. As more words are heard and become familiar, children have a connection with them when they encounter them in reading or hear them again, making the use of them more likely in the future.

3. Focus on accurate language. Accuracy is more important than sophistication. Our youngest students strive to use big, powerful words. Students should know that the nuance of language is the key to unlocking a powerful argument or heartfelt story. However, practice with accuracy and precision should lead kids to unearth those higher-level words. This desire to be more precise and specific in word choice leads students to question words and find ones that better match what they are trying to say.

4. Show the full spectrum of language. Use shades-of-meaning vocabulary lessons to parse out the most meaningful words to describe related feelings. Shades of meaning recognizes how words can mean nearly the same thing with very slight differences. For example, consider the difference between the words happy and elated. Elated means very happy or jubilant. Discussing terms like these helps students appreciate how “just right” words make a big difference.

5. Use metaphor to get closer. Another way to get to the just-right word, especially when kids can’t find the right word or just don’t know enough words to get there yet, is to invite them to use metaphor. Help kids make meaning by asking them to draw a comparison. If they feel more than happy, they may compare their feelings to soaring gracefully through the sky on a magical dragon. This is a certain type of happiness that metaphor can bring to life.

6. Sketch out meaning. Students may draw their feelings by sketching or coloring a picture. Typically, we ask students to draw a picture or make a comparison to learn a new word; in this flipped case, we invite children to create their own meaning, and then they may, or may not, find the word later. Sometimes a drawing or metaphor works out better than finding the just-right word because it actually is the clearer explanation at that moment.

Vocabulary has very direct implications for the lives of children, with far-reaching effects as they grow. Using just-right words to describe how we feel could mean the difference between getting the help we need or not. Let’s continue to show our students not only the value of noticing and naming our sensations and feelings, but also the impact of being able to find just-right words when you need them most.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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