George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Got SEL? Teaching Students to Describe Emotions

Simple steps teachers can take to help students recognize and interpret their emotions.

February 8, 2017
Teacher helping a frustrated student
Photo Credit: ©

When was the last time you said “I feel rapturous” or heard a colleague say “my students were feeling woeful today”? Long time? Well, there might be a reason for it. There are 3,000 words in the English language to describe emotions, but most people probably use less than 20 on a regular basis.

Why is this important? Many children and youth express being happy, sad or mad, but miss the subtle gradations in emotions because they don’t have the words to describe them. Naming emotions accurately helps students be clearer about what is happening inside, so they can manage themselves in positive ways and become better learners. Unfortunately, students (and adults too!) will have a hard time managing their emotions if they don’t have the words to describe them. Time to increase our feelings vocabulary.

Emotional literacy is the ability to notice, accurately name and interpret our emotions. It is the foundation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and a key skill students need in order to make clearheaded decisions and manage emotions throughout life. Although we are born with the capacity to understand and express feelings, we don’t all use it effectively. Some students may ignore their feelings hoping that they’ll go away; other students may cling to their emotions, unable to process them. Emotional literacy, like other social and emotional skills, can be taught and developed with practice.

When students develop emotional literacy, they are able to:

1. Notice their emotions. This means recognizing the emotions in the body by paying attention to the sensory experience. Feeling scared or anxious might cause a dry mouth, sweat or a rapid heartbeat; feeling disappointed or hurt might change our tone of voice or facial expression. You can help students connect their emotions with the physical sensation by asking, what do you notice in your body when you are ___? Have students create an individual “map” of where emotions are felt in their bodies or create one as a class.

2. Name their emotions. This means finding the appropriate words that describe our emotions: enthusiastic, motivated, proud, grateful, content, discouraged. When students have a broader emotional vocabulary, they’ll be able to notice the variety of emotions we can feel on a given day. These are three activities you can do in the classroom to increase emotional vocabulary:

  • Create a Feelings Word Wall. You can get it started by brainstorming all the emotion words your students know. During your morning meeting or advisory period, ask students to generate new feeling words and review the old ones. What other emotion words can be added? When students do any writing assignment, encourage them to use the words from the Feelings Word Wall.
  • Do Emotional Check-ins. An emotional check-in is a time when students and teachers come together to connect and reflect on how things are going. Students are encouraged to share how they feel with the group or maybe a partner. If you have a Feelings Word Wall in the classroom, encourage students to use different words to describe their emotions. In many cases, we feel more than one emotion at a time! Share yours as well. Modeling is an important part of increasing students’ social and emotional skills.
  • Use literary fiction to teach emotions. There are several ELA Common Core standards that align well with emotional literacy. For example, standard RL.3.3 asks students to describe characters in a story or standard RL.6.3 asks students to describe how a particular story plot unfolds and how the characters respond overtime. When teaching these standards, help students identify emotions and encourage them to use those feeling words in their writing as well.

3. Interpret their emotions. This is the third step and probably one of the hardest! Once students can notice and name their emotions, it is time to explore the reasons why they might be feeling in a certain way. Interpreting emotions means understanding how emotions can help us. For example, anger can help us fight against problems or sadness may allow us to connect with those we love. It is important to communicate that all feelings are helpful, even the ones that cause us to be uncomfortable! In order for students to manage their emotions in positive ways, they need to have words to describe them.

Emotional literacy is the ability to notice, accurately name and interpret our emotions. You can help students develop this key SEL skill by helping them notice feelings in the body, increasing their emotion vocabulary and ability to interpret emotions.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Mindfulness

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