Speaking the Same Language: Teaching Kids the Language of Emotions

Speaking the Same Language: Teaching Kids the Language of Emotions

Michele Regan

Last week I was telling my high schooler about something upsetting that happened that day, and he abruptly interrupted, “Who says that?”  I looked at him bewildered; didn’t everyone use the phrase I just used?  He confidently told me that NO ONE used that particular phrase.  When I asked him what word he would use to describe something that troubling, he said, “I wouldn’t use any because I wouldn’t talk about that.”  I prodded, “But what if…?”  His look gave me my answer.  

He wasn’t made to feel comfortable talking to others about “feelings.”  That’s not to say that we don’t talk about these kinds of things at home; it was more about the language he uses with peers or in public settings like school.  What really bothered me most about this was that he spends so many hours in school and doesn’t have an outlet.  But it occurred to me that, if given the language, he may be more comfortable.  And he may be better able to deal with uncomfortable feelings.

Why Does This Really Matter?

Think about behavior issues you deal with in the classroom.  How much instructional time is being spent on this?  What about the student who seems disconnected or apathetic?  How about those who are dealing with trauma?  How do we support these students in being able to feel comfortable expressing how they feel?  

More often than not, they are not communicating what they are feeling, at least not in words.  Instead, their behavior, body language, and facial expressions communicate what they may be feeling.  It’s critical that we pay attention to those signals; however that still leaves a lot to interpretation.  

Emoticons with different expression
Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way. -Mavis Mazhura

Picture This…

Imagine a young girl comes into your class on the first day of school with eyes averted, closed-off posture, and seeming withdrawn.  You think she’s shy and nervous about school starting.  But, this continues for some time with no change.  She’s very quiet so she’s not a behavior issue.  But what is going on?  She could be sad about something going on at home; she could be intimidated to participate because she has a learning disability, or maybe she’s anxious because she was bullied last year and is worried it will happen again if she says something “stupid.”  How you interpret this situation will dictate how you respond to her.  Wouldn’t it be a lot better for everyone if you could get her to share what she’s feeling?

Now, many would say, “That’s what the school counselor is for!” But honestly, even if the counselor did see her and make progress, that doesn’t necessarily mean you would see that in the classroom.  I would counter by asserting that it is our job as educators to give students the vocabulary to identify how they are feeling and then how they might deal with those emotions.

The Language of Emotions

Providing this language of emotions can start at any age, so don’t dismiss this idea if you’re a secondary teacher.  We know kids are coming to us unprepared in many areas and so we need to tackle it head on, just in a developmentally appropriate way.  Obviously, the language we would use with a teenager is much different than what we  would utilize with an elementary student, but the premise is the same.  We are giving students life skills that will vastly improve everyone’s school experience. 

Psychology tells us that naming our feelings is the first step to dealing with them.  Therefore, you need to give kids those words so that they can take that step.  Of course, we will also need to provide lots of modeling as well as feedback.  Students need to know what is and is not appropriate in the classroom and so practice will be needed as well.  This is not a one and done lesson; instead you should see this as another best practice that is used regularly.    

Getting Started

Emotion word wall summary
Emotion word wall

  • Start by creating an Emotion Vocabulary Word Wall.  

       It doesn’t have to take up much space, especially if you have a content Word Wall already.  But, if you dedicate a space to it in your classroom, then your students        know it’s important to you.  Also, it’s a great resource when kids can’t find the words in the moment.  While you will have to teach a lot of this vocabulary (in fun ways        of course), you eventually want kids to take ownership.  What’s their favorite word to express happiness?  What word will they choose to share when they are mad?        Consider that you are working on both social emotional skills as well as academics when you engage them in this. 

  • Create routines that support a Social Emotional focus.  

       Make it a habit to give students an Emotions Vocabulary Do Now one day a week.  Short, simple statements that students have to fill in with emotion words and        descriptions will increase their fluency with these words. You might also consider turning them into Exit Tickets to gauge their experiences throughout the day.         These ideas are both great because they are only shared between the student and you.  It gives you a window into how they are feeling without the pressure of        sharing with peers.   

  • Provide opportunities to discuss.  

       While talking about our emotions may seem awkward at first, isn’t everything harder in the  beginning?  The only way it will get easier is through multiple experiences        doing it.  Not every student is going to want to share every time you do this.  That’s okay.  In the beginning, these ‘share times’ should be optional.  You may have a        few kids share and then have others participate only by having them use a signal to agree or disagree.  I have seen classes that use the sign language sign for        “agreement” so that kids can quietly engage.  

Mixed feeling in a classroom

Dealing with Difficult Topics

If you feel that there are some really hard topics that students may not want to share in the classroom (it might not be the best place to do so), offer up some time that you can speak to them privately or get the counselor involved.  

What is important to note is that trauma specialists have reported that students can still benefit from talking about how they are feeling, being acknowledged, and learning coping strategies, WITHOUT you needing to know the reason for the trauma.  

Emotional Intelligence

Just as we aim to increase students’ intellectual capacity, we should also strive to increase their emotional intelligence.  We know that employers in recent years have cited that these “soft skills” are the most important to them and what predicts future success in the workplace.  This is not only a skill needed to be successful in school, but a gift you are giving them for the entirety of their lives!

Emotional intelligence quote by J. Freedman

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Activity

Emotion Vocabulary Do Nows

Who: This Social Emotional Learning (SEL) activity is effective for grades K-12, as the wording can be simplified for lower grade levels.

What: Through the incorporation of these SEL do nows, the teacher helps students learn how to verbalize their emotions. One do now is assigned to students each week (or more often if you choose). The students fill in the blanks and submit their papers to the teacher only. The teacher reviews the students’ responses. This data can be used to drive lessons and activities.

Where: These do nows can be used in any subject area, as they are not content specific.

When: When used as a do now, this activity should be given at the beginning of a class/day. However, if you choose to use it is a reflective tool, it can also be used as an exit slip. It can be used at any point during the school year.

Why: These do nows help gauge the effectiveness of students’ emotional vocabulary. By teaching students to utilize proper language for expressing emotions, it can improve their social emotional well-being. When students are able to express themselves and their feelings clearly, it benefits everyone, including their teachers who will become more aware of the students’ individual needs.

Related Blog Posts

Receive the latest resources and best practices delivered to your inbox.

Join 5,000+ subscribers.