Teach Children to Recognize Their Emotions

As a teacher or parent, you constantly see emotional experiences on display.

You’ve likely seen some extreme feelings in your day…




Or even unbridled joy.

Children feel their emotions acutely.

Their emotions may erupt without warning, and when you're around them, they can feel contagious. You might recognize anger boiling over within you! You might feel your own sadness. You might droop, overwhelmed. (This “teacher and parent stuff” is tough!)

Most likely, you can recognize your own emotions; if not in the moment, then certainly afterward. You can likely recognize your own anxiety, fears, and joys. But many children aren’t able to recognize their emotions, especially those with communication and/or emotional needs.

Sometimes, if you ask children how they feel, they might snap back at you:

“I don't know!”

Or, worse, they might not be able to say anything at all.

Our job as teachers and parents is to give children the words to describe and recognize their emotions. If an emotion doesn't have a name, it grows more powerful than it needs to be. Once the emotion has a name, it can be recognized for what it is.

Take these steps now to teach your students or children to recognize their own emotions:

Introduce a vocabulary of emotional states and physical sensations

Download this “Feelings Inventory” published by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. This comprehensive list breaks down most categories of human emotion.

Start with teaching the main categories (in caps). Once students have mastered these, move on to the subtler emotions.

It may surprise you to know that quite a few adults are incapable of recognizing their own emotions. (Or, this may not surprise you at all! 😉) Many adults’ emotional difficulties could have been lessened if they learned to recognize their own feelings while they were young!

teach the “emotional states framework”

Analyze the patterns of emotional states. Typical patterns will emerge in the “before, during, and after” stage.

Break down the analysis:


Teach the children to recognize the trigger of the emotional state. What prompted it? Did something happen in a flash…or even a few days prior? What initiated this emotional state?


Emotional states typically follow certain patterns for certain individuals. You might recognize that your emotional states follow certain pathways. Your feelings might well up slowly, or they might hit you with a bang. Teach your students to recognize the arc and/or flow of their emotions. (If you feel brave, use your own emotional states as examples!)


Difficult emotional states require a period of recovery. Children need to learn to recognize what works to help them calm down from turbulent emotions. They also need to recognize how long it takes them to calm down, and what they can do to facilitate a calm state.

Use your content area to teach students to recognize emotion

If you’re a teacher, you certainly have standards to teach! (Lots of them.)

But if students aren’t able to recognize their own emotional states, they won’t stand much of a chance at success.

Leverage your content area(s) to teach these “soft skills” of emotional recognition. Find inlets to discuss emotion in:

English Language Arts: Create daily writing prompts that encourage students to use words from the Feelings Inventory above. Make these words part of your vocabulary unit. Discuss these words as you read texts together. Prompt students with questions, such as: Which emotion is that character experiencing?

Math: Create tasks that encourage students to recognize their own emotions. Ask them to record their own daily emotions on a pie chart. Instruct them to figure out the “equations” that add up to certain emotional states. Create variables to represent emotion: if someone is tired and hungry, what emotional state is that most likely to produce?

Social Studies: Explore the emotional states of historical figures. Students can compare how their own emotional experiences might have paralleled those of figures in history. Try to use references to children in history whenever you can, so the children can recognize what emotions they might have experienced during that particular era of history.

Science: Talk about the biology of emotion. Children can learn about what happens to their bodies during times of stress. Teach about the structure of the brain and where emotion manifests. Students can recognize that there is an actual biochemical origin of their emotions, which might make it all feel less scary.

Help children to recognize their own emotions, visually

Don’t put a mirror in a child’s face in the midst of a tantrum or meltdown! But do try to show students what various emotions “look like.”

Children may better recognize their emotions after they “act” or “simulate” the facial expressions of these various emotions.

Games can be fun to teach these concepts. Play “Guess the Emotional State” and have students guess which emotion is being enacted. (Establish ground rules: the emotion must be evident on the face only! You can hand-pick which emotion goes to which student.)

A game such as this is almost guaranteed make your class erupt into a serious case of the giggles! The giggles alone will take away some of the “power” of these heavy emotions!


Check out some of these resources to help you teach children how to recognize their emotions:

Feelings Flash Cards

Feelings and Emotions Flash Cards and Games

As a teacher or parent, you can make significant strides towards lightening up the heaviness of children’s emotional states. When students learn a vocabulary that helps them to recognize their emotions, they’ll be much better equipped to handle them as they arise!