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How to teach students to label their emotions

How to teach students to label their emotions

4 min read
  • Metacognition

Emotions and learning go hand in hand. So what strategies exist to help students better label their emotions?

Students can experience a range of emotions in the classroom, influenced by a variety of factors from individual differences to external factors, such as home and family life. It is said that there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Students may feel anger when they are unable to understand a math equation, or happiness when they receive a good mark on a quiz.

Since it was shown that putting your feelings into words reduces the intensity of emotions and promotes well-being, teaching students to label their emotions helps them to manage them effectively. So, how can teachers teach their students the art of labelling emotions?

Why is labelling emotions important?

Learning to appropriately express emotions is a key feature of healthy social and emotional development. Evidence shows that suppressing emotions can diminish well-being in students and subsequently lead to a decline in social and academic performance.

Emotions are easier to express when students are aware of their feelings and are able to label them. Research suggests that for most individuals, the intensity of their emotions decreases after they explicitly express how they feel. Those who described how they felt with an “I feel” statement immediately felt that they could manage their emotions better. For example, saying “I feel scared” out loud can lead the student to think more about why they are feeling this way, and either dissipate those negative feelings or figure out how to get to the root of the problem.

To help promote this skill, teachers can guide students through the process of recognising their emotions. If students can label their emotions as soon as they acknowledge how they feel, managing them will become easier.

And after all, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Reducing the impact of intense emotions on students by discussing them one-on-one with a teacher or with the class can enhance their well-being and contribute positively to their performance in the classroom. Students and teachers can then work together to figure out what is triggering intense emotions such as anger and fear, and come up with solutions to handle them.

Teachers should keep in mind that they can never know with complete certainty how their students are feeling or how intense an emotion is. Labelling should be done tentatively, as young students may be unfamiliar with some of their feelings. They will be learning what events or situations trigger which types of emotions: positive or negative – and this will help them acknowledge and identify their emotions when they arise.

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How can you help students label their emotions?

There are many strategies that teachers can implement in their classrooms to encourage students to become more comfortable with recognising and labelling their emotions. Here are a few activities to help get you started in this process:


Ask two students to act out a specific situation. Being nervous before an exam is a very common role-play choice, as after the scene the class can discuss how they think that character might feel. This allows them to get an insight into various emotions at a safe distance.

Emotional charades

Write different emotions on pieces of paper and put them in a hat. Ask students to pick a piece and act out the emotion without speaking. The other students will then have to guess which emotion is being portrayed. This helps students to identify what others are feeling and how emotions can be displayed differently.

Teach empathy

When dealing with a conflict, ask students how they would feel if they were in the other person’s position. Identifying and understanding other people’s emotions, as well as their own, can help students put words onto their feelings more successfully and enhance their understanding of emotions in general.

Tools like Blob Tree can be especially useful with younger students. It is a tool that consists of neutral figures on or around a tree doing a range of activities. This provides a canvas for teachers to ask students which blob they currently identify with, to encourage self-reflection and to express how they currently feel.

It is important for teachers to remember that not all students will feel comfortable discussing their emotions out loud, whether this is one-on-one or in a classroom setting. An alternative to this would be to keep a diary. This would encourage them to write down how they feel – a very beneficial method of expression. Research shows that individuals who wrote about their negative emotions felt less stressed compared to those who didn’t. If, as a teacher, you feel that your students would benefit more from writing, then try it out over a few weeks and see if it makes a positive impact!

Final thoughts

Emotions are a crucial part of learning and development. Once students can label their emotions, it becomes easier for them to talk about how they feel. This can enhance their well-being, as they won’t feel like their emotions are bottled up inside. It is important for students to be able to recognise what they are feeling, so that they are able to get the necessary advice and guidance to help manage both the positive and negative emotions.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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