Emotional self-awareness (recognizing feelings and building a vocabulary for them) is an essential foundation for emotional literacy. Children with a sufficient feelings vocabulary can communicate with others about their emotions and express their needs. Children who accurately identify and label emotions tend to be less aggressive, are more accepted by peers, and are generally more socially competent (Arsenio, Cooperman, & Lover, 2000; Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, & Holt, 1990; Izard, Fine, Schultz, Mostow, & Ackerman, 2001). All children need support in building a feelings vocabulary. Children with disabilities have a more limited vocabulary of feeling words than their typically developing peers (Feldman, McGee, Mann, & Strain, 1993), as do children from low-income families compared to their middle income peers (Hart & Risley, 1995; Lewis & Michalson, 1993).

Children learn to develop an awareness of feelings when adults serve as role models by expressing their own feelings in words and teaching a feelings vocabulary to children in class meetings, during conversation and play with children, and through games and activities. Through repeated examples, children learn to identify their own emotions and the feelings of others. They learn that their emotions are normal and an accurate reflection of their experience. They learn that feelings can change and that people may have different feelings about the same thing (Committee for Children, 2002).

Helping Children Identify and Label Emotions

  • Provide an environment in which children feel safe to share their feelings. Remember that you might be offering the only emotionally safe haven for children experiencing abuse, neglect, violence, or other trauma in their lives. Expect that it will take some time for children to trust and feel safe to communicate openly with you.
  • Pair a photograph or sketch of a "feeling face" with the corresponding emotion word. Introduce a variety of feeling words, beginning with the primary emotions (happy, sad, mad, afraid, surprised, and disgusted) and gradually add words to expand children's feelings vocabulary (disappointed, frustrated, excited, embarrassed, worried, etc.). See Figure Below

Feeling Words for Young Children to Build an Emotional Vocabulary

Affectionate Embarrassed Overwhelmed
Afraid Excited Peaceful
Angry Fantastic Pleasant
Annoyed Fearful Proud
Awful Friendly Relaxed
Bored Frustrated Relieved
Brave Furious Sad
Calm Gentle Safe
Caring Generous Scared
Cheerful Gloomy Serious
Clumsy Guilty Shy
Confused Happy Stressed
Comfortable Ignored Stubborn
Creative Impatient Surprised
Cruel Interested Tense
Curious Jealous Thoughtful
Delighted Joyful Thrilled
Depressed Lonely Uncomfortable
Disappointed Loving Weary
Disgusted Mad Worried
Elated Nervous  


  • Teach feeling words by naming and describing emotions as children experience them. Observe children's facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language to assess their feelings. "Julian, you look sad." "Matthew, you are really having trouble with that puzzle. You seem frustrated." "Hector, you are shouting and your face is all red. You look really angry." These affective reflections (nonjudgmental statements that describe the emotion of the child) help children identify their own affective state and feel understood and accepted (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, Stein, & Gregory, 2002).
  • Because children are not always sure what they are feeling or why, make observational statements describing the probable emotions of a child rather than asking that child "How are you feeling right now?" or "Why are you so sad?" As children become more skilled at identifying emotions and the situations that create them, they may be able to answer questions such as, "You look angry. What happened?"
  • Act as a role model by including emotions in your everyday conversations with children. "I was so worried when my child was sick yesterday." "I am so frustrated! This stapler keeps jamming and I am trying to display your artwork for your parents to see on this bulletin board." "Once my puppy got hurt and I was very sad and scared."
  • Plan emotion-related class meetings, games, and activities. Create and use materials that encourage discussion of feelings.