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How to Teach Children Emotional Literacy

Emotional Literacy

Think back to when you were learning to drive a car. It wasn’t an easy process at first. Phrases like “Keep your hands at 10 and 2!” probably didn’t mean much to you. But the more opportunity you had to practice, the more skilled you became. You most likely startled your instructor a few times, but they stuck with you until you were confident driving on your own. Likewise, when not-so-desirable behavior occurs, it’s important to recognize children as learners who need support developing new skills—especially when it comes to their emotions. 

What is emotional literacy? 

Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize, understand, and appropriately express one's own feelings. Teaching your child emotional literacy is essentially giving them a new way to communicate. Some behaviors happen because children become overwhelmed with emotions. They don’t yet know how to express when they are hungry, tired, scared, or anxious. By helping to develop your child’s emotional literacy, you help them to understand their feelings and express them in a safe way.  

How to encourage emotional literacy 

We are our child’s first model of how to deal with emotions. Take real-life opportunities when you might be feeling sad, happy, or frustrated to model good emotional intelligence for your kids. Talk out loud about what you’re feeling and doing to deal with your emotions. “I really thought I would get that email today. I’m feeling a bit frustrated. I think I’m going to take a few deep breaths and plan what to do next.”  

In our classrooms, we have printed graphics around that help illustrate emotions to kids, like these “Feelings Faces.” Try printing or drawing your own emotions chart at home, adding all the emotions you can think of. You could also take actual pictures of family members making faces of each emotion. Post a couple of copies around your house at your child’s eye level for their reference. 

A mirror works, too! Practice making different faces in your reflections to help them learn to identify emotions. Try some of the harder emotions like disappointment and embarrassment. The more emotions your child can name the better! 

Books for teaching emotional literacy 

As a family, read stories about how to handle angry feelings or other emotions. When reading the books, make them interactive. Ask them what they might do in the story’s situation and what they need when they feel the same way as the character in the book.  

Here are some children’s books we recommend. (If you can’t get a copy, each of these can be found as a read-aloud on YouTube!) 
  • “Mouse Was Mad” by Linda Urban (ages 2–5) 
  • “Hands Are Not for Hitting” by Martine Agassi (ages 2–8) 
  • “When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry” by Molly Bang (ages 3–7) 
  • “Sometimes I’m Bombaloo” by Rachel Vail (ages 3–8) 
  • “Words Are Not for Hurting” by Elizabeth Verdick (ages 4–7) 
  • “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst (ages 4–8) 
Take the learning one step further by acting out the stories with puppets (or your child’s toys) to discuss emotions and ways to solve a problem appropriately. Role play different solutions they can choose in the moment instead. For example, they might ask an adult for help, ask their sibling if they can trade toys, take a break, or pick a different toy.  

Practice makes permanent! The more times we engage in conversations about different emotions and how to safely express them, the more your child is learning.