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Recognising pupils’ feelings and emotions

This article was initially written for head teachers update magazine

Learning to recognise feelings and emotions is an essential part of growing up, but it will not necessarily come naturally. Shahana Knight looks at how we can help support our pupils to spot, identify and manage their feelings

Being able to recognise your own feelings indicates good emotional intelligence. This has a direct impact on your ability to manage your own wellbeing and mental health. If you do not know how you feel, how can you help yourself to feel better?

Being aware of your own feelings means you can navigate your way through difficult situations, support others empathetically, nurture deep relationships and listen to what “feels” right for you based on your internal reactions. For example: “I can identify that this friend makes me feel uncomfortable and judged, so I am going to find a different person to spend time with who makes me feel valued.”

In order to be able to harness the full benefits of our emotions, we must first be aware of them. This awareness can only develop in children with the help of the adults around them.

Unfortunately increasing numbers of children are not getting the early feedback they need to learn what their feelings feel like and what they are called. This feedback could be as simple as a caring adult hugging their child and reflecting: “I know you’re sad that mummy is saying no to sweeties, but you’re just about to have your dinner, so you need to wait.” Or “You are feeling irritable because you are tired and need a nap.”

Being emotionally reflective with language when children are struggling to manage their emotions will help them to develop an insight into how they are feeling, what that feeling is called and how it has an impact on their behaviour.

Sadly, many children are unable to identify how they feel and often mistake their feelings for other things. For example, children can mistake the feeling of anxiousness as a feeling of hunger or tummy ache – simply because no-one has labelled that feeling for them before.

Part of the therapeutic teaching skillset is to find ways to weave feedback about your pupils’ emotions into their day-to-day interactions with you and each other. Most situations where a child is struggling with their behaviour or concentration or friendships have a feeling at the centre. Maybe a child feels isolated, alone, worried, anxious. Usually it is the feeling that is causing the problem, and not the actual situation.

Top tip: Use reflective language in every response

Reflective language is an art it itself and takes practice, but it is quite simple and very effective. From now on, every time you see a child struggling with their feelings follow these steps:

  • Say their name.
  • Reflect their feeling back to them.
  • Highlight their actions and/or behaviour.

Saying their name first helps them listen to you and makes them feel connected to you. Reflecting their feelings would then sound like this:

  • “Adam, you are very frustrated with your work at the moment.”
  • “Sarah, you are anxious about this.”
  • “Abdul, you are feeling left out of this game.”

This allows them to hear the feeling they are having. Be reflective all the time, even if the child is in trouble or is shouting, crying or kicking. Offering them feedback about how they feel is essential when they are actually experiencing the emotion – so they can identify it.

Next, follow up your reflection with a comment about how that feeling is making them act. This helps them to identify how the feeling and behaviour are linked. Be honest with the children to help them develop the insight they need. For example:

  • “Adam, you are very frustrated with your work at the moment, that’s why you have walked away.”
  • “Abdul, you are feeling left out of this game, so you’re hurting others.”
Top tip: Weave feelings into your other lessons

Many schools tell me it is hard to make adequate time for PSHE and to focus on things like feelings when they are under pressure to focus on subjects like English and maths as a priority. The key here is to weave together the lessons so that you are covering both PSHE topics and the core subjects at the same time.

For example, in English you could use stories that are focused on emotions to encourage reading, creative writing and hand-writing, but which also generate discussions about feelings and emotions. A good book for lower key stages is The day the sea went out and never came back (Routledge, 1997) which focuses on loss and endings. For key stage 2, try Michael Rosen’s The sad book (Candlewick Press, 2005). Start discussions about how the characters must be feeling, what they did when they felt like that, and how they found a way to manage their feelings.


  • Ask them to do a piece of writing which reflects a time when they have felt a strong feeling.
  • Ask them to write their own story with emotions as a theme.
  • Photocopy the pages of the book and ask them to write their own story using a page as a prompt.
  • Retype some of the story with incorrect grammar and spellings and ask them to correct the errors.
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