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Emotional literacy is just as important for success as intellectual ability in child development.

Many schools today focus on emotional literacy with specific social and emotional learning standards that need to be addressed in every classroom.

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Emotional literacy and emotional intelligence for student development

The ability to recognize and manage emotions strongly influences how children see the world, which they carry into adulthood. Strong emotional literacy enables children to solve all types of problems.

Psychologists have long championed social and emotional learning in the classroom. From the very beginning of their life, children are wired to connect with the people around them. Children who are unable to make these crucial emotional connections are much more likely to struggle in other aspects of their lives. Myrna Shure and George Spivak are developmental psychologists who have developed a range of interpersonal cognitive problem-solving strategies. They’ve identified keyword pairs often used in social situations to indicate emotions, which are very important for children to learn. These findings are an important basis for many of the strategies we use to teach emotional literacy to kids.

It’s important to start addressing emotional literacy when children are very young to set them up for a successful future. As a teacher of young children, there are many things you can do in your classroom to improve your students’ emotional literacy. Regardless of whether or not your school has social and emotional learning standards, you and your students can benefit from incorporating emotional literacy into your lessons (video below). Emotional literacy activities for students do encourage emotional intelligence. Continue reading to learn more.

Use words to describe emotions

Children need to be able to identify certain feelings by name at a relatively young age. A good way to do this is through visual cues – you can show them pictures of each emotion to help them learn. This helps them recognize the common physical expressions of emotions through the eyes, mouth, nose, and other face parts.

Once children have started to master these emotions, you can quiz them using flashcards. The basic emotions that children should be able to recognize are:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Mad
  • Afraid
  • Surprised
  • Upset
  • Worried
  • Proud

Provide the understanding of cognitive word pairs

The key cognitive word pairs that Shure and Spivack identified are crucial to social and emotional development. They help children communicate their feelings clearly and are a great tool for adults to use when they are talking about emotions with children.

Once children understand these basic cognitive word pairs, they can develop a more thorough, adult understanding of emotions. These important cognitive word pairs are:

  • Is and is not
  • Same and different
  • Can and cannot or may and may not
  • And or else
  • Some and all
  • Before and After
  • If and then
  • Might and maybe
  • Why and because

While not a word pair, it’s also important for children to learn the concept of cause and effect. You can do this by talking about events in terms of what happened and what happened next. This helps children understand how actions relate to emotions and vice versa for themselves and others.

Use the same and different words

Same and different is one of the children’s most important cognitive pairs to understand. Knowing how to distinguish between emotions and more concrete items and concepts is very important for intellectual and emotional development. There are so many ways you can teach children this concept of the same and different.

Continually reinforcing this concept by integrating it into other lessons gives children a great framework for further social and emotional learning. Parents can also help by reinforcing this concept at home. Here are a few helpful ways to teach this concept.

Use rhyme and picture identification

A simple way to introduce children to rhymes and similar sounds is through picture identification. This also helps them with the skill of connecting words and ideas. You’ll need pictures of various things that rhyme and a few items that sound different but might be put in similar use categories as the other items.

For example, you could use ‘bat’, ‘rat’, and ‘cat’, and then include ‘dog’, ‘table’, and ‘chair’ as the other three words. Show your students the pictures and have them identify the words that sound the same as ‘bat’. Try this with many different rhymes until they get the hang of it.


A good way to build on picture rhyming and naming is to do a similar activity focusing on alliteration. Collect pictures of several items that start with the same sound, like ‘book’, ‘bag’, ‘ball’, and ‘bat’, as well as a few that are different, like ‘shoe’ or ‘pencil’. Ask students to identify which items start with the same sound as ‘bat’ and which items do not start with the same sound as ‘bat’.

Use similar words: just like me

This more complex activity can help students apply this concept to their own lives. Put together a range of statements that could apply to your students but wouldn’t necessarily apply to all of them. These could include things like:

  • Has a sibling
  • Has brown eyes
  • Has brown hair
  • Like to read
  • Like to play sports
  • Have you been to a different state or country
  • Are X years old

Read these statements to your class, and have them stand up if the statement applies to them. After each statement, talk to the students about how those standing up share a characteristic, but students sitting down have a different characteristic. This helps them learn to identify differences and similarities between each other, which is an important concept of social and emotional learning.

Starting with social and emotional learning at a young age can greatly benefit students. Incorporating some of these concepts and activities into your classroom sets students up for success later in life.