Developing emotional vocabulary.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois, Ed.D.

Social and emotional learning is not extra. On the contrary, alongside academic mastery, social and emotional skills are essential to becoming successful learners and good human beings. Emotional regulation, in particular, is critical to maintaining good mental health and developing healthy relationships. Like all SEL skills, emotional regulation begins from the inside out and depends on developing a broad and nuanced vocabulary for naming and expressing emotions. Here are three classroom-possible strategies for developing emotional vocabulary.

Mood Meter

Dr. Marc Brackett, author of “Permission to Feel,” developed the Mood Meter to help people name and understand emotions. You can find a simplified version here.

The mood meter invites us to stop for a moment and notice how we feel. Do we feel pleasant or unpleasant? And how intense is the experience? For example, the difference between “drained” and “sleepy” may seem subtle, but it is the difference between urgently needing rest and crawling into bed peacefully.

Consider enlarging the Mood Meter and using it as part of a class meeting, or print individual mood meters for students to use at their desks.

Paint Chips

While some hardware stores may not give away paint chips as readily anymore, even a few can be excellent tools for developing emotional vocabulary. Like a smaller, customizable version of the Mood Meter, each paint chip gathers similar emotional vocabulary words together and helps arrange them by intensity. Teachers may model this process first and then ask students to create their own ‘word families’ using the emotions they are learning about.

Here is an example of developing emotional vocabulary using paint chips:

Developing Emotional Vocabulary with Paint Chips

Art and Literature

An art teacher in Tucson combines the Mood Meter into visual arts lessons by selecting emotional vocabulary words and finding a clear example of those feelings in paintings and sculpture. Then, students identify what elements of the art contribute to those feelings and learn to express similar emotions on their own.

An English Language Arts teacher might focus on what the reader can infer about a character’s feelings based on words and phrases in the text. Students can practice similar structures in their own writing to convey feelings.

Expressing feelings without words in the classroom often looks and sounds like unexpected behaviors. An angry student knocks over a chair. A sad student puts their head down and disengages. A happy student interrupts their peers to share an unrelated story. Students with a broad and nuanced emotional vocabulary have words to express and regulate feelings. Investing in students’ emotional vocabulary expands social, emotional, and academic achievement.

Tim is hosting a free online workshop through the Tucson Regional Educator Collaborative on SEL on 9 September 2022. Click here to learn more.

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