Fostering Emotional Literacy in Young Children: Labeling Emotions

The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill not present at birth—it must be learned and practiced.

By Anne E. Mead, Ed. D.

Just as there is wide variation in the point at which children start to demonstrate appropriate use of books, begin writing, and recognize letters, some children’s ability to identify, understand, and label their emotions develops at a slower rate than others. Labeling emotions includes examples of using words or phrases such as: “I am sad,” “I am happy,” “He is crying because he is hurt,” and “She took my toy away and I am mad.” 

Three variables can underlie a child’s growing ability to label emotions: 1) the child’s temperament and developmental status, 2) parental socialization and support at home and school, and 3) the teacher and childcare providers’ emphasis on emotional literacy by giving a meaning to each child’s feelings or emotions. Indeed, differences in the way adults talk to and teach children about feelings and problem-solving are related to children’s abilities to label emotions. A parent who uses terms that children can easily relate to grows emotional literacy the fastest such as “I know it’s raining today, and you wanted to go to the park. I wanted to go to the park, too, and I see you and I are sad. Let’s read a story about what ducks do in the rain to make us happy.”

Why is expressing emotions important for a child’s growth? Children who have a strong foundation in emotional literacy are healthier, have more friends, are less impulsive, remain more focused, and demonstrate greater academic achievement. The development of “feeling words” is important because it allows children to better name and understand their emotional experiences: happy, hurt, mad, sad, silly, etc.

The ability to name feelings allows children to discuss and reflect with others (older children and adults) about their personal experiences of the world. The larger a child’s emotional vocabulary, the finer discriminations they can make between feelings, and ultimately, they are better able to communicate with others about their emotions and possible problems. While several underlying processes contribute to a child’s ability to understand and regulate emotions, parents and caregivers can make a meaningful difference by emphasizing emotions throughout daily routines.

Activities that families can do include labeling their feelings throughout the day in front of children. Observe children and label their feelings as they experience them. Talk about feelings displayed by characters in children’s books, on television, or in videos. Encourage children to feel a range of emotions and teach them healthy ways to express them. Play games and sing songs involving feelings, such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Don’t forget to reinforce children’s efforts to express their feelings in healthy ways.

For more information on free parent/child Play to Learn Playgroups and parent learning courses, reach out to the Danbury Public Schools’ Family and Community Engagement Center at 49 Osborne St, Danbury, or call 203-797-4734.

This article was written in part by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

Anne E. Mead, Ed. D. is the Director of Family, School, and Community Partnerships for Danbury Public Schools. She can be reached at 203-830-6508 or by email at