Why Your Students Need a Better Emotional Vocabulary

Two years ago, Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, PA was in a lot of trouble. As one of the state’s “lowest-performing, poorest and most diverse schools” where “92 percent of children are economically disadvantaged and 87 percent are minorities,” the community around Broughal Middle was trying to create change to no avail. Two years later, the school is a success story that was recently featured in U.S. News & World Report. So, what changed?

The students and staff began using a different vocabulary.

Speaking the Language of Emotion

We realized: “kids that live in this constant, chaotic, hurtful, frightening environment, they are stuck in that survival mode, [and] so [their] stress hormones are going all the time,” Beth Tomlinson, director of education for the local United Way, said. “[This stress] literally changes the way the brain develops.”

In partnership with the United Way, Broughal Middle began to implement changes in the way they handled student behavior. One of the first practices implemented was a new language when gauging student emotions.

“Staff and students alike commonly shout out numbers meant to gauge their mental health: ‘I’m a three’ means it is a good day. I’m calm and ready to learn. But if you’re a six, you might need to go visit the peace corner [a quiet space reserved for stressed students] before you’re ready to learn.” When a student slips into what they call “the red zone” (7-10) this means that immediate action needs to be taken. The school even staffs a mental health professional on campus to work with these students.

What I celebrate about the example of Broughal Middle school is their realization that behavioral issues and low classroom engagement are often not caused by the students themselves but are rather a result of traumatic events in a young person’s life. Once the staff and faculty members of a school realize this truth, they can teach their students to communicate what is really going on. In a moment of personal trauma or upheaval, a student’s “emotional literacy” can be the difference between getting the help they need and getting sent to the principal’s office.

What Is “Emotional Literacy?”

In their reported findings on the importance of possessing an emotional vocabulary, Dr. Joseph Gail and Philip Strain define a term that all students need: “emotional literacy.” “Emotional literacy,” they note, “is the ability to recognize, label, and understand feelings in one’s self and others.” This essential life skill is often lacking in students today and is even disproportionally lacking in some specific student populations. “Children with disabilities and children from low-income families,” for instance, “have more limited feeling vocabularies than their typically developing and middle-income peers.”

Why is emotional literacy so important? “In order to act upon the social environment in ways that are collectively supportive and rewarding,” they note, “it is first necessary for children to read the affective cues of others and of themselves. Discriminating among affective states such as anger, sadness, frustration, and happiness requires a vocabulary of feeling words. Like other forms of literacy, the richer the vocabulary, the more rewarding the experiences.” In other words, while it is important to be able to communicate with numbers, like in the case of the Broughal students, it’s even better to have words for the moment too.

Think about the difference between the words angry and frustrated. The ability of 7th-grade students to delineate between these two words with their teachers in an emotional moment could change the action a teacher takes. When students are angry, they might need to take a moment to calm down in a quiet environment. When students are frustrated, they likely don’t have clarity on what they are supposed to be doing with their assignment.

Of course, not only is it helpful for students to have an emotion-related vocabulary when talking to their teachers, coaches, or parents, it can also be helpful in their interactions with peers. In the “absence of feeling words,” Gail and Strain found, students “often interpret the behavior of others as intentionally hurtful and eventually act out in ways that invariably lead to social isolation and stigmatization.” I wonder how many “feuds” between teenage students could be avoided simply through increased clarity in communication when adults aren’t around?

Increasing Our Student’s Emotion-Based Vocabulary in the Classroom

We know students need a robust emotion-related vocabulary, but how do we help them build it? Let’s discuss a few methods you can use to easily build a greater emotion-based vocabulary in your students.

In their report, “Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children,” Gail and Strain make clear that the foundation of a robust emotional vocabulary is the relationship between an adult and a student. “For emotional vocabulary teaching to be effective, adults must first spend the time necessary to build positive relationships with children. Within this foundational context of a warm and responsive relationship with children, teachers can maximize their influence to enhance emotional vocabulary.” Especially as we return to school this fall in the wake of a pandemic, it is deeply necessary that teachers take time to build these essential connections with students.

With teachers modeling the way, it is important to begin using emotion-related words in regular conversations in the classroom. Using a check-in system with numbers, words, and/or emojis is a great way to do this. Some teachers will begin each class period by asking students to hold up a number that represents how they are feeling. Others ask their students to share a number and an emotional word. A more robust model like Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions can be even more useful for helping students find the right words for how they are feeling. Once this baseline of emotional vocabulary is set, teachers can use these words in regular interactions with students. “You seem distracted today, Jamal,” a teacher might say. “Is that the right word you would use to describe your feelings?”

While it is important that students are aware of and can communicate their own emotions, it is also essential for students to be able to recognize emotions in others and communicate with them as well. Utilize a scenario exercise to build this skill in your students. Give them a scenario in which there is a conflict with a peer or adult, and ask how they would respond. Next, change the emotion of the person in the scenario and then ask students to discuss how they would adjust their reactions and words for the situation. A student may respond differently, for instance, to a peer who is sad than to one who is playful, even if the situation is unchanged. After the activity, talk about how the emotions of others should change the way we engage with them. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, Broughal Middle School is now a success story. In fact, “two years later, the number of failing students has dropped from 12 percent to 7 percent and the number of office discipline referrals plummeted by 39 percent. The average student GPA rose from 2.17 to 2.51 and out-of-school suspensions dropped by nearly 17 percent.”


I believe this can be the story of your school too. This kind of change can happen in any school where adults choose to lead their students differently and begin helping them speak the language of emotion.

Why Your Students Need a Better Emotional Vocabulary