Everyone has emotions. We also want the kids we work with to be able to regulate their emotions. But how do we get them to really understand what emotions are? Today’s topic is all about teaching kids to identify their emotions. Because, by definition, emotions are internal. So we can’t really see how someone’s feeling. And we’re judging it based on what their face looks like. Since everyone’s reactions are different, and everyone’s emotions feel different, how is that observable or measurable?
The answer is, they aren’t. Not really. But we do our best to teach emotions using pictures to help the kids we work with understand how to gauge emotions in other people. And how to understand emotions in themselves. If they can understand their own emotions, then we can help them work towards some sort of emotional regulation. Also, if we can help them understand what emotions look like in others, that’s a huge social skill. This helps students relate to other people, to identify when someone’s upset or hurt, or frustrated, and be able to talk about their own emotions. So instead of just acting out, they’re able to express, “I feel really frustrated,” or “I’m anxious right now,” or “I’m upset,” or “I’m really happy.”
How to Teach Kids to Identify Their Emotions
A lot of the kids we work with have more external emotions. They often don’t realize that they’re frustrated until there’s an eruption or an overreaction to something. And so what we’re trying to do with teaching them the emotions is, for example, “when your body does this, or you feel like you’re a volcano about to erupt, that’s actually called frustration.” If we can give them a label for the emotion, then we can start to help them identify how their own behavior, and their feelings, are connected.
It’s so key to be able to label those emotions in themselves. So when they have those big emotions, we can recognize what those emotions are and give them the label for it. But the problem with that is, many of our kids with autism need hundreds of trials before they really conceptualize what something is. Our hope is that the kids we work with don’t have hundreds of opportunities to be frustrated. That would just be awful.
Teaching Students to Identify Emotions with Pictures
So we do start with pictures. We start by picking two or three emotions at a time. Simple ones like happy, sad, and angry. Then we get students to sort pictures of different faces into categories. Adults, children, and different types of people. Next, they receptively identify those pictures and then label them. And ultimately, before moving on to a new set, students act out those emotions and pair those new labels that they’ve learned with their own feelings and behavior.
So it might just start by helping your students receptively and expressively identify emotions and then when you have an opportunity where you see that their bodies are actually looking happy, you can tell them and label it for them. “It looks like you’re feeling happy.” This is just starting to pair that language in the natural environment.
In the movie Temple Grandin, the actress Claire Danes as Temple Grandin talks about how she learned new materials by sorting into piles and piles. Learning emotions for her was a lot of sorting into different piles. She was then able to take those pictures and find the commonality within them and the situations behind the pictures. These are not just pictures of somebody smiling with a blank background.
We always talk about teaching across operants. With emotions, this is so huge. So instead of having just a matches program, or a sorting emotions program, make sure it all comes together so that they can really conceptualize what that is. Have your students sort the pictures, identify what’s in the picture, label them, and then do it in the natural environment. You don’t have to do them one at a time, either. You can do it all at once to really try and get into all the different angles of these emotions.
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Teaching Kids to Identify Their Emotions in the Natural Environment
The other thing we recommend is to get pictures of the student or of people that they know. You could get cartoon images or stock photos, but pictures of people that are familiar to them are ideal. The pictures should be of people showing emotions with a natural background and with some context. For instance, a picture of something broken on the floor and someone looking really sad about it, because emotions don’t happen out of context, use those to do sorting and identification activities with your student.
I had a parent once who actually made a happy book, a sad book, and an angry book. Different books for different emotions. It was incredible. This is a physical book that a child could flip through and together with a parent or professional identify the emotions. You can also do that virtually with an app, or just your photos on your phone. You can make different albums. One for sad, one for happy, etc. Have your student flip through it and talk about the emotions that way as well.
Teach Beyond Basic Emotions
And think about going beyond the happy, sad, and angry. Our kids are complex, so you can talk about being frustrated, confused, lonely, or excited. As much as they experience those they could be taught to label them. We typically start with the easy ones first, but once your student understands the basic emotions don’t close the emotions programming. Really think of emotions on a continuum. Sure you’re happy. But are you a little bit happy, ecstatic? Are you nervous, anxious, or frustrated? Really frustrated, incredibly upset? Come up with a whole bunch of terms. Even write them on some type of thermometer so that kids learn that there’s more than just the word happy or excited. There are a lot of different terminologies that you can use for those emotions.
And if your student has a lot of language, you could also take it to the next level. They could talk from personal experience about the things that make them feel happy or sad. You can look at some pictures and say, why do you think this person is feeling happy? Or why do you think this person is feeling sad? This builds in so many other goals to help them take those emotions to the next level while also referring to them constantly in their regular day. That situational-based learning is massive.
So, yes, we use pictures to teach emotions, but you want to generalize it to situations as much as possible. That’s really going to hit home so your students can start to understand that this feeling inside of me that’s not observable or measurable, is what they call “happy.”
So today, we talked about the importance of teaching emotions. How to teach it in sets of two or three familiar emotions through sorting, identification, and talking about those emotions. And the most important part is really that generalization and using real-life pictures and real-life examples to help them understand the connection between their behaviors and their feelings.
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