We can only work to express and regulate our emotions if we are able to recognize them in real-time and understand how they affect our thoughts and behavior. This is the same for kids.

Many people – both kids and adults – find it difficult to recognize emotions as they are feeling them. By working to draw attention to how kids are feeling in the moment, we can create a mental habit of doing a self-check and adjust our thoughts and behaviors based on how we feel – before our emotions get the best of us. 

  • For younger children, the process starts when they learn how to recall past situations and identify the emotions they were experiencing at that time. It can be difficult for them to step back and recognize their current emotions at first, especially difficult emotions like anger, sadness or fear. When young kids are in these moments, they often don’t want to take a break to talk about feelings. Adults can help by labeling the emotion in the moment, and then having conversations about recent experiences to help them form a habit of recognizing and naming their emotions.
  • Preschool- and Elementary-aged children benefit from having others help them identify emotions, when possible. Adults can help them focus on recognizing emotions they are feeling in the moment and how they affect behavior. At first, the adults need to do most of the work, but over time, you will notice children start to recognize their emotions earlier and can start to take action.
    • To get this process started, adults can label the emotion: “It looks like you're feeling _______ right now. I can tell because ________.” This also highlights the fact we have signs to let other people know how we are feeling. Describing behaviors, facial expressions, tone of voice or body language helps you identify how they are feeling.

Enact Empowerment!

These activities will help you teach children how to recognize their emotions in the moment, which allows them to use better communication, expression and coping skills, when necessary.



1. Mood meter (elementary):

Use the mood meter as a daily (or multiple times daily) check-in at home or school. Use magnets, laminate for a dry erase, or paperclips to let kids tell you how they are feeling in that moment. If it changes, encourage them to move their marker as well. As they get better at recognizing their emotions, have them be more specific about where they fall on the mood meter. Higher up equals more energy and further to the right means more positive or pleasant.

Positive High Energy Mood Meter
Positive Low Energy Mood Meter
Negative Low Energy Mood Meter
Negative High Energy Mood Meter

2. Portraits of Emotions (elementary and middle school):


  • Paper
  • Markers/Crayons


  1. Have children draw a picture of a recent time when they experienced a certain emotion. Even though the situation and emotion might be in the past, it helps to tie them together and look back to identify how they were feeling. The more children practice this, the more likely they are to recognize their emotions in the present.
  2. Talk with them about the situation they drew and what the experience was like for them. If there was a troublesome emotion associated, talk about how they managed the feeling at that time and whether there is something they would do differently next time.
  3. Adults can also help kids recognize certain situations where they tend to experience a particular emotion, like when they see a good friend (happy/excited), when they get dropped off at school (nervous/worried), or when a sibling takes a toy from them (angry/mad). This will help them recognize these emotions sooner in the future and you can create a plan of action if there are negative emotions or behaviors.

3. Written prompts (late elementary and middle school):

On Our Sleeves PDF Thumbnail

This is like an emotional matching exercise, but with no right or wrong answers

This activity helps children recognize, express and regulate their feelings depending on the situation.


JoAnn and On Our Sleeves

The Fill in the Feelings daily emotion journal activity is brought to you by our partners at JOANN. JOANN is partnering with On Our Sleeves to help improve mental wellness for children and their families through creative expression opportunities, raising funds in their stores and bringing visibility to resources.

Fill in the Feelings by JOANN

4. Fill in the Feelings daily emotion journal (middle school):

Have your children keep a daily emotion journal where they write about, draw or otherwise think about the emotions they are feeling in that moment and what they have experienced throughout the day. 

5. Music that evokes certain moods (all ages):

People have been using music in many forms to create or modify their moods for thousands of years. Adults do this all the time, sometimes choosing music that matches a mood they want to maintain, other times choosing a song they know will help cheer them up or relax them before bed.

This exercise helps children think about the way that emotions can be conveyed in many ways and to recognize how certain songs make them feel. Use the On Our Sleeves empowering playlist or find your own favorite jingles. After listening to a song, ask your child to describe how that song made them feel. You can even write it down and keep a list to refer back to when facing different situations or experiences.

For a challenge with older children, try using instrumental music and have them think of what emotion the artist is trying to portray. This works for other forms of art, like painting or fashion. After they listen to the songs, have them draw a picture about the emotion in the song. Talk with them about whether the song changed their mood while listening.

On Our Sleeves Mental Health Resource

Download all of the Step 2: Recognizing Emotions Emotional Empowerment Activities
Get PDF copies of the On Our Sleeves Mood Meter, Writing Prompts, and JOANN's Daily Emotion Journal instructions.