Teaching children about understanding and managing emotions

The RSE curriculum states that all pupils need to be taught about mental wellbeing. What does this mean in practice? Kelly Hannaghan shares ways to teach pupils about recognising and understanding emotions

Author details

Kelly Hannaghan is a wellbeing consultant, public speaker and writer, passionately promoting positive mental health and wellbeing of all stakeholders in education. You can find Kelly on...

What does the RSE guidance mean for schools in terms of mental wellbeing?

Pupils need to understand that their mental health is just as important as their physical health.

They should be given the knowledge and vocabulary to understand a range of emotions to understand and articulate how they feel, develop the language to talk about their physical and emotional health and judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is appropriate and proportionate for the situations they experience.

(Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, p.32)

Self-regulation skills

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviour. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations and to handle frustration without an outburst.

It is a set of skills that enables children to direct their own behaviour towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings.

How can these skills be taught in the classroom?

  • Yoga: teachers have successfully used yoga in class as a way to calm the body and mind in a stress-relieving activity.
  • Regular sensory or ‘brain’ breaks. These breaks are particularly helpful for pupils who are easily distracted or hyperactive. Giving children regular breaks throughout the day allows their brains to shift focus and reduce stress and anxiety, making it easier to focus on their work.
  • Self-esteem sessions: sessions that focus on building confidence are essential to a child’s development, allowing them to become more resilient when faced with any challenges life throws at them.
  • Check-in boards for children to self-reflect how they are feeling (see below).
  • Calm down kits that include objects to respond to sensory needs.
  • Mindful breathing activities to help reduce stress and anxiety, increase concentration and develop problem-solving skills.

Emotional intelligence

As part of my role as wellbeing leader at Lessness Heath, I make it a priority to teach children from a young age how to regulate their emotions. 

This begins with helping our pupils identify with a wide range of emotions and building their emotional intelligence. We talk about what wellbeing means to individuals and start from where they are.

Every classroom in our school has a wellbeing display with emotional vocabulary, along with check-in systems for pupils to place their name next to an emotion, self-reflect and develop their knowledge around mental health and wellness. As well as basic emotions like happy and sad, children are taught more complex words including:

  • excited
  • frustrated
  • surprised
  • embarrassed
  • nervous 
  • worried
  • astonished.


When a child can verbally describe how they feel, they are less likely to show frustration through behaviour.

Being emotionally intelligent also helps children to read how other people are feeling and know how to respond appropriately, strengthening their ability to create and maintain friendships. 

Pupil voice and interventions

Collecting pupil voices around their struggles and needs is vital to supporting emotional wellbeing. 

I collect pupil data in the form of wellbeing surveys twice a year and then act upon this information by offering purposeful interventions including early help and preventative measures.

By offering interventions around emotional learning, pupils will develop a clear understanding of their emotional triggers and gain strategies to self-regulate.

Being emotionally intelligent helps children to read how other people are feeling and know how to respond appropriately

Children with ADHD or anxiety may find it particularly challenging to manage their emotions and need more help to develop emotional regulation skills.

Some of our interventions include:

• Life skills group: structured group sessions for pupils to gain important life skills.
MindUP lessons: whole-class mindfulness lessons to help pupils understand how the brain works.
Play therapy sessions: to help children process overwhelming feelings.
Drawing and talking sessions: drawing methods that encourages each side of a child’s brain to work together to process difficult or painful memories by combining drawing, a right-brained activity, and talking, a left-brained activity.
• Me and my body: PSHE lessons to support children to have positive body image and gain knowledge to be media savvy.
• Chill out club: lunch time support for vulnerable pupils teaching the value of positive relationships.
• Therapeutic art club: group activities for pupils to gain skills for emotional literacy.
• Daily check ins: whole-class emotional check in processes.
Character education: whole-school education that nurtures and promotes the ethical, intellectual, social and emotional development of individuals.

For guidance on putting together your own wellbeing survey, see Lessness Heath's example powerpoint. 

For more information regarding these measuring tools, contact Kelly via khannaghan@lessnessheath.bexley.sch.uk​.

Wellbeing ambassadors

Pupils learn better from other pupils, another reason why it's so important to teach pupils skills around emotional wellbeing.

At Lessness Heath, our wellbeing ambassadors are the driving voice for change. Simply put, they are the advocates for wellbeing.

These pupils have show a real interest in championing positive mental health, have been trained and deployed throughout the school and are keen to share their learning around mental health and advertise the importance of self-care.

The ambassadors have a responsibility for leading and promoting wellbeing throughout the school and release the stigma around talking about challenging feelings and encourage people to talk. Wellbeing ambassadors also provide feedback on what’s working well and highlight any gaps in whole-school approaches to wellbeing.

For more information on recruiting your own wellbeing ambassadors, take a look at the Wellbeing Connected website.

Involve parents and carers

The role of parents/carers in the development of their children’s understanding about relationships is vital. Parents are the first teachers of their children and have the most significant influence in enabling their children to grow and mature and to form healthy relationships.  

At Lessness Heath we currently run emotional coaching sessions for parents/carers. The feedback we get from these sessions is that parents feel supported and there is a consistency between home and school emotional learning.

By offering interventions around emotional learning, pupils will develop a clear understanding of their emotional triggers and gain strategies to self-regulate

When both children and parents/carers have been coached in their emotions, children:

  • are more resilient
  • are more emotionally stable
  • achieve more academically.

Further mental health guidance

Teaching children and young people that all emotions are normal is vital in order to release the stigma around talking about mental health.

However, it's equally important to help pupils identify where to get help with overwhelming feelings that they are unable to process.

Last Updated: 
26 Mar 2020