Social-Emotional Learning: Identifying Emotions in Others


In a recent article, I focused on an essential aspect of EI (emotional intelligence): being able to accurately identify one’s emotions.  This article addresses why and how to teach young people to attune to others’ emotional states – social-emotional learning.

Identifying and managing our own emotions is essential to our personal well-being and happiness. Accurately identifying others’ emotions is essential to our social well-being and happiness. The ability to pick up on others’ emotions helps us manage, communicate, and collaborate with them more effectively. Put simply, it enables us to get along better with people in general. The inability or non-conscious choice not to identify how people are feeling can easily lead to conflict and problems. When I was teaching middle school, I noticed this skill deficit in a number of my students. During my first year or two supervising the middle school cafeteria during lunch (I did this for eleven years), students who were the most challenging to manage were often those who didn’t accurately read other students’ emotions, or mine.

I remember when a particularly aggressive 7th grader who seemed to enjoy intimidating his peers, did not get the usual immediate compliance when he told a smaller boy to get out of his chair in the cafeteria: “Get outta my seat, runt.” It was obvious to me that the smaller boy, Sebastian, was paralyzed by fear and humiliation. When Sebastian didn’t move, Jason erupted.  “Who do you think you are, you scrawny little wimp!” he shouted as he started to push him out of his chair. Talking to Jason afterwards, it became clear that he had misinterpreted Sebastian’s fear, erroneously perceiving it as a challenge. As Goleman writes in Emotional Intelligence,  “Schoolyard bullies . . . often strike out in anger because they misinterpret neutral messages and expressions as hostile” (1995, p 271). I arranged for Jason to have lunch with me for the next week, during which I gave him some special tutoring in identifying feelings in others and self-control.

Because I worked on having a friendly (not buddy) relationship with students, some students misperceived me as being permissive. Therefore, sometimes when I addressed their inappropriate behavior, they would think I was “just kidding.”  I occasionally had to say to them something like, “Look at my face. Listen to my voice. Hear my words. I am not kidding. Stop playing hacky sack on the stairs. Now.”  While most students are pretty good at picking up on “the teacher look” (or voice), there are many who seem to be emotionally visually and hearing impaired. This unawareness of others’ feeling states can have a wide range of unfortunate and unintended consequences, from getting in trouble at school to damaging the important relationships in our lives.

What follows are some meetings, activities, and resources to help students gain insight into others’ feelings and learn to attune their behavior to them.

Class Meeting: You can use class meetings to introduce the topic of  “Identifying Emotions in Others.”  I encourage you to have the students sit in a circle and use a Kooshball, talking stick, or other device to designate the speaker.  I typically use the “Define, Personalize, Challenge” format for the discussion prompts.


Today we’re going to discuss the importance of being able to identify emotions in others. I don’t think we have any terms that need to be defined, but we might need to consider whose feelings it would be important to identify and where it is important to identify emotions.

1)    Whose emotions would it be important to identify and why?

2)    Why would it be important to identify people’s feelings at home? At school?  At work?

3)    Where else might it be useful to identify emotions?


1)    Let’s take the primary emotions: love, anger, fear, sadness, and joy. How would someone know when you are feeling those feelings?  What does your face look like?  What does your body (posture, gestures, etc.) look like?    (Take each of these emotions and have students discuss, show, and  model them). If you have a drama department at your school, see if you can get some students to come to class or create a video demonstrating facial expressions of various emotions.

2)    Can we always read someone’s emotions from their face or body language?

3)    Are there times you put on a “social mask,” so to speak and try to hide your feelings? Why?

4)    When you are feeling _________, what kind of behavior do you want or need from others?


1)    How can we use what we’ve discussed today about identifying others’ emotions?

2)    How might what we discussed today benefit you?

Direct Instruction: You might want to show your students some examples of the primary facial expressions. I suggest you visit DataFace. Click on the “Emotions” tab, go to the bottom of the page, and click on “Emotion Expressions” at the bottom of the page and you will learn the general characteristics of each expression.

Practice Identifying Facial Expressions

The Feeling Game:  For younger students or students who have a greater need for identifying emotions from facial expressions, there are several website dedicated to helping them. One is Here children can practice identifying facial expressions and receive immediate feedback.

Feeling Flashcards: Go to Download feeling flashcards to help your elementary students practice. You might try using the Inside-Outside Circle structure, students swapping cards after each drill.

Create your own Feelings Match Game: This game can be used with any age group.

1. Materials:  Invite your students to bring in magazines from home. The more variety the better; news magazines, sports, health, music, etc. Cut out or have students cut out pictures of people (trying to avoid including the setting the picture was taken in) expressing a variety of emotions. Matte the pictures and laminate them, if possible. Then create a simple playing area by printing the following emotions on card stock and spreading them out on a table top for a small group, or on the floor in the center of a class meeting: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, and Love.

2. Procedure: Individually (or in small groups) students discuss each facial expression and place it near the emotion they think it best fits. Older students might be encouraged to identify the secondary or tertiary emotion expressed. Then the class should share and discuss their answers. What is it about the facial expression that suggests that emotion? Is there any body language involved? What strength, on a scale of one to ten, is the person feeling this emotion?  Is there another name for that feeling?

Other Non-Verbal Messages:

Body Language

Direct Instruction:  Explain that only a small percentage of the messages we send when we interact with others is through the words we choose. Our facial expressions say a lot. So do our bodies – through posture and gestures. Demonstrate, or have students or another adult you’ve rehearsed with, show posture and gestures communicate messages by non-verbally showing:

Sadness                             Fear

Excitement                        Contentment

Anger                                 Confidence

Impatience                        Exhaustion

Illness                                 Confusion

Acting 101:

As a large group, have students demonstrate, using only their facial expressionand gestures, the feelings or moods you call out. Call out each of the following (or others) and give them some time to act out the emotion or mood:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Scared
  • Angry
  • Impatient
  • Proud
  • Worried
  • Frustrated
  • Puzzled
  • Thrilled
  • Exhausted
  • Etc.

Variation:  Give individual students cards with emotions listed on them. Have them act out the emotion for 10 seconds. (Tell the audience not to blurt out the emotion,) After the time is up or the actor is through, ask students, “What emotion ____ is expressing?” and “What gave it away.”

Variation 2: For younger students, give each student a set of index cards with the primary emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, and Love – one emotion per card. Act out an emotion for up to 10 seconds, then say, “What’s my emotion?” and have the students hold up the card with the emotion they think you are expressing. Again, ask them what gave it away.


Another aspect of non-verbal communication is proximity, the distance one person is from another during a conversation. You might hold a class meeting about proximity, in which you do some direct instruction as you go.

Class Meeting: “Proximity”


1. Explain that proximity is the distance between people in different situations.

2. Do different situations call for different proximity? Can you give some examples? (Their answers might include: friends are more comfortable being closer than acquaintances; people at a crowded concert of movie theater are more comfortable being close than people in a restaurant; girls are more comfortable being close than boys, except in contact sports; informal social conversation is comfortable at a greater distance than an intimate conversation between good friends or a couple.)


1. Have you ever been in a conversation where you felt uncomfortable because the person you were talking to was too close?  Too far away?  (You might bring up the close-talker segment of Seinfeld, if students remember the show.)

2. How might proximity affect the way you perceive someone’s emotions or intentions?


1. What do you think is a good rule of thumb is for conversational proximity? (In America and northern Europe, about an arm’s length is generally considered comfortable for friendly acquaintances. You might mention that in other cultures, closer or more distant proximity may be the norm. If you have students from other cultures, ask them to share their perceptions of proximity.)

Tone of Voice:

Direct Instruction:  Explain how important tone of voice is to communication. Demonstrate this by using the same phrase and achieving several different meanings simply by changing your tone of voice. You might use the phrase, “I really love riding my brother’s bike to school in the rain.”  Say it:

1)    Sincerely

2)    Sarcastically

  • With the accent on “love.”
  • With the accent on “school.”
  • With the accent on ”in the rain.”

3)    Enthusiastically

  • With the accent on “really love.”
  • With the accent on “my brother’s.
  • With the accent on “in the rain.”

4)    As a question

5)    With no energy at all.

6)    Any other way you can change the meaning.

Discuss all the variations of meaning that can come from the same 12 words. You might have students try it with a partner, using the phrase, “I really like watching news on TV.”

Ask a few talented actors to demonstrate the different meanings they can achieve through tone of voice alone.

These activities are fun for most children and adolescents, they build positive relationships between you and the young people you spend time with, and they improve relationships among the kids themselves.  While these benefits are important, if the discussions and activities above are not integrated into the classroom, family, or group on an ongoing and intentional basis, their full potential will not become reality.  Think about how emotional and social intelligence can become an ongoing theme in your classroom, organization, or home.  Discussions, curriculum, and projects can almost always be based on or integrate a human emotional dimension.  Over time, taking feelings into consideration in every interaction becomes a habit. And all the benefits that accompany being a considerate person, ranging from an increased sense of self-worth to improved human relationships, become a reality.