Working with middle schoolers is hard and getting them to talk about their emotions can seem impossible. It’s hard age with hormones going crazy. For the kids I have worked with, throwing in a mental illness doesn’t make life any easier. As I worked with kids in group counseling, I was surprised that most of my clients struggled identifying emotions and expressing them in a positive way.
Working as a counselor in a middle school, most of my clients have major anger issues. After Winter Break, the principal asked my co-worker and I to do a series on anger management for our clients to reduce violent outbursts. During my counseling internship, I had conducted two adult anger management groups, so I created packets from that programs for our kids. The sessions went well, but the kids struggled with “I-statements” and taking responsibility for how their emotions influence their behavior and consequences.
At this particular middle school, the grades represented were fourth through eighth graders. I had worked most of the year with 11-13 year olds, but I had a 4th grader (we’ll call him John) added to my caseload towards the end of the year. Because of his age, we didn’t think he was mature enough to attend the group counseling sessions with the older kids, so I met with this student individually. I wanted to incorporate the anger management theme into my individual sessions with John. Because I didn’t really know him, I decided to start with identifying emotions in general. I wrote this statement on the whiteboard (this can also be written on sheet of paper, but you will probably need a page per emotion). Because of the popularity of the film Inside Out, I used the emotions identified in that film:
When the older kids saw the board, they wanted to know more about it. We ended up focusing the remainder anger management sessions on identifying emotions. Even though we thought that the older kids would say this is “baby stuff,” they really opened up and shared within groups. Many of them struggled to explain their emotions. As we worked through each emotion, we realized that our kids had only been talked to about expressing and managing their anger, and they really struggled in expressing all of their emotions in a positive way.
Identifying Emotions- Let’s break it down.
To start, circle the emotion of the day and ask the kids how they express that emotion. Here is an example of what the whiteboard will look like:
Make an “I”-statement.
Most of the kids I work with struggle with taking responsibility for their actions and making “I’ statements. When we got to Disgust in individual sessions, John immediately told me “I don’t feel that.” So, my second question would always be “how do you know if your friend is disgusted?” He said “they scrunch up their face like this” and made a disgusted face. Kids will always talk about their friend’s business. We drew a face of what that emotion looks like and how they can tell when their friend is experiencing a particular emotion.
Then, we ask again “What do you do when you feel this way?” After talking about others first and brainstorming, we always got an “I-statement.” If they don’t mention it themselves, question three is “have you ever gotten in trouble because you were ______?” For every emotion, there was a behavior that had gotten them in trouble. For joy, running and screaming in the hallways- “I was just happy!”
Then, underline the behaviors that had negative consequences and ask them “what could you do instead?” Those responses go in the third column.
Quick note on anger
Because anger is a secondary emotion, it never shows up on it’s own. Most of the time, anger is covering up fear, disgust, and/or sadness. It’s important to help kids not only identify anger, but identify what is behind their anger. Even in the movie Inside Out, Anger is never by himself.
Building on the Emotions Framework
This post was one of my first on feelings and development, but we’ve taken this identifying emotions post and expanded with additional resources. Check out these posts from my feelings curriculum:
We finished the series by watching Inside Out at our end-of-year party and a final discussion on feelings. (Questions are available here!) To illustrate how anger can cover up other emotions, I got red SOLO cups to represent anger with blue and purple kool-aid to represent sadness and fear.
Next step: Coping Skills
After working on identifying feelings, kids need to learn to cope and express their feelings in a positive way. Check out my posts on grounding strategies, deep breathing, anxiety in children, Simon Says Yoga, stories that teach life lessons, and Youtube coping skills videos for more resources!
Have any other suggestions for teaching kids about identifying emotions? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to pin!