Teaching emotional literacy in reception year

Written by: Neil Henty | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The reception year comes in the middle of two key transition points when anxiety and other emotions can threaten to overwhelm some children. Neil Henty discusses the importance of promoting emotional literacy in the reception year

All children need to feel supported and nurtured. When their needs are met, they are more likely to thrive. One of the most powerful ways of supporting children is to help them to develop their emotional intelligence and emotional literacy.

Having the ability to articulate feelings and emotions forms an important foundation of how pupils will develop as they get older.

What is emotional literacy?

The term emotional intelligence was popularised in the 1990s by American psychologist Daniel Goleman. His work was based on the work of Peter Salovey and John D Mayer (Mukadam, 2021).

Emotional intelligence and emotional literacy are often used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle but important difference. While both can refer to the ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions:

  • Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s overall ability to deal with their emotions.
  • Emotional literacy refers to a person’s ability to communicate or express their emotions through words and also to be able to “read them in others”.

Goleman identified five elements: self-awareness; self-regulation; motivation; empathy; social skills. He suggested that developing all five elements of emotional intelligence would help children to become emotionally literate.

Lulu Luckock, a social and emotional learning consultant working in early years settings and primary schools, offers the following definition: “Emotional literacy involves learning the skills that we use to interpret our emotions; it helps us make sense of and communicate our feelings … and it starts with identifying and understanding feelings.”

Why is it important?

The reception year is book-ended by two key transition points in a child’s life. All children need support through transitions and not all of them will navigate such events comfortably or happily. Transitions can lead to anxiety and stress, affecting a child’s self-esteem, confidence and ability to learn. Supporting and developing children’s emotional literacy are powerful ways of helping them to manage their feelings and emotions.

While cognitive abilities have always been important for schools, Goleman suggests that only 20% of what makes someone successful in life is made up of IQ (Penfold, 2022) and, recommends, therefore, that it should not take precedence over emotional intelligence (EQ).

Developing emotional literacy builds confidence, self-awareness, a sense of self-worth and empathy. It also builds resilience in children and can give them the tools to thrive, be happy and confident.

Ms Luckock explained: “Teaching pupils specifically about their feelings is crucial for their success, both now and in the future. I believe that prevention is better than cure.

“When pupils in the reception year learn to understand, identify, and express their feelings in a healthy way they are given the ability to not only understand themselves better but also to be better understood.”

The Birth to Five Matters guidance (Early Years Coalition, 2021) suggests that understanding emotions is linked to children’s “potential to experience joy, be curious, wonder, face problems, and their ability to think and learn”.

Ms Luckock added: “Children need to be specifically taught how to navigate challenging times in order to build a toolkit of strategies that helps them grow their emotional competence and resilience. From the early years, pupils need to learn to understand themselves and each other better to realise that it’s their feelings that make them human and it’s what they do with them that matters.

“Children who grow up knowing that all their emotions have value give themselves permission to feel and process them, which provides them with a greater chance to succeed in all areas of their lives.”

The science behind emotional literacy

When we can name our feelings, we build a bridge between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, Ms Luckock explained.

She continued: “The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain whose job it is to protect us from danger, and which is triggered by threats; the cortical/cognitive/linguistic area of the brain is the part of the brain that does our logical thinking for us.

“When we bring these two parts of the brain together our brain starts to make sense of what’s happening and therefore makes better and wiser decisions. As Dr Dan Siegel says: ‘Name it to tame it.’

“When we can express how we feel using a nuanced feelings vocabulary we are better able to understand ourselves and regulate our reactions.”

What headteachers need to know

The Department for Education’s NPQH framework specifically states that headteachers should learn that “the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions affects pupils’ ability to learn, success in school and future lives”.

Emotional literacy and intelligence are more powerful than self-regulation alone and will have more influence on learning and future success.

Primary heads need to be aware of the transition between the EYFS and key stage 1 and the potential stresses this may cause children. In the reception year, emotional literacy and intelligence fall under the Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) prime area of learning. As a prime area, it is a fundamental building block of learning and development.

Supporting PSED will not only lead to more resilient, more confident and more adaptable children, but it will also help them achieve their academic goals. This, of course, benefits the school as well as the children. It makes sense, therefore, for heads to prioritise emotional literacy.

The Early Learning Goals for PSED include self-regulation, managing self, and building relationships. You can see how emotional intelligence and literacy are core.

For example, “show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others and begin to regulate their behaviour accordingly” under the Self-regulation goal. And “show sensitivity to their own and to others’ needs” under Building Relationships.

In key stage 1, PSED becomes PSHE. The DfE considers PSHE an “important and necessary part of all pupils’ education” and expects all schools to teach it. Heads, therefore, need to work with their senior leaders and classroom teachers to develop a pathway from the EYFS to key stage 1 that meets the needs of their children and helps equip them with the skills they need to become confident, and self-aware and empathetic children.

However, emotional intelligence is not just important for children. Emotionally literate senior leaders will be more attuned to their staff’s feelings and needs, they will also be more aware of their own emotions and how they affect their relationships with other people. More than that, emotionally intelligent teachers, “tend to motivate their students better and understand their students' behavioural and psychological wellbeing”. They can also be more sensitive towards their students “disruptive behaviours, academic performance and relationship management” (Nayyar Dham, 2019).

The key point here is that emotionally intelligent and literate staff are better able to support those same abilities in children.

Promoting emotional literacy in reception classrooms

Children are more likely to explore their emotions when they feel safe. By developing emotional intelligence and literacy in teaching staff and leaders, children are more likely to experience strong, warm and supportive relationships within which to develop their own emotional learning.

Teachers and practitioners should act as role-models by being emotionally present and available so that children learn how to express their emotions in a healthy way (Mukadam, 2021).

The following suggestions are given on the government’s Emotions advice and information webpage (see further information):

  • Reflect on your environment and daily routine, and how these support children and their emotions.
  • You may need to talk about the strong feelings that children may express with your colleagues or be aware of them if you are working on your own. How are you feeling about these and developing their understanding of the children’s feelings?
  • Create and keep visual prompts, to support children in expressing emotions through story-telling.
  • Practise potential steps, or a sample script, that could support children to manage their emotions. Share it with parents and carers.
  • Consider talking to others about how children’s emotional outbursts make you feel.
  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.

The non-statutory guidance for the EYFS, Development Matters (DfE, 2021) offers the following advice:

  • Encourage children to express their feelings if they feel hurt or upset using descriptive vocabulary. Help and reassure them when they are distressed, upset or confused.
  • Undertake specific activities that encourage talk about feelings and their opinions.

Feelings or emotions cards are one popular form of visual prompt. These can be used to help children to express and name their emotions.

Ms Luckock explained: “Cards have helped me to give pupils access to the emotional vocabulary they need to express the way they are feeling with better clarity.

“For example, recently, I was counselling a young girl using the cards and she was able to tell me that she was feeling anxious and worried. She was then able to share with me how that felt in her body in terms of comfort and pleasantness, she was able to share why she felt this way. I was then able to support her as she problem-solved to find strategies to help her regulate these feelings and manage the situations that make her feel that way.”

Ms Luckock uses FEELIT cards, from The Happy Confident Company. Then cards are part of a whole-school emotional literacy programme developed by Nadim Saad, a parenting and relationship coach, and influenced by Dr Jonathan Posner’s research (Posner et al, 2005).

Children select relevant cards that match their feeling or emotion. By selecting a card and naming the emotion or feeling the child accepts it as valid, and that emotions and feelings are energy states within the body that are impermanent. And the research shows that when you name an emotion you reduce its intensity. The key is not to suppress an emotion but to express it in a healthy way.

Mr Saad explained: “As humans, we are feeling creatures, and when we are connecting to our feelings we can better connect to others. More optimistic and happier people consistently do better, have better health and are more successful, and we don’t become happier by suppressing our emotions.”

He added: “Children miss out on so much if they avoid these unpleasant feelings. If you don’t access them, you cannot grow or connect with yourselves or others. The cards also help children to understand that feelings are transitional, that they affect their behaviours and that they have the power to shift, transform and regulate them whenever they choose.”

But it’s not just unpleasant feelings, to be fully emotionally intelligent and literate, it is important to help children express positive and happy feelings as well.


Supporting and developing emotional intelligence and literacy will result in happier, more confident, resilient, empathetic children who are more likely to fulfil or exceed their potential. This, in turn, can only benefit schools. There are two main avenues for achieving this: first, invest in the emotional intelligence and literacy of the school staff team and senior leaders; and second, invest in and provide appropriate environments and supporting resources.

  • Neil Henty is an education writer and the former editor of Early Years Educator and Childcare – sister magazines to Headteacher Update. Read his previous articles via http://bit.ly/htu-henty

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