What is Emotional Literacy?

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Emotional literacy is a concept underlying an individual’s understanding of emotions. At its most basic, it involves the ability to identify and label feelings in ourselves and others. In addition, emotional literacy incorporates the coping and expression of emotions in appropriate ways. The term is thought to have been coined by psychotherapist Claude Steiner. He describes emotional literacy as “the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively”.

He posited that emotional literacy has five parts:
  1. Knowing your feelings
  2. Having a sense of empathy
  3. Learning to manage your emotions
  4. Repairing emotional problems
  5. Emotional interactivity


Additionally, he believed that it was key to the formation of successful relationships, enhanced problem solving abilities, and improving overall quality of life. We mostly discuss emotional literacy in terms of children, but it has essential value across the lifespan.

It is important to note that many people use emotional intelligence and emotional literacy interchangeably, or at the very least, they have considerable overlap. Emotional intelligence may be an overall broader concept but it is made up of self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy, all critical aspects of emotional literacy. It is probably fair to say that emotional literacy is a building block of emotional intelligence and that the benefits of possessing emotional intelligence are shared with emotional literacy.

Why is it Important to Have Emotional Literacy?

To accurately measure the importance of emotional literacy, you have to think about the role emotional understanding and regulation play in all facets of our lives. If you can’t identify the emotions you are experiencing, you can’t properly understand your feelings or control your behavior. You are more likely to be frustrated and confused and express yourself inappropriately. That means more impulsive and destructive behavior as well as an inability to self-soothe. Problems with emotional literacy may lead to anger management issues and contribute to a lack of frustration tolerance. What’s more, if you are stuck in emotional turmoil, you can’t concentrate on school or work responsibilities, causing you to be less successful. And what happens when you are less successful? You become upset and act out. It is a vicious cycle.

Maybe most importantly, emotional literacy affects your relationships with other people. It allows you to accurately interpret other people’s feelings and act accordingly. That means you will get in fewer fights and are more likely to have friends and be popular. Additionally, if you can “read the room” that puts you at a major advantage in social and work situations. Emotional literacy is directly related to the development of empathy. Understanding how someone else may be feeling is essential to all interpersonal interaction. Further, people with empathy get along better with others and are viewed more kindly.

If you can’t identify and understand emotions you are at a severe disadvantage in life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people with emotional literacy are going to be happier and well-adjusted than those with emotional deficits.



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Challenges in the Development of Emotional Literacy

We are not born with emotional literacy. It needs to be developed over our lives. As with many aspects of development, however, if it does not emerge when we are young, there is a danger that it will never sufficiently develop. That is why there is such a focus on increasing emotional literacy as a child. Unfortunately, several factors may intercede to prevent its advancement:

One factor is biological. Some children have a difficult temperate that does not lend itself easily to introspection and regulation. Other children, such as those with developmental disabilities, simply don’t have the same aptitude to become emotionally literate. Another major factor is environmental: parental and family support. Do the people in your house promote the expression and identification of feelings? Many families are more detached and have problems showing their emotions. Other families have trouble regulating their feelings and have frequent arguments or problems with anger management. When you aren’t surrounded with emotional literacy it is much harder to develop. That makes what happens outside the home more important. And children spend most of their time outside the home at school. So, it begs the question: are teachers promoting emotional literacy? Although some teachers and child-care workers are aware of emotional literacy, it is not a topic that has received as much attention as some other aspects of development. As a result, it may not be promoted as much with children as would be necessary to make up for any deficits from their home life.

An additional problem is the nature of social interaction today. In today’s world, we are buried in our phones, tablets, and computers. We spend more time texting and on Zoom than we do in the same room. As a result, there is less opportunity to engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions with others. Overall, we are living in a less present society than in the last century.

Further, our expectations for boys and girls differ. Because of societal gender norms, there is the belief that boys and men should not express their emotions. Therefore, boys do not receive the same opportunities to develop emotional literacy, giving girls the advantage in understanding feelings and developing empathy.

Finally, children are busier than ever. Activities certainly have their advantages but a downside is that being so busy frequently prevents normal socialization. Remember when you were a kid and you had free time to hang out with friends? You talked to each other and devised your own activities. Now, children are lucky to have any significant unscheduled time. And when they do, they are often messaging each other from afar.


What Does the Research Say?

The research on emotional literacy and emotional intelligence points to its crucial role in life satisfaction.

The following are research results that illuminate its role in our success:



  • A common theme of emotional literacy is how it helps children succeed in school. Research findings suggest that emotional literacy prepares students for an optimal learning environment and increased academic success,



  • Students with emotional intelligence do better at school than peers who show less literacy; they exhibit higher grades and standardized test scores, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.


  • In addition, students with higher emotional intelligence appear better able to manage negative emotions, such as anxiety, boredom, and disappointment. Also, these students seem to better manage relationships with teachers, peers, and family. All of these strengths lead to better academic performance.


  • Children who have emotional literacy skills are better able to self-soothe which means they experience negative emotions for ashorter period of time.



  • Emotional literacy does not just help children. According to a 1994 follow-up study, emotional intelligence abilities were approximately four times more important than IQ in determining professional success.


  • Similar to what children find with academic success, adults find emotional understanding leads to several advantages with their jobs. Emotional intelligence has been found to have a positive impact on project success, job satisfaction, and trust.


  • Another example of how valuable emotional literacy can be to creativity in the work environment. Emotional intelligence is a critical factor in driving innovation and entrepreneurship.


  • Financial security makes all our lives easier. Luckily, emotional intelligence has a positive correlation with making money.


Resources for Teaching Emotional Literacy

There are numerous tools available to help people work on emotional literacy.

Here are some examples of the most effective resources and where to find them:
  • Emotion Faces are probably the most common tool used to promote emotional literacy. You can find them almost anywhere on the internet. They are simply worksheets with faces of different feelings. Below the face is the name of the emotion that is being illustrated. Clients are usually asked to use the faces to express how they feel. This helps them to both identify and label their feelings. Another variation of this concept is a list of emotions worksheet which lays out a variety of emotion words clients can identify with. An added element of emotion faces is emotion cards. In addition to the emotion face on each card, they ask a question about the pictured emotion that is meant to further understanding.

List of Emotions Download

  • Friendship Cards (FC) are a set of cards designed to help children understand feelings and appropriate responses in different situations. Generally, the cards are used in conjunction with stories or video clips on a chosen topic. They depict different feelings and possible responses to interpersonal problems. The cards are used to help children to understand feelings and explore why certain reactions are more appropriate than others. As a result, they learn the best ways to resolve conflict with others.


  • Emotion thermometers are another familiar resource to help clients understand their feelings. Although commonly used in anger management they can be used with any emotion. Feeling thermometers help people understand that emotions have different degrees of severity and some levels may be more adaptive than others.


  • Picture books are an effective way to help young children (or people with reading difficulties) understand emotions and how they affect interpersonal interaction. Any book with pictures will do, but there are many books created to illustrate feelings. A couple of examples of books that can serve this purpose are The Feeling Flower by Lean Dakroub and My Heart by Corinna Luyken.


  • Over the past 50 years, certain researchers have attempted to create theories of emotion. More specifically, they use their theories to identify all the main and secondary emotions, how they are categorized, and how they become interrelated. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and Ekmans’ Atlas of Emotions are two of these tools developed to describe feelings. They can be used with children and adults alike to identify emotions, further our understanding of how they are related, and figure out how they were created.


Websites With Emotional Literacy Resources

While the above tools are some of the most well-known to promote emotional literacy, the following websites have a lot of resources contained under one roof.

Therapist Aid is chock full of worksheets and activities related to emotions and emotional literacy. Some of the content is free but some requires a paid subscription.

Education.com has a bunch of free worksheets that focus on the development of emotional literacy and intelligence. Geared toward educators, it is free with signup.

Another site made by educators, Teachers Pay Teachers contains a variety of different exercises to teach emotional literacy. You have to pay for each activity separately but they are worth the money.

Psychpoint is a website that has worksheets for therapists working with emotional literacy and other issues. They have a particularly helpful worksheet that describes an art therapy mask project that will assist children  in the expression of their feelings. You can have limited worksheets for free but you will need to sign up for a subscription if you want to use their full library. This site is only for licensed therapists.

You may not think about emotional literacy and Pinterest in the same breath but it has a ton of feelings activities/worksheets and they are free. You just need to be on Pinterest.

Emotional literacy has far-reaching consequences. It has been linked to improved academic performance, work success, and satisfaction in personal relationships. Therefore, the development of emotional intelligence in our children becomes critical to their present and future success. Helping professionals can use the many resources available to them to help increase emotional literacy in our youth. The proliferation of online communication has made telehealth platforms an ideal place to access these resources. TheraPlatform, for instance, has free worksheets that help with emotional expression and literacy. It also has resources to identify emotions and assess feelings, as well as interactive games that promote emotional understanding. So, don’t get left behind. If you think that your patients could use your assistance with emotional literacy, take advantage of all of the resources available.

TheraPlatform, an all-in-one EHR, practice management and teletherapy tool was built for therapists to help them save time on admin tasks. Consider starting with a 30-day free trial of TheraPlatform today with no credit card required. Cancel anytime.

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