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Provide a safe environment for children to explore emotions and learn how to regulate them

Why emotions are important

Understanding children’s emotions is critical to understanding their behaviour. Early years children feel a range of emotions, but often cannot express, interpret or process them like us.

With poor emotional skills, it could be harder for children to learn:

  • acceptance
  • resilience
  • confidence and control
  • how to articulate experiences
  • a sense of identity
  • empathy
  • a sense of self

Research shows that from birth, experiences and adult responses influence how children self-regulate and deal with emotions. Meeting children’s emotions is critical, even when some are harder to understand or when they evoke strong feelings in you.

Behaviour can be an expression of feelings or emotions. To help children make sense of this, and have the best effect, approach them with empathy, supporting and guiding them to identify and deal with their emotions.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of emotions in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

Strong, warm and supportive relationships with adults enable children to learn understanding of their own feelings and those of others. Support children to manage their emotions, develop a positive sense of self, set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their abilities, and to persist and wait for what they want, directing attention as necessary.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 8, childminder EYFS, page 9, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

To best meet and support children’s emotions, be sympathetic, warm, accepting and curious. Create connections and show empathy. Listen fully to what a child tells you, with their body language, actions, sounds and words.

Provide words and meanings to name and express emotions, so children can practice how to handle them as they arise.

It’s helpful to allow children to talk about their feelings, like anger or wanting something so badly they snatched it, while also being clear about limits.

Help children to have an increasingly expressed understanding of their feelings as they grow older. For example, the development from a 2 year old using an icon to indicate ‘angry’ to a 4 year old who’s able to say, ‘when people leave me out, I feel really sad and angry’ is important.

Provide an emotionally consistent response, following basic emotional coaching steps:

  • recognition
  • empathy
  • ways to label feelings, which validate them
  • offering guidance and boundaries to manage
  • emotions
  • problem-solving

Support self-expression throughout the day, though stories, drawing, crafts, roleplay and general play, while naming feelings with visual supports.

Your setting should be cosy and homely, and encourage lots of opportunities for conversation. Complement this by letting children choose what they do, as well as with adult-guided play. Both offer opportunities for children to take safe risks, immersing their senses.

As part of helping children to self-regulate and deal with emotions it’s important to set expectations and boundaries for them. They should also understand the importance of following rules and that following rules can keep them safe.

Talk to others about how children’s emotional outbursts make you feel as they can affect you too.

Suggested activities

Naming emotions

Laminated faces showing different emotions

You’ll need:

  • laminated faces expressing emotions, including photos of children, their parents and carers, you or other nursery staff
  • laminated feelings cards you can carry, as well as an extra set to stick to a feelings board
  • a feelings board, to stick cards to
  • a laminated thermometer, to show emotion levels

Support children to name their emotions during the daily routine, for example:

  • use feelings cards to ask children how they are when they arrive, involving parents and carers where possible.
  • talk about how children feel as a group
  • use the thermometer or feelings cards when children try tricky new things, like climbing or building something, or during a time of day they find difficult
  • when there are conflicts, use feelings cards for children to express and name their related emotions
  • when sharing a story, song or circle time activity which mentions a particular emotion, use feelings cards to connect children to it

Children can learn how best to express their emotions (understanding the world), and define what each emotion means for them (sense of self). They’ll understand how different, well-known images correspond with what they’re feeling (patterns and connections), for example a happy, sad or crying face. They’ll develop their skills in comparing their emotions with others and empathising with them (relationships).

All about me

To help you get to know the children you could complete an all ‘about me’ with the family. The profile allows you to gather some important facts about the child’s strengths, needs and interests.

Early on when children are settling in with their families it’s a good idea to gather as much information about the child. For example, you can ask who lives in the house and their relationship to the child. This information is important, as these adults are the people who will be significant for the child and have an influence on the child’s life. You can ask about pets, as they often play a special part in a young child’s life too. Also, many families have family names and words that have a special meaning for their children.

Discuss with the parents whether they would like their family names and words to be used in the setting. For children, to hear familiar words and the use of a family name can offer some reassurance when making the transition from home to setting. Alongside the parents you can write a profile that celebrates the child’s strengths using the headings:

  • The things people love and admire about me.
  • What makes me happy.
  • How I like to be supported.

The profile can be added to as the child develops in the setting. You can support older children to write and illustrate their own profile.

The focus is on the child’s sense of self. Through the process you will be questioning, describing and recalling, widening their technical vocabulary, as well as technological vocabulary (communication and language). Children will explore themselves in relation to others and a range of emotions may be explored.

Other activities

CBeebies: How to talk to your child about emotions.

Feeling Better: short videos about different feelings, using puppets.

What are feelings? Dealing with feelings, and recognising others’ feelings.

The Age of Emotions: podcast discussion on emotion culture, with psychotherapist Philippa Perry.

Word of Mouth: Naming Emotions: Michael Rosen podcast, about describing feelings.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“Children can explore emotions through curiosity and literature, which lets them share their thoughts and feelings with confidence during circle time. They are encouraged to build on emotional knowledge - receiving time, attention and comfort by caregivers, and feeling heard.”

Hannah, Daisychain Nursery, Clifton.


  • Children need emotionally safe relationships and environments, to explore their emotions.
  • Be emotionally present and available, supporting children by recognising, understanding, regulating and expressing their emotions.
  • Children’s behaviour can be a result of their emotions or an unmet need.
  • You need time, support and space to consider how children’s emotions and behaviour affect your own feelings.

Next steps

  • 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 expressing emotions through storytelling.
  • Practice 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.