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How do we learn to ‘read’ emotions?

Facial expressions are only part of the clues we use to understand how someone is feeling. As children grow, they learn to also use body language, tone of voice and contextual clues to help work out what is going on. These skills become more accurate with age but aren’t fully developed until adolescence! Studies have shown that children who can accurately interpret how others are feeling are more likely to be popular in school. One study even found a link between this skill and academic performance!

How can you help our children?

I made these picture cards using free-to-use images from the internet. I chose pictures of children, as I wanted to help my children ‘read’ their peers’ expressions. Bear in mind, that looking at picture cards without any other cues is quite challenging for some; the more you talk about emotions with your child and the clues to look for, the easier it will become.

First, I asked my two-year-old to sort the cards into “the people who look happy,” and “people who look sad,” (research has shown that, by five years old, most children can identify happy faces with ‘adult-like’ accuracy). Surprisingly, he did this with ease, only hesitating over the tired picture because “She isn’t happy or sad; she’s just sleepy.”


I asked my four-year-old to try to narrow down the expressions. She used her fine motor skills to peg the emojis to the matching pictures. This was interesting; she saw the two tears on the ‘laughing’ emoji and instantly decided that it must be sad. It was only after I asked her to look at the shape of the mouth that she said, “Oh, she’s crying happy tears!” They were both still enjoying the activity, so I asked them to take turns to find the expression that I said, for example, “Can you find the person who is feeling angry?”.


Next, I asked them to do one of the expressions themselves so that we could try and guess which one they were. They found this hilarious as they struggled to hold a grumpy face without laughing!


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