Three Tools for Understanding and Regulating Emotions

Following on from the post “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters and how to Teach it“, I want to focus on some tools for developing two of the five main elements of emotional intelligence: self-awareness and self-regulation. These tools can easily be adapted for use with any age group and intellectual ability, including ourselves, the adults! The better our own emotional intelligence and ability to understand and regulate our emotions, the easier it will be for the children and teenagers we live or work with to do the same.

There is a LOT of material in this post, and some of it will be relevant and interesting for everyone, but some might be too detailed, or not relevant to your situation, so feel free to use the page jumps below to skip to the parts that are most interesting to you!

Introduction to the Mood Meter

Using the Mood Meter Day to Day

Matching Mood Meter Zones to Classroom Tasks

The Engine Plate

Feeling and Emotion Posters

1. Introduction to the Mood Meter

The first tool is the Mood Meter from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence RULER program. Each letter of the word RULER stands for an important emotional intelligence skill that everyone needs in order to live successfully at school, work and home.

Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
Regulating emotions with helpful strategies

The Mood Meter is a tool we can use to recognize and understand our own and other people’s emotions. It is divided into four coloured quadrants – red, blue, green, and yellow – each representing a different set of feelings. Feelings are grouped together on the Mood Meter based on how pleasant they are and the energy level felt in the body.

  • RED feelings: high in energy and more unpleasant (e.g., angry, scared, and anxious);
  • BLUE feelings: low in energy and more unpleasant (e.g., sad, disappointed, and lonely);
  • GREEN feelings: low in energy and more pleasant (e.g., calm, tranquil, and relaxed);
  • YELLOW feelings: high in energy and more pleasant (e.g., happy, excited, and curious).

Once we become more aware of our emotions, we begin to notice how they affect our decisions and behaviours. As we use the Mood Meter, we begin to recognize which quadrant we’re in, learn to name the precise emotion we are experiencing (excitement, dismay, anxiety, calmness, curiosity…), and develop strategies for working with a range of emotions.

When children have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening in their inner life, they have a better idea about what to do next, in their outer life. The Mood Meter is a tool that helps us build the skills of emotional intelligence.

If there is enough space, you can lay the mood meter out on the ground or floor, using ropes for the axes and coloured tarpaulins for the quadrants. It is good to think first about the vertical axis, which is about energy. I often introduce this concept to students using heartbeat, asking them, “What is the first sound we ever hear?” (Our mother’s heartbeat). I ask children to find their pulse (usually in their neck) and tap their hand in time with it. Then we might do a minute of running on the spot or jumping jacks and see how that changes the speed of our heartbeat and energy level. Sometimes I then use a simple breathing exercise (like this Hand Breathing Exercise) to help them bring their energy level and heartbeat back down. An interesting addition to this breathing exercise is for me to sing a folk song or nursery rhyme while the children breathe and trace around their fingers. We also play games with rhythmic clapping and body percussion, like trying to send a clap around the circle maintaining a steady beat, without speeding up, or repeating a simple rhythm at a variety of speeds, observing what happens to our energy levels as the tempo changes.

Once both axes have been laid down and the pupils understand the concept of each quadrant, they place boards with feeling words painted on them in the quadrant or zone they think is appropriate. Then we step back, take a look and see if we agree with the placement of the words, moving them around, trying them out in different spots, recognising that each person has their own unique experience and understanding of each word, so there is no one correct answer.

If you don’t have enough space, materials or resources to lay the Mood Meter out on the floor, you can use coloured paper or card and masking tape to construct a desktop version. Pupils can then experiment with placing feeling words printed or written on paper or Post-It notes. If you have an empty section of wall in your classroom or corridor, you could also create a painted version for pupils to interact with.

Using the Mood Meter Day to Day

When working with children and teenagers individually, particularly those who find it hard to put into words how they are feeling, I often start or end a conversation by asking them where they are on the mood meter in that moment. If they enjoy using telephone apps, we go to the Mood Meter app, but I also have A3 printed versions on the door of my room with text and/or emojis (please feel free to download the PDF files and print them out for use in your classroom, office or home!):

They might start by pointing out an emoji or saying they have lots of energy, for example, and I then offer some possible words from the poster that includes a range of specific words to describe feelings. We might talk about what has happened to cause that feeling; consider together if they want to stay with it or move to a different zone of the mood meter; and discuss what they might need to make that move. Usually, I find it easy, using the mood meter, to engage kids in conversations that really get to the heart of how they are feeling. An example to illustrate this – a 13-year-old pupil came for an individual session after the end of lessons, feeling like they were in the blue zone, lacking in energy, bored, and fed up. This pupil chose for us to play the drum kit and then do some boxing together to their favourite music. By the end of the session we were both in the yellow zone! I have made a separate post of musical activities for exploring the mood meter, which I invite you to try, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a musician or music teacher.

Working in this way, over time, pupils’ self-awareness un emotional regulation really grow and develop as they get used to naming how they feel and figure out all the different things they can do to notice, understand, accept and regulate their emotions. I also offer pupils small printed cards of the mood meter to keep at home or in their school bag, so they can use it every day. Another handy reminder is to make bracelets, key-rings or beaded straps for a phone case using red, blue, green and yellow beads.

Matching Classroom Tasks to Mood Meter Zones

It is important to remember that ALL the moods and emotions are necessary, useful, and NORMAL! We don’t need to try and change someone’s mood or feeling just because it makes us feel uncomfortable. As teachers, we set tasks for our pupils that actually REQUIRE them to be in all four zones of the Mood Meter. We just need to pay careful attention to how we set tasks throughout the day, to ensure there is a good mix of emotional energy requirements and levels of pleasantness. We must also take care at the moments of transition from high energy to low energy tasks and vice versa, helping children who struggle with calming down after a fun activity to regulate themselves, for example. Think about which zone a pupil would need to be in to complete the following tasks successfully:

  • Giving a talk to the whole class
  • Doing a repetitive task that is rather boring, but still necessary for learning a particular skill or curriculum content
  • Collaborating with a partner on a creative project
  • Thinking through a challenging word problem in Maths
  • Learning a poem off by heart
  • Competing in a sports competition
  • Tidying up their books and equipment at the end of a lesson
  • Reading and understanding a text about a new Science topic
  • Listening to the teacher give instructions
  • Performing a song or a sketch in a small group in front of the whole school
  • Checking or editing a text they have written

This video from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence gives some examples:

2. The Engine Plate

The second tool is the “Engine Plate”, recommended in the programme TRUST BASED RELATIONAL INTERVENTION®”, which comes from Therapy Works Inc. Alert Program®. The TBRI® handbook says:

By comparing the body to a car engine, (children) can monitor whether their engine is running “too high (red), too low (blue), or just right (green).” Help children create a representation of this with a paper plate, like the one below, and use the arrow in the center to have them ‘check their engines’ periodically.

Teaching by example is always helpful. Caregivers should also make an engine plate and model ‘checking their engine’ along with their children.

This is a much simpler tool, that focuses on the energy level felt in the child’s body. Therefore it might be more appropriate for younger children, or those whose cognitive abilities are not so well developed. However, for people of all ages and abilities, it can stimulate a lot of discussion and reflection that can lead to similar understandings and insights as the Mood Meter. Many of the musical activities described above could also be adapted for use with the Engine Plate.

3. Feeling and Emotion Posters

The third tool that I have found very useful in my work with children and young people, is a range of posters with emotion words and pictures. Very often, if we ask a child how they are feeling, they simply reply, “Good!” or “Bad!”. In such cases it is much more effective to say, “Show me!”. Here is an example that, in my experience, younger children really like:


This one is intended more for older children and teenagers, based on Plotchik’s Wheel of Emotion:


Image embedded from

Another useful resource can be found at where there is a long list of feelings charts in many different languages, including English, French, German, Russian and Ukrainian.


In conclusion . . .

If we interact with pupils about their emotions, feelings and moods with an attitude of non-judgment, acceptance, seeking to understand through joint reflection, and helping to regulate in appropriate ways, we will journey together with them towards increasing self-regulation abilities and richer, more honest and fruitful inner worlds and relationships with others.

Useful links and resources

Here are the sources I used when exploring this topic, in case anyone would like to explore further:
Handbook of Music, Adolescents and Wellbeing” (McFerran, 2019): Brilliant book that explores both theory and practice of how adolescents experience and use music to promote or hinder wellbeing.

Interactive Music Mood Meter: This is a fun and easy to use interactive tool that places a variety of musical genres on the Mood Meter, giving examples of adjectives that match the mood and links to audio samples of each genre.…/emotional-regulation/: Games, songs and activities to promote child-parent bonding and emotional regulation. Ideas for teaching mood with music.…/2015/10/Mood-Meter-Dance.pdf: Dance lesson plan using the Mood Meter.

Author: Katie Roth