Helping Children with Special Needs Express Emotions

help special needs chilldren express emotions

A version of this post was first published in 2015

How can we help children with special needs express emotions safely and appropriately?

I have a sixteen year old special needs daughter and at this point in time, I don’t believe she understands her own feelings and emotions or how to demonstrate empathy to others who may be experiencing sadness or anger.

If I cry for any reason at all, she gets angry.

I dread ever getting sick because that makes her very mad too and she doesn’t let me lay around recuperating until I feel better.

She fully expects/demands that I continue to do all the things that I normally do.

I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that all people with special needs have trouble identifying their emotions and responding appropriately as Bethany does.

But, I’m guessing that there might be a few others out there who need a little help in learning how to recognize and deal with their own and others’ emotions as well.

Since I want to teach Bethany how to express her own emotions safely and appropriately,  and how to respond appropriately to others’ emotional states I’ve come up with a plan.

I thought my plan just might be helpful to you too!

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*Before we dive in, I think it’s important to note that:

  • Our children want to behave nicely and appropriately and they will if they can. Some children don’t automatically understand how to do that. They need to be taught how.
  • We need to teach our children how to express their emotions and respond to others’ emotions while they are calm and receptive…not in the heat of the moment while they are acting inappropriately or in a meltdown.
  • According to Dr. Ross Greene, author of, The Explosive Child, when a child is frustrated or in a meltdown their IQ actually decreases by an average of 30 points, so attempting to teach during a crisis is pointless.
  • Dr. Greene also believes that punishments only make kids more frustrated and angry. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Greene’s opinion. I base that on our own experiences using behavior charts. In Bethany’s case, even just the perceived punishment, shame, and humiliation of getting “bad” red X’s did indeed make a bad situation worse by making her even more angry and aggressive.

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The first and in my opinion, the most important emotions for Bethany to learn are :

  1. Happy
  2. Mad
  3. Sad

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Our goals in teaching Bethany to understand her own emotions and show empathy to others are:

  1. Teach her to recognize the facial expressions of happy, sad, and mad.
  2. Teach her to copy the facial expressions of happy, mad, and sad.
  3. Teach her to express her own emotions safely and appropriately.
  4. Teach her how to appropriately react to others when they are sad, mad, or sick.

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Objectives for Goal # 1

  1. Try to remember to label our emotions in real time as they are happening.
  2. Have Bethany study pictures of children’s faces showing the emotions of happy, sad, and mad.
  3. Have Bethany point to the proper facial expression of each emotion.
  4. Read social stories about the emotions of happy, sad, and mad.
  5. Show her each emotion with my own face.

Objectives for Goal #2

  1. Make and name the facial expression for each emotion and ask Bethany to copy me.
  2. Name an emotion and have her make the appropriate face for it.
  3. Prompt her to label her own emotions in real time as they are happening.

Objectives for Goal #3

  1. Prompt Bethany to use her words to tell us when she is sad or mad.
  2. Remind her that she can get a hug from us when she is sad or mad.
  3. Read social stories depicting children expressing their anger safely and appropriately.
  4. Remind Bethany that she can go in her room and lie on her bed or on the couch to calm down when she is mad.
  5. Give her something safe to throw like a nerf ball when she is mad, instead of throwing whatever she finds within her reach.
  6. Give her something safe to hit like a pillow instead of hitting people when she is mad.
  7. Role play being angry and how to safely and appropriately express anger.

Objectives for Goal #4

  1. Respond to Bethany’s emotions with empathy and understanding.
  2. Read social stories depicting children responding appropriately to others who are sad, mad, or sick.
  3. Teach her to respond politely and with kindness when others are sad, mad, or sick.
  4. Role play being sad, mad, and sick and how to respond appropriately.

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The following links are affiliate links. If you purchase an item through one of these links, you’ll be helping support, Bethany! Thanks!!!

For some emotions curriculum ideas check out the following emotions materials and activities!

I especially like the following resources:

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*This post may contain affiliate links. Thanks in advance if you should decide to purchase an item through one of our links at not extra cost to you. 100% of all commissions earned from sales go directly toward providing a better quality of life for our daughter, Bethany, a brave brain tumor survivor and special girl!

If you have a minute, please check out our Amazon Store where I have put together a list of my favorite books and resources and Bethany’s favorite games and products and our Etsy Shop where you can instantly download vintage book illustrations and prints of Bethany’s paintings!

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7 Replies to “Helping Children with Special Needs Express Emotions

  1. Hi Sylvia,
    Of course every child is different, but when we first started emotions with our little guy (autism and nonverbal), he would actually get upset (cry real tears) for sad and get very agitated for mad. If this is possibly the case with Bethany, you might want to leave mad until she shows good control over happy and sad (that’s what we did, and it made mad go a bit easier!). Also, we tried to introduce the happy, sad, mad faces into activities that were already mastered and preferred…matching was huge, because our son was pretty good at it, and so he got used to the pictures we were going to use in a ‘safe’ zone. Using matching, and tracing words under the pictures, the images became familiar before we asked him to really concentrate on the emotion behind it. I do think that helped.
    There is a dvd series (The Transporters) that uses human faces and expressions on trains to teach emotions. We did our own version, taping faces depicting different emotions to toys around the house that he accepted but did not love (had we tried to make Barney or Tinky Winky sad or mad, we would have had quite a breakdown!) Barney has a Happy, Sad, Silly, Mad video, too that you can probably find on youtube.

    1. Thanks for the advice and heads up, Lori! I’ll have to matching faces, because Bethany loves matching and memory games!! I’ll look for the Barney video too!

  2. P.S. With our son I sometimes wonder if he is not “getting” that someone is hurt, sad or sick, or if he feels it so deeply, he cannot handle it. There are some emotional scenes from movies that make me so uncomfortable that I have to turn them off. If I could not escape that scene–or was watching it play out with someone I love–I would be VERY agitated, too.
    Your plan looks great! I admire how well you have thought it all out, and your patience and perseverance in helping all your children continue to learn and grow at every stage of their lives!

    1. Interesting!! You may have hit on something I haven’t thought of. She does hide her face when scary scenes or anyone getting hurt come on in a video, like Arnold getting taken away by balloons in a Kipper episode and some scenes in Stuart Little. Thanks for your encouragement and kind words, Lori.

  3. I think teaching Bethany to ask “Are you okay?” if you are sick, mad, or sad will help. This will give you the opportunity to say why and she might learn to do the same through observation.

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