Research School Network: Using the Early Years Evidence Store – Teaching awareness of emotions and feelings Social and emotional awareness through the zones of regulation

Using the Early Years Evidence Store – Teaching awareness of emotions and feelings

Social and emotional awareness through the zones of regulation


Karen Robinson

Deputy Director of Lincolnshire Research School

Read more aboutKaren Robinson
Evelyn Reid

Evelyn Reid

Early Years Class Teacher at St George’s British International School in Rome

Read more aboutEvelyn Reid

Using the Early Years Evidence Store – Teaching awareness of emotions and feelings

There are moments when you have pedagogical conversation that is full of such enthusiasm and energy that you just have to share it. Recently I had one of those such conversations with Evelyn Reid an Early Years practitioner from an International School in Rome.

This conversation was about Social and Emotional Learning and explicitly teaching emotional’ vocabulary to enable preschool children to have the language to express how they feel and to give them the strategies to be able to self-regulate in different situations.

“Early educators can support young children’s development by teaching them how to be more aware of their feelings and actions." (EEF, 2004) Early Years Evidence Store

There is extensive evidence associated with childhood social and emotional skills having improved outcomes at school and in later life, which is especially important for our disadvantaged pupils as they often have weaker skills than their peers. (Improving social and emotional learning in Primary Schools, EEF 2019 )

The Supporting Social and Emotional Development strand of the Early Evidence Store highlights seven approaches to support this. I would like to focus on two of these:

1. Teaching awareness of emotions and feelings

Labelling emotions and feelings: Teaching key vocabulary and when to use it to name physical responses, feelings and emotions to build a shared language.

2. Teaching and modelling managing emotions and feelings

Modelling managing emotions: The adult demonstrates how to change a physical response or feeling, naming the emotion and using key vocabulary to describe and comment so the child gains greater understanding.

Provide techniques to manage strong feelings:
The child is given a repertoire of strategies which they can use in different situations. These techniques may be tailored to the needs of an individual or offered to the group.

What does it look like in the classroom?

In Evelyn’s classroom, there were three emotional zones that the children were introduced to, each linked to a colour. Each zone had four focus words which were then explicitly taught. The first three zones were slowly introduced during circle time in the first term. The vocabulary was introduced with pictures (dual coding) or actions (embodied cognition) alongside discussions about how emotions made the children feel. For example, which things make the children happy (green zone), angry (red zone) or sad (blue zone) to develop simple emotional awareness.

Once the vocabulary was in place the second term focused on discussions around what would help the children when they were in more difficult zones, such the red zone, so feeling angry, panicked, frustrated or terrified. Pictures were then added to the display about the things the children could do to help them self-regulate, such as talk to a teacher, have a hug from a friend go or get the sensory tools. At this point the children were also introduced to sensory tools (sensory bottles or windmills) as one of the strategies to respond to the situation.

The class continued by looking at the blue zone, so if they were feeling sad, tired, sick or bored, pictures were again added about the things they could do to help them self-regulate. Each zone would then build up over time showing the type of things the children could be doing to help them manage their emotions. Therefore, when the children felt that they were in the green zone, feeling happy, focused, calm or proud there would be photos of what the children could be doing to feel that way, such as working together and creating things, helping each other and being together so everyone feels happy.

The zones were added slowly considering the needs of the class and context to take time to embed the vocabulary and model the strategies. In this case the yellow zone, which is the fourth zone, and explores emotions around feeling overexcited, anxious or nervous will be added this term, ready for the transition into the next class, to enable the children to be able to express their feelings about the idea of change. The work will then continue as the class moves into Reception with the children already having foundations of the zones of regulation in place to be further built upon.

Zones of regulation

“The Early Years Evidence Store demonstrates that the approaches and practices can be implemented with children across different contexts for teaching and learning spanning adult-led and child-led learning opportunities in the Early Years Pedagogical Continuum.”

Professional judgement and an understanding of your children are key to applying the evidence.

Some key questions to consider:

  • What professional development is needed to support the introduction of social and emotional learning strategies and to explain the value of them and the evidence behind them to staff?
  • How will professional development be mapped out so there is time to revisit and reflect?
  • How will you embed social and emotional learning strategies into routine practices?
  • Do you have the staff expertise, structures and resources available so that it is feasible in your context?
  • How will you evaluate and monitor the strategy and collect everyone’s beliefs and values to create collaboration?

In conclusion:

The Early Years Evidence Store along side the Early Years Toolkit is a wonderful resource when engaging with the evidence to consider what will work best for your context and children. This summary of evidence-informed approaches helps educators to understand and reflect on their practice while also providing a range of helpful examples that illustrate what each strategy looks like in the classroom.


Early Years Evidence Store

Early Years tool kit.

Improving social and emotional learning in Primary Schools (EEF 2019)

A School’s Guide to Implementation. (EEF 2024)

Cognitive Science in the Classroom | Greenshaw Research School

Supporting Personal Social and Emotional Development in the Early Years

Embodied Cognition – Moving away from the slides

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