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In this activity…

Students practice asking inquisitive questions to understand the emotions of the protagonist in a story. They then use these skills to recognize and better understand their own emotions over the next week.

And the point is…

Sure, it’s important to be able to recognize and understand your own emotions, but it’s just as critical to be able to apply these emotional intelligence skills to others. Reading stories and connecting with the characters is a natural way for students to enhance their emotional intelligence skills, build empathy, and broaden their perspectives. In this activity, stories also serve as a great “practice ground” before students are challenged to apply the first two RULER skills in real life.

Materials: Short story of your choice, Story worksheets, Mood Meter


Let students know that it’s not enough to recognize their own emotions. They must also learn to recognize the emotions of others. Explain that people express emotions differently and that the way we interpret emotional expressions is influenced by factors such as culture, personality, mood, and prejudices.

Therefore, the second skill for becoming an emotion scientist – the ‘U’ of RULER – is Understanding emotions. Explain that understanding emotions is about searching for the potential cause, or trigger, of the emotion. In other words, students are trying to piece together the story behind the emotion.

Let students know that, if recognizing emotions involves answering the question “How am I feeling?”, then understanding emotions involves answering the question “Why am I feeling this way?”.

For this activity, students will practice understanding emotions by reflecting on the emotional experiences of the protagonist. You can either choose one short story that the entire class will read together or provide students with a short list of stories that they can choose from and read on their own.

Some recommended books include:

  • A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
  • The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and George Ford
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
  • Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and Tara Calahan King
  • Playing War by Kathy Beckwith and Lea Lyon
  • Going Places by Paul A. Reynolds and Peter H. Reynolds

After students read the story, give them 20 minutes to complete the “Understanding Emotions: A Short Story Character Analysis” worksheet, where they will practice asking and answering key questions about emotional experiences.

The 'Short Story Character Analysis' worksheet is available in the download section.

In the last 5 minutes of class, give each student a copy of the “Emotion Scientist Lab Book” and introduce the cumulative project for this Unit. From now until the next lesson (about a week) students will be responsible for checking in with themselves twice a day to recognize how they are feeling and understand why they might be feeling this way.

Each check-in should only take 5-10 minutes and involves plotting their feelings on a blank Mood Meter and using 2-3 sentences, or detailed point-form, to answer a couple of questions. Students will likely be most successful if they schedule consistent times for their check-ins (ex. first thing in the morning and right after school).

At the end of the week, students will need to write a reflection based on the prompt provided. Over the next couple of weeks, students will work through the different parts of the “Emotion Scientist Lab Book” that correspond to each of the five skills for becoming an emotion scientist.

To get students more excited about this activity, emphasize that, as a scientist, it’s crucial to keep a lab book in order to track your findings, review your results, and practice your skills.

Help students be successful with this activity by checking-in on their progress and reminding them to use their lab book throughout the week. You might even schedule one (or both) of the check-ins during class time. For example, students might be expected to complete a morning check-in before starting the school-day, and an afternoon check-in before heading home for the afternoon. In this case, students would only have to complete the journal reflection for homework at the end of the week.

Download 'Emotion Scientist Lab Book Part 1' in the download section.


What happens if I misinterpret someone’s feelings?

You may find that you did not correctly identify someone else’s feelings. This happens and it’s the reason why we need to move beyond recognizing emotions to understanding them. If you are asking the right questions and if you are curious about understanding what caused the emotion, then you will be able to formulate a more appropriate response to the other person. Even for yourself, understanding why you feel the way you do will help you regulate your feelings and determine how you choose to move forward in the situation. If you know that you misinterpreted someone’s feelings, then this means that you now took the step to understand why they were feeling the way that they were. This is great! Let your friend know how appreciative you are that they shared their story and that this information helped you understand their feelings. In some cases, you might want to apologize that you didn’t respond differently earlier, explaining that you didn’t recognize how they were feeling. No matter what, try to see this as an opportunity for growth and learning.

Do I have to do the lab book?

Yes, this is a project like you would have for any other subject in school. All scientists keep a lab book in order to track their findings, review their results, and practice their skills. If you find a routine, like checking-in with yourself at two consistent times every day, then completing this project will be very simple and straightforward. Each check-in should only take you 5-10 minutes. Beyond the prompting questions and requirements, you can choose to be as specific as you want. Ultimately, this activity is for your benefit. The more time you put into keeping a clean and thorough lab book, the more you will benefit.