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Teaching English to Young Learners: Mental State Language

ELTCampus Teaching PRe Teens and Young Learners Emotional Development

Teaching English to Young Learners: Mental State Language


In the previous video (transcript below), I introduced some ideas about the roles of a carer (teachers, elders, parents etc.) in the lives of young learners and pre-teens.  The term pre-teens refers to 9-12 year olds. These ideas have their roots in the theory of secure attachment. Through teaching English to Young Learners, part of our role is to manage the social and emotional development of our learners – modelling and showing them ways to deal with things and acknowledging them. This helps us develop harmonious learning environments and harmonious individuals.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned as a teacher and later as a parent, was to “see” the child or young person and let them know that I “saw” them. I mean ALL of them, in ALL their states – acknowledging their distress, tiredness, stress, nervousness, cheekiness, anger, boredom, frustration, playfulness, or high spirits. I learned through my mistakes that often a child that was “naughty” or acting out, was simply needing me to see and hear them in a different way.  I learned to show them that I was really listening to them and let them have a voice. I would let the funny kid know that he or she was hilarious, and laugh with them at jokes. Rather than trying to lock everyone down and squash energy, a minute or two delighting in playfulness together would bring the kids to see that I was on their side. When I did call people in to order, my students were more receptive.


Images: These creatures were created to express different emotions by Blanca, aged 7. As is fitting with her age, she is still learning to write in English and in this case here spelling has’t yet been corrected as correct spelling wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Communication of ideas was. When teaching English to Young Learners, it’s important to make clear the purpose of an exercise. For example, correcting students too harshly with their spelling, when this isn’t the purpose of an exercise may lead them to feel upset or discouraged and therefore not have a productive outcome. The image is a drawing of a dragon, whose text reads: “LUK DRAGON Is about being HAPPY and LUKY!” 

Emotional Development in Teaching English to Young Learners – The importance of adults being emotionally available.

As children, we need to know where our safe place is when things are great and when things go wrong. Secure attachment is formed in childhood. We become securely attached when we feel that our carers see us and soothe us. They listen to us and are present for us when we need their help or support. It makes us feel more confident to go out and explore, because we know where our safe place is if we need it. When adults show us emotional presence and make themselves available for us, it helps us feel safe. Secondly, they soothe us through helping us understand our emotions – what we feel, when and why, which in turn helps to foster our emotional development as Young Learners.

That way, we learn to manage all our feelings and not just how to lock the less attractive feelings away. Understanding the many emotions that we have, why we have them and how to manage them will help us become balanced adults. Repressing our feelings, or not having anyone to help us make sense of them, can lead to difficulty managing our feelings and those of others, as adults.

We need to know that our parents, carers and elders are with us in our feelings – that they know and see our mind, not just our tears. When adults are emotionally present and available, we feel worthy of being seen and heard. That what we feel matters. That we matter.

Adults make mistakes. They don’t get things right all the time and they aren’t always there when we need them and how we need them. Luckily, us children can handle being let down sometimes if our carers mend the rupture. Studies show that if our parents, carers and elders are good enough 30% of the time, we will be securely attached children, adolescents and adults.

The argument is that a child who has had this situation growing up can self-regulate, with a resilient, integrated brain.



Image: The creature is a crystal fox called Cristal Clear. “This is about naughtiness.” Blanca sees naughtiness as an emotion – it’s when she feels like breaking rules and being risky. It’s important to recognise the different emotions children may have when teaching English to Young Learners.

A Tip For the Classroom: Teaching Mental State Language to Help Emotional Development

What we can do in our English classes early on is to feed children words to describe how they are feeling. A child might fall, hurt themselves and naturally have a reaction. Mental state language includes phrases like “that must feel scary seeing that…”, “…that hurt, didn’t it?”, or “….that gave you a fright, didn’t it?”.

The language shows the child

  • that it’s OK to have the feelings
  • that these feelings are known by someone other than the child
  • that the feelings have names

As language teachers, the lexis of mental states should form part of our teaching. We can use image creation to talk about feelings and think of metaphors and ways to describe them.


Image: A drawing of a “fire wolf” – a wolf with fire for its tail which also breathes out fire. Text reads: FIRE WOLF – This is about RAGE! There is a speech bubble which reads “GRRR!” 

When We Try to Shut the Emotion Down Quickly

In contrast, what happens when a parent/carer or teacher shouts “Stop that, no! Get up!” , or panics and gets as distressed as the child? They offer no reflective dialogue to help teach children about their emotional state and how to move through it. Worse still, the child might bury their emotions in order to protect the carer from getting stressed.

Being with children, being the stronger and wiser adult, and feeding them words to describe how they are feeling helps them accept their feelings, move through them and regulate them – an important part of growing up. This is part of the concept of being emotionally present and available for the child.

Exploring Feelings in Drawing and Art

Drawing can be the beginning of discussing feelings both in writing and speaking. As a way to help develop ideas for expressing our emotions visually we can start with storytelling. Many stories discuss feelings as a subtext to the main story and can be useful lesson starters. We look at ideas in our course: Teaching Pre-Teens & Teens Effectively in the English Language Classroom. 


Image: A unicorn on its hind legs which a speech bubble which reads “AWOO!” The text to the left of the unicorn reads: “MISTORY Its about any Feelling. The below text in the water reads: “Its when you don’t no wat your feelling even is!”

Further Reading

Teaching English to Young Learners: become an expert! Enrol and try for yourself with our free Pre-Teens course below