Lesson Plan: The Emotion Wheel


While scientists have, for centuries, attempted to come up with a list of the most core and universal emotions, there is no agreement among scholars. Some argue that reducing a list of emotions to a handful of basic ones is too simplistic and doesn't reflect human complexity. 

Identifying emotions in ourselves and in other people plays a crucial role in the development of emotional regulation[1]This lesson plan[2] allows students to explore emotions that are personally relevant. The emotion wheel will help students see and identify possible interconnections, subtle differences and levels of emotional intensity.


Teaching and Learning Activities:

1.  ACTIVATE LEARNING: Think about where emotions come from. Are there basic emotions that all humans share no matter what culture? Brainstorm a list (or add an internet search).

2.  Choose one of the following:

  • From the student generated list, identify 8 emotions the class would like to examine more fully.
  • Align the choice with American psychologist Paul Ekman who identified basic emotions[3] including happiness, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, contempt and interest.
  • Choose emotions that support other related learning. Keep your choice of 8 emotions secret from the class until after the following step.

3. Divide the class into eight small groups. Secretly assign one emotion to each group and ask them to create a skit or mime to act out the emotion. The other groups can guess the emotion based on facial expressions, body language, or scenario if the actors are using words.

4. Individually, have students draw a wheel with 8 segments. Have them place each of the 8 chosen emotions on the wheel, arranging them so that they are next to emotions that they are related to, or closely connected with.

5. Invite students to add other emotion descriptors to the 8 categories of the wheel. Have them arrange the emotion words from mild to intense, with the most intense at the centre of the wheel. Utilize colours to reflect the levels of intensity. Encourage students to expand their emotional vocabulary by searching the internet, thesaurus and using personal experiences.

6. In pairs, have students compare their emotion wheels and brainstorm ways that the wheel could be used in the school setting or at home. Report out ideas.


  • Use the wheel as a classroom tool to help solve disputes. Begin conflict resolution with the statement “I feel….”
  • Use the wheel to spark creative writing. Invite students to describe a time when they felt a particular emotion. Alternatively students can create a fictional story in which the main character experiences the emotion.
  • Use paint chips (with 3-5 colour gradations) to sort the intensity degrees of emotions.
  • Complete an internet search and compare wheels to American Psychologist Robert Plutchik’s Gradations. Discuss any emotions on the wheel that student’s have never experienced? Ask: can you experience more than one emotion at the same time?


Basic emotion awareness is a foundational competency in the development of emotion regulation. Research links the skills of emotional identification (starting in 3 year olds) with stimulation of the brain for awareness, arousal and, ultimately, regulation.


This lesson plan is adapted from activity descriptions found in the following resources:

Shanker, Stuart. (2013) Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation, Pearson: Toronto.

Carney, Patrick. (2015) Well Aware: Developing Resilient, Active and Flourishing Students, Pearson: Toronto.

Paul Ekman, known for his research on facial expressions and scientific advise on the popular tv show Lie to Me, identified basic emotions including anger, disgust, contempt, sadness, happiness, fear and surprise. He argued that these emotions are marked by distinctive changes in the face, voice and physiological processes such as heart rate.