CBT Activities for Kids: How to Explain Thoughts and Feelings 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

I'm often asked how to incorporate CBT activities (cognitive behavioral therapy) in school counseling and if it's really a fit for school counselors.

Are school counselors even allowed to use CBT? 100% yes. CBT activities use a short-term evidence-based approach. It's a match made in heaven.

Well, where do I even start? You start with showing students the difference and connection between thoughts and feelings.

In this post, I'll take you through these two essential CBT-based skills and how you can teach them. Beginning with thoughts and feelings is useful for any school counseling intervention, even if CBT isn't your typical approach.

Separate Thoughts & Feelings

The ideal place to start with CBT activities is to help students separate thoughts and feelings. Most students don't realize that feeling angry is different than thinking "I'm going to knock my desk over". Thinking "I'm going to fail my test" is different than feeling nervous.


First to help children to tell the difference between thoughts and feelings, we have to define them.

Thoughts are words we say to ourselves. 

Thoughts happen all the time and often without us realizing.

Two people can have different thoughts about the same thing.

Feelings will be more familiar, but it is helpful to check a child's feelings vocabulary. Do they have basic vocabulary, such as angry, happy, sad, surprised, scared? What about more sophisticated vocabulary, such as excited, furious, nervous, annoyed, depressed, terrified? It is super helpful to have visuals or even mirrors so they can see the difference between emotions on their face.

Recognition Activities

Once you define thoughts and feelings, give the student opportunities to practice spotting each one. Try some of these activities:

Sorting Tasks: Write down thoughts or feelings on cards and have them sort into a heart bucket or thought bucket.

Read aloud children's literature and stop when a characters shares a thought or a feeling. See if students can spot what the thought or emotion is and how to tell it apart.

Role play a situation and stop at different points to have students tell how someone feels or what they might be thinking.

Connect Thoughts & Feelings

Once students understand how their thoughts are different from their feelings, they need to see how they are connected.

Bring It Together With A Story

Students can understand this simple but abstract concept better with stories and examples. It also brings engagement way up when they can relate to the examples in CBT activities. This has been one of the better ways to get students to see thoughts and feelings as different and to also understand their connection. 

First Day of School Example

Head over to my store and download this CBT Story about the first day for school.

Help children understand the difference between thoughts and feelings with this simple CBT story

Explore the Connection

The first day of school story is a great way to introduce the connection between thoughts and feelings. You can keep going with the story by having the student tell their own version with a different example. For example, seeing a slug on the ground. One child might be excited and want to look at it closer, while another child might be disgusted and stand far away.

CBT for kids using simple CBT worksheets and activities

Try a few other activities to keep exploring this connection as students learn to replace negative thoughts with more realistic ones.

Create a detective game or a fortune teller game where students have to predict what someone might feel or what they might think. 

using cognitive behavioral therapy with kids requires hands on engaging activities that explain thoughts and feelings.

Connect thoughts, feelings and actions with a simple CBT craft activity like this flower one. It can be helpful to talk about thoughts as seeds and how those thoughts can grow into weeds or flowers. 

Use CBT Decision Maps to help students see where they can change their course by changing how they think or feel or act. 

decision maps can help students work through problems in school counseling by take the problem solving process step by step.

CBT activities are a natural fit for school counseling once you have these simple foundation skills in place. When students can connect their thoughts, feelings, and actions, they will be better able to manage them. 

So now you have some ideas for helping students see the difference and the connection between thoughts and feelings. Subscribe to my list and download the First Day of School Story. Your CBT toolbox is growing!

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Cognitive behavior decision maps and problem solving maps for elementary school counseling.

cbt activities and cbt worksheets for individual counseling and small group counseling.
CBT activities that help kids understand the difference between thoughts and feelings
I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.
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