A Feelings Thermometer is the Ultimate Counseling Tool 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

Feelings thermometers or scales are an essential tool in your counseling office. I can't think of something else I reached for or referenced more often with students. 

They are reusable, research-based tools that help kids 

  • put a situation in perspective, 
  • build self-awareness,
  • develop a self-management plan, and  
  • connect thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Phew, talk about a workhorse.

For most elementary or middle school students in counseling, being aware of their feelings and how they react is a typical area of focus, right? That's why almost every student on my caseload would create a feelings thermometer as our starting point.

Introducing a Feeling Thermometer

Once students can identify basic feelings (e.g., happy, sad, afraid, anger), we can introduce that feelings come in different sizes or intensities.

Some feelings are big, some are small. We may need help to manage big feelings. Small feelings can get bigger if we just ignore them. Small feelings are things we can usually handle all on our own.

Use Relevant, Concrete Themes

Emotions in different intensities can be an abstract concept for students. I like to use scales that are relevant and concrete, and also let us explore the different sizes of the feeling.

Try using a weather theme. In this lesson on the intensity of anger, I use clouds and thunderstorms to represent growing anger.

Anger Feelings Thermometer Weather Theme

You can demonstrate with a balloon filling with air until finally it pops. Also, for students experiencing more sadness or depression, you can use a balloon deflating.

For students struggling with anxiety, I often use the image of a garden getting more and more covered in weeds.

Do you want to just stick to a simple piece paper? Try using the image of wave. Emotions build as you go up the wave until it eventually crashes into the beach.

Wave Feelings Scales

Metaphors that show how emotions grow and potentially explode are particularly useful.

Bring It To Life

Make your feelings thermometer life size. This is a great for an office wall. You can laminate the thermometer, attach to the wall, and have students use dry erase markers. 

Photocopy thermometers that students create so they can go into their counseling notebook or can be shared with parents and teachers, if appropriate. I like to have a reference one that we create digitally so we can change it as needed. 

Try making thermometers with popsicle sticks for a portable resource. Students can create their own, and then keep them in the classroom or at home for reference. Feelings charts are great, but what good is that if the student always picks angry? Having a portable thermometer lets them more accurately describe how big that anger has gotten.

How to Use a Feelings Thermometer

One Type of Feeling

Focus on one type of feeling on your thermometer. As students get more sophisticated they can certainly add on emotions that seem to happen together, like being sad and angry. Sangry, if you will.

Explaining the Thermometer

Use a scale that is 1-5. You can also have 0 if you want the scale to show calm that way instead.

Start with labeling the feeling at 1. Then the feeling at 5. Then the feeling at 3. Finally the feelings at 2 and 4.

For example, if we are talking about an anger scale, it would go like this:

  1. Label 1 as calm,
  2. Label 5 as furious,
  3. Label 3 as frustrated,
  4. Label 2 as bothered and 4 as angry.
Using a feelings thermometer step by step
Step by Step to use a feelings thermometer
Step by Step to use a feelings thermometer
Step by Step to use a feelings thermometer

This back and forth on scale seems to be easier for students to understand. You can also write down all the feelings words on pieces of paper and have the student put them in order.

Make It Observable

Once students have their scale, talk about what each stage looks like and feels like. What does it look like when they are frustrated? How does their body feel when they are furious? Would I be able to tell that they are bothered?

When you make it observable, it helps the student to check where they are. It looks like you are frustrated because I see your jaw is tense and you are ripping the corner of your paper.

Step by Step to use a feelings thermometer

When students know their "tells", then they can begin to use strategies earlier to prevent feelings from getting too big to manage.

Bonus Uses for Feelings Thermometers

I love being able to send a parent a feelings thermometer a student has completed. At a minimum, it shows what the student is working on. Hopefully, I can also work with the parent to use the thermometer at home. Of course, make sure it is okay with the student that you are sharing their thermometer.

Feelings thermometers can also be incredibly useful in the classroom. Teachers can create one with a student or use the one the student created in counseling. This is a great complement to a calm down corner or when they are trying to help the student problem solve. 

Feelings thermometers are the ultimate counseling tool. Do you already use one? Have I convinced you?

Try it with a student this week!

Need more ideas? Check out this post: Simple Anxiety Strategies for Kids.

Shop Resources in Post

CBT Worksheets and Feelings Scales
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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