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The Role Play Robot Unit uses coding behaviors of the 123 Robot to help students explore the emotional expressions of themselves and others. In Lab 1, students begin by observing what the 123 Robot does with the “Act happy” Coder card in a project. They will then compare the behaviors of the 123 Robot to their own behaviors when they feel happy. Students will then expand upon this to create their own emotion codes to make the 123 Robot role-play different feelings. In Lab 2, students will build upon this by thinking about the perspective of a character in a social story, and use the emotion codes created in Lab 1 to show how characters feel in different situations.

Why is it important to name and identify feelings?

The development of self-regulation is a big part of the work of young children, and being able to accurately and effectively name their feelings, is an important building block in this process.1 Our emotions change throughout the day, and for young children, those changes can be felt with great intensity. Being able to give voice to those feelings, to give them a name, helps to share that feeling with others in prosocial ways. It is the first step in being able to exert some control over that feeling, and your expression of it.

Children expressing different emotions

Helping students to build an emotional vocabulary can help them to notice the range of emotions they feel, and to name them effectively, so that they can begin to manage and regulate them in the context of others. To do this effectively, children need to feel safe and heard, so they can build the confidence to be vulnerable without judgment from others.

How are emotions connected to behaviors?

As young children are building this emotional vocabulary, their behavior tends to show their feelings before their words do. Helping children to see this connection between their actions, expressions, and feelings is an important step in ensuring that children see that they have control over their behavior — and, more importantly, that their behavior is not a reflection of their self-worth.

Supportive adult and child

Encourage this by clearly naming behaviors and feelings for and with students in the moment. The framework of “When you do ____, it tells me that you feel ____” can be a useful tool to help students recognize this, and is a great conversation starter to help students take ownership of their behavior.

For instance, a student yelling as he goes to get his coat for recess can prompt a range of responses from the teacher. In this framework, the conversation could go like this:

Teacher: Sam, when you yell, it tells me that you feel angry. Do you feel angry right now?
Sam: No, I feel excited! We’re going to recess!
Teacher: Oh! That was confusing. What is something else you can do to show that you’re excited, without yelling?
Sam: I can smile and jump?
Teacher: Big smiles are a great way to show you’re feeling something happy! And they don’t disrupt the class with loud sounds. Great idea!

How does this connect to the development of empathy and self-regulation?

Understanding how you express emotion connects to how you interpret the emotional expressions of others — an important part of developing empathy.2 To have a truly empathetic response to someone, children need to be able to identify how someone else is feeling, and connect that to how they experience that feeling themselves. Classroom activities that make social-emotional learning a shared endeavor (like this STEM Lab Unit), help build students' capacity for, and expectation of, empathy with their peers and their teachers.3

Children working with teacher

This empathetic development can be channeled to support students’ prosocial behavior, and self-regulation during their interactions with one another.4 Mediating disagreements and differences of feelings with young children is part of every classroom, and helping students to talk about their feelings regularly gives them the tools to be able to begin to solve social problems for themselves. Enabling students to make the connection between their own feelings and actions, and how that affects the feelings and actions of others, creates space for an empathetic loop to occur. So when disagreements do occur, students can work towards social problem-solving in healthier and more effective ways.

What Coder cards do you need?

Below is a list of the main Coder cards used during this Unit. Other Coder cards needed to complete the Unit are listed after the table. See the Environment Setup section of the Summary in each Lab for more detailed information about organizing and distributing Coder cards to your students.

Coder Card Behavior
When Start 123 block Starts the project when the ‘Start’ button on the Coder is pressed.
123 card act sad 123 Robot drives in reverse, turns left then right, plays an ‘uh oh’ sound, and then drives forward to mimic a sad behavior.
123 card act  crazy 123 Robot turns left in a circle, and then turns right in a circle, all while playing a ‘loopy’ sound to mimic a crazy behavior.
123 card act happy 123 Robot turns right 360 degrees and plays a laughing sound to mimic a happy behavior.

Offer students additional Coder cards from the Motion, Looks, or Sounds categories to build emotion codes in Play Part 2 of Lab 1, and in Lab 2. For a full list of Coder cards and their behaviors, see the VEX Coder Card Reference Guide VEX Library article.

Strategies for Teaching with the Coder in this Unit

The Coder offers an opportunity for students and teachers to engage with and share code easily, and tangibly, throughout a Lab’s activities. 

Supporting pre or early readers — Coder cards are designed to support pre-readers, or early readers, using icons to represent the words of the card itself, so students can essentially read the images, if they cannot yet read the words. Encourage students to use these icon images to help them as they work to build their projects. Reinforce this by referring to the images on the Coder cards when you are naming them with students, like “The When start 123 Coder card, the one with the green arrow, always goes first.” 

Images on the Coder cards
Images on the Coder cards

Check and Share code easily — Once Coder cards are loaded into the Coder, students can hold up their Coder to show their code, just as they would hold up a whiteboard with a math solution on it. Use this strategy during group instruction, as a means for checking students’ accuracy before they start their projects. You can quickly and easily see if the correct Coder cards are used, if they are inserted in the correct order, and make sure that they aren’t upside down or backwards. When checking in with groups to facilitate independent activity, look to the Coders and Coder cards to check progress. 

To learn more about Using the Coder as a Teaching Tool, see this article in the VEX Library.

Troubleshooting with the Coder

Coding with the Coder and Coder cards inevitably requires some troubleshooting and debugging. While this is a valuable part of the learning process, here are some solutions to the most common issues you may come across in this Unit:

  • The Coder cards fall out when moving the Coder — When having students hold up their Coders with Coder cards in them, remind them to hold it up straight, and not to tip it sideways. If tilted to the right (or the open side of the Coder), the Coder cards can fall out. Since left and right are not always reliable for young students, encourage them not to tilt the Coder in any direction.
    Coder cards fall out when moving the Coder
    Coder cards fall out when moving the Coder


  • A Coder card is oriented incorrectly — Remind students to make sure that their Coder cards are inserted in the correct orientation - with the words and images facing them, and the pictures on the right (or open side) of the Coder. If cards are upside down or backward, have students pull them out and reinsert them in the correct direction.
    Coder card oriented incorrectly
    Coder card oriented incorrectly


  • A Coder card slot displays a red light when running — If a red indicator light appears beside a Coder card, the Coder card may not be inserted completely into the slot. Remind students to push the Coder cards all the way in, or to take them out and reinsert them if this occurs.
    Video file

For more information about how to use the Coder, see the Using the VEX 123 Coder VEX Library article.

1 Housman, Donna K. "The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: A case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach." International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy 11.1 (2017): 13.

2 Poole, Carla, et al. “Ages & Stages: Empathy.” Scholastic,

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.