What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence means a person can manage their emotions, communicate those emotions effectively, resolve conflict nonviolently, and make responsible decisions.

Emotional intelligence consists of three primary skills:

1. Using emotions effectively. Emotionally intelligent people use their emotions to help them think and problem solve in school and at work.

2. Identifying emotions properly. Emotionally intelligent people are able to accurately identify the feelings of themselves and others, which means they can read situations and relationships.

3. Regulating emotions skillfully. Emotionally intelligent people can harness their own emotions, and also use their empathetic responses to other people in helpful ways.

These skills are especially important for kids to learn early on, as they have a significant impact not just on their education, but their lives as a whole.

Why is emotional intelligence important?

According to Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, research has shown us that “emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” which impacts attention and memory function. If a student is anxious or agitated, they may not be able to focus on what is being taught.

Brackett points out that:

“School is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria.”

He believes that parents and teachers oftentimes assume that kids have an innate ability to cope with these stresses, which is often untrue. Kids must be taught the skills needed to confront emotions and handle them properly.

This is why many schools across the country have instituted social and emotional (SEL) learning programs. SEL educators coach children how to accept others’ beliefs and values, discuss differences of opinion without personal attacks, and approach conflict resolution properly. They strive to establish an environment of respect, trust, and empathy.

What are the benefits of teaching social and emotional learning?

  • Improved academic performance
  • Positive social behaviors
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Less emotional distress
  • Reduced violence and aggression
  • Future success
  • Improved physical health

According to Vickie Blakeney, an SEL curriculum coordinator, research “shows that kids involved in intense SEL programs scored on average 10% higher on their standardized tests.”

How parents can help

  • Practice what you preach. Children seeing their parents displaying healthy communication and emotional skills will prompt them to do the same.
  • Talk about your kids’ feelings. If a child is experiencing a strong emotion—whether it be anger or frustration—take the time to ask them exactly how they feel, teach them it’s OK to feel that way, and then help them manage that feeling.
  • Talk about your feelings. Don’t be afraid to show your child that you also experience different moods and emotions. Take the time to speak out loud about what you’re feeling to help him or her identify when others are feeling that way in the future.
  • Don’t be general. There are so many other emotions aside from just ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ Teaching children to verbalize exactly what they’re feeling—anxious, agitated, disappointed—will help them effectively communicate their emotions and better handle them.
  • Validate their feelings. Even if a child is having a total meltdown, it’s good to say something like, “I understand that you’re frustrated we can’t go swimming now, and it’s OK to feel that way.” This way your child knows they’re understood.
  • Teach empathy. It’s not always easy for kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and see their point of view. You can help kids see what compassion looks like by practicing it yourself.

How educators can help

  • Integrate SEL skills into daily curriculum
  • Take advantage of teachable moments, such as when a student is acting out or crying
  • Ask kids about their emotions. One school in California asks kids if there was anything upsetting that happened at home, and then how it makes them feel. The teacher can then help them think about ways to communicate their emotions at home.
  • Teach nonverbal cues. A teacher in a Sacramento elementary school had kids identify an emotion and then freeze the expressions and postures they associate with it. Kids were then asked what they could do in those moments, such as self-talk and deep breathing.

Here are some great social and emotional learning resources and lesson plans for teachers, which include printables such as kindness awards and activities like acting out conflict.

Two other important approaches to children’s’ healthy development are teaching the whole child and life skills-based education.


Image credit: Alex Yosifov/CC BY 2.0

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