Four Ways to Foster Emotional Intelligence

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This blog is Part III of a series on early childhood.

People who can self-regulate big emotions and connect well with their peers are more successful, healthier and wealthier than those who can’t (Achor, 2011; Goodwin and Miller, 2013). But these important skills are often missing from a test-obsessed school culture. How can we purposefully integrate social and emotional learning into everything we do? 

With mental health issues on the rise for adults and school-age children alike, we all need to take a moment to improve the ways in which we help young people deal with negative emotions. These tips work well both for educators and for parents.

1. Model the behavior we want to see. Avoid the behavior we don’t want to see.

This is the most powerful way we can build emotional intelligence. When frustrated children use our own harsh words, tone or body language, it’s like holding a not-so-flattering mirror up to ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect, and our children need to see that everyone sometimes feels sad, disappointed or frustrated. But we can show them how to deal with big emotions in a healthy way.

We need to ask ourselves:

  • How do I want my students or children to act when frustrated?
  • How can I show them what self-regulation looks like?
  • How can I show them that I am the only person I can control?

This last bullet point is key. If we don’t want our young children to be controlling of others, we can’t be controlling of them. We can set limits and even give consequences without being dictatorial.

2. Use calmer moments to prepare children for difficult situations.

We can have an enormous impact on teaching social and emotional learning through routines, pictures, role-plays, explanations, questions and even scripts. Everyone likes to know what’s coming, and although it might be easier for adults, we wouldn’t want children to simply go with the flow, mindlessly following directions without expressing emotions. And we can’t wait until the tense moments to teach them what to do.

Routines and rituals add a flow and a rhythm to our days, helping young children better understand what to expect. And when we change routines, we need to notify children in advance. If, for example, we have a special event that requires our bathroom break to be taken before snack time, we need to tell our students a couple of times; this will make the change easier to manage.

Pictures help children to actually see what’s coming. My family has an insane summer coming up with lots of trips planned and an international move! One morning, my 4-year old started asking when different summer events were going to happen. Instead of simple explanations with words, I took five minutes to crudely draw the order of some of the major events. I discussed it with my two young children, hung the drawing up next to the kitchen table and refer back to it from time to time.

When my 2-year old was having trouble separating at drop-off time, I decided to talk with him about it and role-play before we left the house. I would say, “Let’s practice. When Mommy says, ‘Bye Andrew,’ what do you say?” He said, “Bye Mommy.” We did it a couple times and that did the trick! No more crying at drop-off time.

Short conversations about emotional regulation with children are shockingly effective. Pick only one thing to focus on at a time, and just before or after lessons in the classroom (or bedtime at home) have a quick, calm chat. Try to ask questions to get the kids’ brains going, such as, “Next time someone takes a toy from you, what can you do instead of hitting?” Adding in the power of visuals or pictures takes this strategy to the next level.

Even young children enjoy infographics. I created the one below and put it on the wall next to our reading nook in my 4-year old’s bedroom. We refer to it once or twice a week so it doesn’t become a chore. He loves it. He said to me, “I’m going to do all those things to have a strong heart.”

Scripting lines is something I learned really as a coping mechanism. When my children demand things in a whiny voice, it drives me nuts. So, I started to reply to things like, “I want milk!” with, “Can I please have some milk, Mommy?” before I gave it to them.

Repetition is key here. Children eventually learn a better way to communicate. It certainly doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it’s the most beautiful thing. My two young children can often be observed saying things to each other such as:

Andrew: “Can I play with that?”  

Alex: “When I’m finished, you can have a turn. Do you want to play with this instead?”

Andrew: “OK. Thank you.”

Alex: “You’re welcome.”

The first few times this happened, my husband and I nearly passed out! But now it is a more regular occurrence. Several child development experts repeat: Focus on the behavior you want, not the behavior you don’t want to see. Instead of, “Don’t hit,” we should say, “Tell an adult if someone does something to you that you don’t like and we will help.” It becomes even more powerful if we give children a key phrase, such as “I need help please” and practice it with them in a role-play scenario.

3. De-escalate tense situations.

After using the two strategies above, tense moments should be reduced but will not be eliminated. When life inevitably does not go the way children want it to, they are likely to get upset.

We can respond with steady voices and verbal cues that we’ve practiced during calm times. The first step shared by many experts is to offer empathy. “I see that you are upset because we can’t go outside right now. It can feel frustrating when we aren’t able to do something we really want to do.” This offers a connection and an acknowledgment of their feelings.

Next, we can offer a conditional “yes” such as, “How about we go outside as soon as it stops raining?” Or offer a choice such as, “Would you like to draw the playground or water our classroom plant?”

4. Debrief the tense situations much later when everyone has calmed down.

When the brain is flooded with emotion, we cannot learn new lessons. It helps to wait at least a few hours after a tense event to help kids learn from it. Again, with a calm and respectful tone, we can ask questions that help young children to reflect upon what happened and how they can handle similar situations in the future.

What are your favorite ways to build emotional intelligence? Do you think these tips could work with older children and teens? Comment below.


For more practical ways to apply research in the classroom, see Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary or Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. Or join me for a world-changing summer workshop this June in Washington, D.C.

Additional References:

Achor, S. (2011). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. London: Virgin.

Goodwin, B. and Miller, K. (May 2013). “Research Says / Teaching Self-Regulation Has Long-Term Benefits.Educational Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/may13/vol70/num08/Teaching_Self-Regulation_Has_Long-Term_Benefits.aspx