Teaching Emotional Intelligence through Self-Management and Compassion

Social emotional learning is aimed towards strengthening student relationships and inspiring a greater sense of self-worth in every student.

One important facet of this field is emotional intelligence (EI), also referred to as emotional intelligence quotient (EQ), which helps students build empathy and compassion both within themselves and towards other people. Here’s how to teach emotional intelligence to students at any and all grade levels.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, so it’s important to understand its true definition. At its core, EI is a person’s ability to be self-aware of their emotions and behaviors. HR software company Natural HR explains that emotional intelligence also encompasses the ability to self-manage and self-regulate.

Additionally, conversations about emotional intelligence in schools often include themes of empathy and compassion. However, according to psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, and social psychologist Richard Boyatzis, emotional intelligence is much more dynamic and complex. They outline the four core domains of EI: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. This is helpful for teachers because it makes them aware of the broad scope emotional intelligence.

Why Teach Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is clearly important for interpersonal relationships and leadership development, but what role does it play in schools?

An evidence-based approach to teaching EI called RULER (an acronym for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotion) shows that such skills greatly improve academic achievement. This project from the Yale Center for Social Emotional Intelligence has found that increased social emotional skill learning can improve school climate and boost leadership skills while decreasing anxiety, depression, and instances of bullying amongst students.

Emotionally intelligent people not only perform better in school, they also have stronger interpersonal relationships and are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, Grace Rubenstein, journalist, editor and media producer writes at the Ted-Ed blog. Plus, communication and stress management skills are becoming important in terms of identifying the value of humans over machines, she adds.

Emotional intelligence skill building is also a critical factor in helping children with behavioral and attention issues succeed. Special education writer Peg Rosen explains that emotional intelligence shapes how we respond to challenges. For children who experience heightened emotional challenges, EI is an essential tool for navigating everyday situations.

sports team

Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Class

Since emotional intelligence can be such a broad term, it might be overwhelming for teachers who don’t know where to start. According to psychologist Lisa Firestone, director of research and education at the Glendon Association, discussing mindfulness can be a helpful place to begin. Mindfulness is an important part of EQ because it has been shown to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety in children.

Mindfulness also helps children and young adults slow down and tune into their emotions, which is the first step in regulating emotions. Consultant Matthew Lynch, Ph.D., who is editor of The Edvocate, agrees that tuning into one’s emotions is the first step towards a more emotionally-intelligent self. He says that this is the foundation upon which all other emotional intelligence dimensions are built.

Evidence-based school programs can help teachers incorporate emotional intelligence into everyday activities. Roots of Empathy, for example, is a curriculum that demonstrates how emotional themes relate to each and every part of our lives. Whether using literature to describe another person’s perspective or art to express inner emotions, opportunities for building EI skills are everywhere.

Communicating About Feelings

One of the core tenets of strong emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and discuss one’s feelings. One way to strengthen these skills in the classroom is to develop a vocabulary for emotions.

Educators can teach such skills through the alphabet game, writes sport psychologist Bradley Busch, who co-authored the book, Release Your Inner Drive. By going through each letter of the alphabet and talking about an emotion that corresponds with that letter, students expand their emotional vocabulary. In turn, this exercise allows discussions as to what different emotions feel like.

Modeling EQ behavior is another way to teach it, especially to students in their teenage years. Teen treatment company Paradigm Malibu says teachers can show teenagers what it looks like when someone manages and talks through their emotions in a healthy way. When kids see an example of behavior they can copy, they’ll be more likely to incorporate it into their own lives.

Teachers can also help students understand how to process and reflect on their emotions before acting on them.

Author of EQ, Applied, Justin Bariso says one approach is for a person think about what they want to say before they say it. In that pause, they can ask themselves questions such as “how will my response affect my relationship to this person?” and “will I regret saying this?”. Formulating a response in this way keeps it from being a knee-jerk reaction to high emotions. Teachers who see a student getting visibly upset can intervene in this moment and ask them to step back and take a moment.

feeling emotion

Using Storytelling to Teach Emotional Intelligence

Movies and books also offer examples of how people work through their emotions.

One of the best modern stories about emotion is Inside Out. This animation film, which follows characters that represent a young girl’s emotions, offers an intricate, yet approachable look at what it means to understand feelings. Mary Ryerse, director of strategic design at learning design firm Getting Smart, provides 12 tips for how this movie can be used to teach emotional intelligence. One of these is to have students reflect on emotions and memory through writing, similar to how the character Riley processes her feelings about certain memories.

Educational psychologist, speaker and author Michele Borba includes Inside Out on her list of movies that teach crucial empathy habits. Younger students can also see animated films like Pinocchio, Dumbo, Shrek and Charlotte’s Web while middle and high school students will find lessons in moral courage, kindness and self-regulation in classic films such as Forrest Gump, The Secret Garden, The Sand Lot, and Harry Potter.

True stories serve as foundations for emotional intelligence conversations too. Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., founding president of the EI network Six Seconds, says the story of zoologist Grace Wiley, who specialized in reptiles, is one of her favorites. While tragic, this true account shows the importance of being trained in emotional intelligence. Jensen’s interpretation also serves as a model for how other educators can illustrate emotional intelligence.

Images by: Olichel Adamovich, Tania van den Berghen, Cole Stivers

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