Why Emotional Intelligence is the Hardest But Most Important Lesson

There are certain lessons that will stick with students long after they leave your classroom. They might not need to use their multiplication tables every day or reference the War of 1812, but they will use skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and peer leadership.

Another one of the future-ready skills Ozobot is exploring is emotional intelligence. Most psychologists are starting to understand the role that the emotional quotient (EQ) plays in our professional, personal, and social lives. Unfortunately, this trait can be challenging to teach, especially in a large classroom. Here is why your students need emotional intelligence and how you can help them develop it.

Kids Can Process Complex Emotions and Ideas

Educators and parents avoid teaching emotional intelligence because they think children are too young or too immature to handle the content. However, childhood development experts say this is the best time to broach difficult subjects. 

“Too often, we tend to think of our kids as less sophisticated and incapable of processing or understanding the emotional complexities of their world,” writes clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone. “We think we’re protecting them by not bringing up the trickier, less pleasant subjects. But I can tell you firsthand that kids absorb a tremendous amount.” 

Children are constantly observing and absorbing new information. If we’re not helping them understand what they are encountering, they won’t know how to react in the present or the future. To better understand how children process decisions, consider this: By the age of four, kids start to identify and avoid negative external stimuli. By 10, they’re able to identify the problem and decide whether they want to solve it or tolerate it. 

“When a child can make a change to address a problem, they engage in problem-focused coping by identifying the trouble and making a plan for dealing with it,” explains counseling psychologist Meghan Owenz. “When they deem the problem unsolvable, they engage in emotion-focused coping by working to tolerate and control distress.” 

This means that by age 10, kids can tap into their experience to decide how to react to different problems and challenges. They solve or avoid problems based on their knowledge and emotional intelligence.

Children often experience complex feelings, but don’t know how to interpret or communicate them. To solve this, Andrea Lucas, an elementary teacher in San Antonio, Texas, developed an activity. She called it “Tiger Time,” based on the school’s mascot and on the idea that “you have to be able to name your emotions to tame them.”

Each week, she introduces a new word and discusses its meanings, pulling examples from her life or the experiences of the students. She uses events in the classroom to provide context. For example, one week the word was “excluded” because a student was feeling left out. 

Beyond serving as a vocabulary building exercise, the activity allows students to identify their emotions and explain how they are feeling, while also learning to identify the emotions and reactions of others.

EQ Helps Students Cope With Anxiety and Depression

Developing strong emotional intelligence levels at a young age can prepare students to face anxiety in their older years. Many educators have seen students crumble because they don’t know how to deal with educational and personal challenges. 

“Someone can be the most intelligent person ever and end up having issues with depression or anxiety because there’s something that they can’t get over that no one has explicitly taught them how to get through,” says Audrey Bland Hampton

Hampton is the head of Chicago’s Ryan Banks Academy, whose goal is to predominantly serve students of color. She has seen students from all backgrounds and economic levels struggle without emotional intelligence. Without resilience, students can’t bounce back from failure or rejection, causing even more stress and depression.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children and teens have anxiety disorders, but many are left untreated. Roughly 80 percent of those with diagnosable anxiety and 60 percent with diagnosable depression aren’t receiving treatment. 

Untreated anxiety and depression can lead to lower school performance and missed social interactions.

Why Emotional Intelligence is Hard to Teach

Educators understand the value of emotional intelligence, but don’t always know where to start with teaching it. Many think it’s almost impossible to pass on to someone else.

Emotional intelligence is hard to learn because most people are unaware of how others perceive them, writes business advisor Kevin Kocis, who also says EQ is crucial to strong leadership. But we don’t know — and most of us don’t want to know — what other people really think of us. Next, our emotions often trigger before logical thought. This means we react before we have time to plan out what we are going to do. 

If students learn to react a certain way and aren’t taught a different way of reacting, it can be incredibly difficult to change that instinctual reaction for the better.

Education consultant Lou Whitaker, Ed. D. says stressful emotional situations trigger the fight or flight instincts in the hypothalamus; however, the experience also triggers the amygdala, which codes long-term memory. This is why you can’t remember what groceries you need at the store but can remember an embarrassing incident from 10 years ago with painful clarity. 

When you experience stress, your body uses the information stored in long-term memory to trigger a response. Those who have strong emotional intelligence levels are more likely to identify and prevent negative reactions.

The good news is that it is never too late to introduce the concept of emotional intelligence to students. Professor Lisa Hoeffner did just that with her community college classes. After completing one of the lessons, a student approached her and said he was planning to drop the class, but her EQ discussion helped him realize that his anger and frustration was a mask for fear. He was worried that he would fail because the work was hard. Hoeffner helped the student face his fear of failure, and he eventually got an A in the class.

More Schools Are Adopting Social and Emotional Learning

Instead of placing the obligation on teachers to develop the EQ of students, some schools are implementing specific programs to help their students succeed. These social and emotional learning (SEL) programs have proven successful in many instances. 

In an article for Motherly, Sandi Schwartz of Happy Science Mom points research by the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University, and the University of British Columbia on the effectiveness of SEL programs. The study looked at 82 programs serving 97,406 K-12 students. Students who participated graduated from college at an 11 percent higher rate than those who did not and had 19 percent lower arrest rates. The academic and social benefits of SEL programs were the same regardless of the students’ location, race or socioeconomic background.  

“Teaching social-emotional learning in schools is a way to support individual children in their pathways to success, and it’s also a way to promote better public health outcomes later in life,” explains educational psychologist Eva Oberle. “However, these skills need to be reinforced over time and we would like to see schools embed social-emotional learning systematically into the curriculum, rather than doing programs as a ‘one-off’.” 

Oberle emphasizes that these lessons are particularly important in middle-school years, where kids turn away from their parents and start to try and define themselves through more outside influences.

Alternatively, educators with a passion for emotional intelligence are developing programs that students can use. During her time as a teacher, Molly Carroll often had to choose between handling the emotional needs of one student versus keeping up with the academic needs of the class. This led her to develop Flourish, an after-school program for girls 6-12 to develop emotional intelligence. What started with 13 kids soon grew to 200, and now Flourish is a teacher-led K-8 curriculum heading into multiple schools. 

“It is time to bring children back to their roots of human connection through creativity, kindness, laughter, wellness tools, and learning more about their emotional intelligence and how it can help them with lifelong success,” Carroll says. 

As more educators identify the importance of developing the EQ of students, demand for SEL and programs like Flourish will likely continue to grow.

Emotional Intelligence Resources for Teachers

Even if your school doesn’t have a dedicated SEL curriculum, it’s worth your time to instill EQ principles in your students. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” is a pioneer in the world of EQ and has worked to bring this concept to the forefront of society. He believes that IQ determines only about 20 percent of life success. The remaining 80 percent comes from EQ, wealth, temperament, family education levels, and luck. 

While many of these factors (like luck and wealth) are out of the hands of children, parents can help with traits like temperament and emotional intelligence.

To help teachers introduce the basics of emotional intelligence to students, The Thoughtful Parent’s Amy Webb, Ph.D., curated a list of activities she calls “Acts of Kindness” parents can do with their kids, many of which can transfer into student and teacher activities in the classroom. She has a printable graphic you can sign up to receive and hand out to students to give to their families — that way the EQ lessons are reinforced at home.

For another handout or poster you can add to your classroom, the team at GradePower Learning created an infographic on the importance of emotional intelligence in education. They discuss the definition of emotional EQ, share insights from teachers, and provide tips on building emotional intelligence. Taking small steps, like listening to the feelings of students and children, can give adults a space to show their emotional intelligence and pass it onto the next generation.    

Your school doesn’t need a large budget or complex EQ plan for you to build up this future-ready skill. Sundari Johansen at Project Giving Kids encourages children and teens to volunteer throughout their developmental years. While volunteering boosts college resumes, it also develops emotional intelligence by helping kids think about the needs of others, whether they are feeding the homeless, cleaning up a park, or walking shelter dogs. Students better develop empathy for others and perspective on their lives, which are essential developmental skills. Plus, it is never too early to instill a love of volunteering.  

Instructors like Emily Donaldson and Tiger Time or Dr. Lisa Hoeffner at her community college prove that small lessons on emotional intelligence can have a lasting impression on students. The more students are exposed to concepts that improve their EQ, the better prepared they will be to handle whatever comes at them in adolescence and adulthood.

Images by: belchonock/©, wavebreakmedia/©, 1388843, savannaholson0

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