Emotional intelligence (EI) is a hot topic these days and the focus of more than a few parenting books and articles. Whether you have children or work with them, there are only so many hours in the day, which can make it challenging to process all of the latest findings on EI, much less apply them to everyday life.
This single topic happens to be my passion so allow me to bottom line some of the more compelling findings for you, along with 5 ways you can pull these findings into everyday life to help children grow their emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence Research
Let’s start with the findings:
- Emotional intelligence is important. Like the key to happiness and success in life level of importance. - The Guardian
- We teach emotional intelligence when we model it. - The Gottman Institute
- When it comes to teaching children, play is learning. - Common Understandings - Play-Based Pedagogy
Emotional Intelligence Application
Okay, so now with hours of reading reports and journals aside (you’re welcome), you can direct your attention to the best part of EI --- the practical applications.
How can we as adults, parents, educators, grandparents, and more, nurture emotional intelligence in children? And more than that, how can we make this learning fun?
5 Ways To Nurture Emotional Intelligence
1. Unstructured playtime
Ugh wait, I said “fun” and then lead the list with this?!
Well yes, but hear me out.
When children are given ample unstructured playtime, particularly when that playtime happens alongside siblings and/or friends, they are faced with countless opportunities to practice the four components of EI -- social skills, self-awareness, awareness of others and the ability to care for themselves.
During unstructured playtime, children also have the opportunity to practice conflict resolution and problem solving, both higher-level functions of the brain. Unstructured free play changes the neurons in the part of the brain responsible for these developmental skills.
This means that playing “house” or building a tiny world with blocks is more than just loads of fun—it helps kids form vital connections in their brain, connections that lead to not only classically smarter kids, but more mindful, empathetic and compassionate children as well.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, discusses the science of play in building emotional intelligence in children here.
2. Play games
In the words of parenting expert Dr. Daniel Siegel, you’ve got to “name it to tame it.”
Playing board games and card games designed to encourage children to share their ideas and feelings is a great way to foster EI.
Spending a few minutes each morning or at the end of each day playing a game like PeaceMakers can make practicing social and emotional skills fun -- like hiding kale in your smoothies to eat more greens kind of fun.
Playing games gives children the opportunity to practice taking turns, cooperating, expressing themselves, and more.
In the words of someone far wiser than I, "Play is the highest form of research." (Thank you, Einstein.)
3. Talk about feelings in everyday life
When reading a book or watching a movie, pause now and then to talk about the main character’s feelings. Ask children what they think a character might be feeling and why. Encourage them to imagine what it might feel like to be in the character’s shoes.
The RULER method is an effective tool for identifying emotions in oneself and others. Take a look at how this model could be used during read-alouds.
Recognize: Recognize the emotion. How is the character feeling? How do you know they are feeling that way?
Understand: Understand why they are feeling that way. What happened that made the character feel that way? When is a time that you have felt that way?
Label: Choose a word(s) that best describes the feeling. Think happy, sad, mad, calm, scared, excited and so on…. What word do you think best describes what the character is feeling?
Express: Discuss how one can one appropriately express how they are feeling. How did the character act when feeling ___? How do you act when feeling ___?Regulate: Discuss how to maintain feelings (if it is desirable) or shift feelings (if undesirable). What could you do when you feel ___? What could you do to help a friend when they feel ___?
4. Model emotional intelligence
Kids develop a strong awareness of feelings early on and they can often feel the energies of others, meaning they know when you are feeling angry and tense and they know when you are open and playful, often just with your body language alone.
Sharing your emotions with your children is an effective way to model EI. Call out the emotion, name it and explain why you think you might be feeling this way.
For example, if you’re feeling frustrated you might say, “I'm feeling frustrated! I asked for the shoes to be picked up and I still see the shoes on the floor. I feel like no one is listening.”
Notice the words “I am feeling … I feel like.” These simple phrases send the message that your feelings are your own. This teaches empowering lessons that no one can make us happy/sad/mad/frustrated. Those vibrations are within us and we have the power to change our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions.
When we put our feelings on others by saying things like, “Why doesn't anyone ever listen around here?! You make me so frustrated.” we send discouraging messages that other people have more power over our emotional state than we do.
Noticing your mood states, naming them aloud and working to tame them, models EI for your children … not only noticing and expressing big feelings but regulating behaviors as well.
So, if the mood in your home feels totally different on a playful Saturday afternoon versus a hectic morning before school, take a few moments to point out this difference to help grow your child’s EI (and yours too).
5. Encourage introspection and self-expression
Carol Dweck, psychologist at Stanford University and author of the book Mindset, has taught us the importance of cultivating a growth mindset in children as opposed to a fixed mindset.
According to Dweck, when we praise effort and teach children that their brains can grow, we foster a growth mindset. Conversely, when we praise the outcomes of our children, we nurture a fixed mindset, making it more likely for children to wilt in the face of challenges in fear of not having certain desired abilities.
What does this mean for us as parents? The next time your child shows you a Play-doh creation or painting they've just completed, ask them to share their thoughts and feelings about their creation with you and praise the effort.
Emotional Intelligence In Action
Let’s see these concepts in action, shall we?
Your child comes to you and excitedly exclaims, “Look at my painting mom!”
Replying with a pat answer like, “Awesome!” or “That’s so pretty!” or praising the outcome with, “You’re such an amazing painter. You are my little artist.” are examples of a fixed mindset response.
A growth mindset response looks like, “Wow! You used so many different colors. Can you tell me about your picture?” or, “Thank you for showing me this! What is your favorite part?” or, “You look so happy. Did you have fun making this? Was it easy to do, hard to do?” etc.
The list of possible questions is endless. Using a growth mindset approach allows children the valuable experience of self-reflection and sharing with you as their attentive and supportive audience. This opportunity to talk might even create an opening for them to share about something completely unrelated that is weighing on their mind.
By practicing the many components of emotional intelligence with children on a daily basis, we teach children that emotions aren’t something to shy away from or be scared of.
Teaching EI can feel like a heavy responsibility as we ourselves are working to do the same. Let go of thinking that you need to be "perfect" in regulating your emotions in order to teach EI. Instead, embrace your humanness and shift your focus to being present with your children.
If you find yourself reacting to something or another and/or raising your voice to your children more than you would like, then use the experience to release perfect and model what is like to make mistakes, make amends and ask for do-overs.
Be honest with your child as you express your emotions by saying something like, "I'm sorry I just yelled, I'm feeling really overwhelmed." In these moments, feel good knowing that not only are you practicing and thereby modeling self-awareness, but you are teaching your child about forgiveness and the all-important life lesson that our mistakes can help us learn and grow.
"Our mistakes can help us learn and grow."
And there are few more important lessons in life than this.