Introduction to Emotional Intelligence Skills

Whether it’s in the boardroom or the classroom, individuals need the skills to communicate, work in teams, and let go of the personal and family issues that get in the way of working and learning. Such skills add up to what is known as emotional intelligence, and they are even more important as educators realize that these skills are critical to academic achievement.

The birth of “emotional intelligence”

Emotional intelligence is different from general or common intelligence. It’s the ability of an individual to monitor their own emotions, to monitor the emotions of others, to understand the differences between them, and to use all of this information in order to guide their actions. This is about accurately understanding the emotions of oneself and others, as well as expressing emotions in a way that’s accessible.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman popularized the term “emotional intelligence” in his landmark 1995 best-selling book of the same name. What emotional intelligence is, says Goleman, “is the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” Or, as Maurice Elias, Rutgers University psychology professor, puts it, “It’s the set of skills that helps us get along in life with other people in all kinds of life situations.” He calls it the “missing piece” in American education.

By understanding emotional intelligence as a set of skills, we’re empowered to work with our students to develop these skills.

So what are these skills?

Positive Psychology breaks down these skills into 4 dimensions and the associated essential skills:

  1. Notice and understand our own emotions,
  2. Noticing and understanding the emotions of others
  3. Effectively regulating emotions
  4. Using emotions to facilitate performance

Note that developing these skills, like developing any other skills, is not “one and done”; it’s not a quick fix or a one-time lesson. The best programs, says Elias, take no less than three years to get to a place where teachers are comfortable and students are showing the benefits.

While a growing number of school programs include elements of instruction aimed at a child’s emotional needs, too many of those programs are fragmented, short-term, and not well-integrated into the regular curriculum or school structure. Just as we don’t expect kids to learn a language in a year, we can’t expect kids to learn social and emotional skills in one year. Like so many other skills, it’s a matter of practice, practice, practice.

It’s a matter of permission to have feelings

My granddaughter was in kindergarten and, unbeknownst to the teacher, she was struggling after two recent deaths in the family. During class one day, she put her head down on the desk and started quietly crying. The teacher said, “Stop crying now. This isn’t the time for that. You need to be paying attention to your work.” But Izzy continued to cry. Then, she got up from her desk and walked to a back corner of the room, where she sat down on the floor and cried.

“Izzy, come back to your desk now. This isn’t crying time.”

Izzy’s response reflects a kindergartener’s simple awareness of her own emotions, as she stood up with her hands on her hips and said, “No! My mommy says I can cry when I want to. And I want to cry right now!” Then she sat on the floor again.

As educators, we want to manage the class and keep moving forward with our lessons. And even more, we want to satisfaction of deep connection with our students. The teacher could have given an assignment to ask the person at the next desk how they feel right now and to share for a minute, while she quietly and privately asks Izzy, “You seem sad. What’s happening right now?”

That simple question starts to build emotional intelligence even at a 6-year-old level. It builds relationship and connectedness; it builds trust and understanding. And it helps the student identify what she’s feeling and what she can do with that feeling (e.g. draw a picture of it, talk about it, etc.).

Emotional intelligence starts with us, the adults

All the above skills work together synergistically. For instance, expressing emotions is impossible if one is not aware of one’s own emotions. How can we express what we do not feel? And it all starts with adults.

If we, as adults and educators, can learn these skills of emotional intelligence and practice them in our daily lives, then we can teach them to our students, our families, and our community. The secret to teaching emotional intelligence is to practice it ourselves.

We have to look inside ourselves to find the answers. There isn’t a book or video series that can tell us how we’re feeling or what to do with that. We need to live this ourselves and practice emotional intelligence on a daily basis.

And by practicing it, we create the opportunity and model it for students to do the same. We engage in more profound, more powerful, more meaningful conversations that translate into flourishing classrooms and thriving schools, strong communities and a better future for our kids (and ourselves).

Getting started with emotional intelligence

How are you feeling right now? Take a breath. Are you sure about how you’re feeling now? Emotional intelligence starts that easily — it’s about right now.

If you’re unable to recognize your emotions and see how they are affecting your behavior, all your cognitive firepower won’t do you as much good as you might imagine. A gifted child who doesn’t have the permission to feel, along with the vocabulary to express those feeling and the ability to understand them, won’t be able to manage complicated emotions around friendships and academics, thereby limiting his or her potential.

When something comes up in the classroom, we immediately have feelings or a reaction. What are you feeling at that moment? What are you reacting to? As you determine what you’re reacting to, what additional feelings come up?

We can learn to identify and understand all our feelings and then respond in helpful, proportionate ways — when we improve our emotional intelligence.

Read more about being curious, listening, and developmental assets.


Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is a co-founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training adults across the country in emotional intelligence and the power of discussion circles for teens. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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