How to Build Emotional Intelligence

Every year after it gets cold, but before the first snow, preschool teacher Sabrina North asks parents to send in children’s snow clothes. For the next few weeks, she helps 3-year-olds learn how to put on snowsuits, mittens, boots, and hats.

Again and again and again, she cheerfully deflects the whining and frustration until all the children can do it themselves.

The practicing pays off once the snow comes, but for North, this isn’t just about teaching independence. She’s teaching emotional intelligence or EQ.


EQ refers to social and emotional skills, to a person’s capacity for relationships and sensitivity to oneself and others. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days, but the concept of emotional intelligence has been around for decades; anyone who has been in therapy undoubtedly has been exposed to it, and many of us as parents promote it intuitively.

That may not be enough, however. In our increasingly diverse, adversarial, and violent world, researchers, educators, and psychologists say emotional intelligence is a survival skill, not something that can be left to chance.

Indeed, they argue that EQ is more important than IQ, in the fact that EQ promotes IQ, and that in the next millennium, people who are low on it will be miserable.

So North starts with 3-year-olds just as they are beginning to see themselves as part of a larger community.

“I help them make the connection that persistence leads to competence,” she says. “I tell them, `See what practice did! You can do things for yourself!

Doesn’t that make you feel good?“

Therein lies the rub.

“Feeling good about yourself is the basis for EQ,” says North. “It makes you feel empowered, and the surer you are of yourself, the more you are capable of learning and of giving of yourself.” North is head teacher at the University of Michigan Children’s Center.

Unlike IQ, there is no way to measure EQ except anecdotally. North, for instance, might tell parents, “Joey is having a hard time playing in a cooperative way,” and offer ways for them to promote cooperation, perhaps by doing a chore together and commenting, “This job was so much more fun doing it together!”

EQ is often confused with temperament, but temperament is the style of behavior we are born with while EQ is a learned response. Early childhood education consultant Diane Warner of Hartford explains the difference:

“Temperamental characteristics give you a picture of how a child approaches things slow to warm up or social, intense or laid back but EQ helps you work with those traits so you can better cope with yourself and with the world.”

For instance, an impulsive child with high EQ is better able to restrain himself than that same child with low EQ; a shy child with high EQ learns to initiate small social forays.

Laying the Foundation

The foundation for EQ starts at birth, says child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, professor at George Washington University Medical School:

  • ­Newborns. “When his eyes track you, you know he’s engaged,” says Greenspan. That you tune into him and he tunes into you gives him a secure base to build on.
  • Two to 6 months. Tickles, grins, and other pleasurable interactions woo a baby into feeling trust and intimacy.
  • Four to 10 months. Two-way communication through simple following games (you wave, she waves, you wave back) are how they learn emotional signaling: “I can make Daddy wave!” This is the basis for intellectual skills such as cause and effect and for beginning to read people’s social signals, Greenspan says. His newest book is “Building Healthy Minds” (Perseus).
  • Ten to 18 months. As interactions get purposeful, he takes your hand to walk you to the refrigerator to show he wants juice a sense of self-begins to emerge. The more we point it out, the better: “You wanted juice and you figured out how to tell me! You’re a person who knows how to get what you need.”
  • Eighteen to 30 months. Toddlers act out emotions in play. When you label feelings for her, she can connect them to her own behavior: “That doll is so happy you’re hugging her!”
  • Three years plus. Children are better able to make the link between feelings and ideas when concepts are embedded in an emotional context, says Greenspan.

Instead of, “Show me the red car,” try, “Which color car do you like better, red or blue? I like red; it’s the color of my favorite dress.”

 The point of all this is for a child’s sense of who she is to include emotional awareness alongside her growing sense of physical and intellectual competence. “It’s far more important than we realize,” he says.

That’s because emotions can help the learning process or get in its way, says Warner, who presented a seminar on EQ recently at the annual convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Consider the child who is bullied at recess. “Once back in class, he may be too angry or upset to focus. He withdraws or acts out, but either way, the afternoon lesson is lost on him,” she says. If somehow his feelings are acknowledged, however, he’s more likely to re-engage.

Of all the skills necessary for EQ, the ability to delay gratification may be most significant, according to Warner. She cites the Marshmallow Study, in which an examiner puts two marshmallows on a table and tells a 4-year-old she has a choice: She can eat one now or eat both in a few minutes after the tester returns from a quick errand. Then the child is left alone. A third of the children grabbed the marshmallow and ate it. The rest used all kinds of distractions to resist temptation, from covering their eyes to singing.

 In follow-up studies with the same children through high school, there was a distinct difference between them. The marshmallow grabbers had developed into teens who were indecisive, often frustrated, and lacked resilience. The children who had been able to delay gratification coped well with frustration and were self-reliant and resilient. Even more striking were SAT scores: The grabbers’ average scores were 100 points lower on verbal and math.

“Are there implications for learning?” asks Warner. “You bet. Because EQ skills are not innate. They can be taught.”

Fostering EQ Skills

Educational psychologist Anabel Jensen, an associate professor at the College of Notre Dame and president of 6Seconds, a nonprofit that promotes emotional intelligence, singles out three other EQ skills of prime importance:

  • Impulse control. “Tell even a baby that her needs will be met, but not necessarily instantly: `I’m getting you juice, but first I have to go to the bathroom.’ “ With school-age children, purposefully practice delaying gratification: “Have you noticed how impulsive we all are? Let’s see if we can learn something about ourselves: Our family rule is that we can only have soda on Friday. I’m putting soda in the fridge on Monday. Let’s see if we can resist temptation.”
  • Jensen tells children that a pessimist sees a failure as permanent and pervasive and sees himself as powerless; an optimist sees it as temporary and isolated and asks herself, “What can I do about this?” When her 16-year-old niece failed a Spanish test and concluded, with typical teenage hyperbole, that she was a failure in life, Jensen asked her, “Have you had other bad grades in Spanish? No? Then it’s temporary. Are you failing anything else? No? Then it’s isolated. How much did you study? Ten minutes?
    Then you’re not powerless!”
  • Even though children under 7 typically can’t take another person’s perspective, Jensen suggests talking as if they can. Eventually, the messages will get through: “How would you feel if you were playing with a toy and someone grabbed it?”

By kindergarten, Jensen says you can have conversations with a child to make her emotionally self-aware; for instance, “What do you notice about yourself in a group? Are you someone who jumps right in or likes to watch for a while?” Then help her use that understanding to make conscious decisions about how to behave: “Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to go to this birthday party and try acting in a different way, just to see what it would be like?”

She says people who are coached on emotional awareness in childhood grow up more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and make choices that are responsible and accountable.

“All in all, it doesn’t just make for better people,” she says. “It makes for a better world.”

How Parents Can Help

  • Avoid saying such things as “That doesn’t really hurt,” or, “You have no right to be angry!” A child is entitled to any emotion; what she isn’t entitled to is behaving in a way that endangers herself or someone else.
  • Talking about our own feelings is a powerful role model. Use “I” statements when you can: “I feel bad when you speak in a rude tone of voice.”
  • Make expressing feelings easy and fun: Paste emotive faces from a magazine or draw simple ones on a cardboard circle happy, sad, angry, tearful. Attach them to individual popsicle sticks and encourage your children to use them.
  • Validate feelings whenever possible. Not only does that give a child words, but it also helps him feel less alone.
  • Don’t wait for a traumatic event to talk about feelings.

Original Article

 “It’s Never Too Early To Start Building A Person’s Eq” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016 < >.

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