Building Emotional Intelligence in Children

Emotional Faces - panel of babies face expressing different emotions

Credit: woodleywonderworks CC by 2.0

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence was introduced to mainstream culture in 1995 when psychologist Daniel Goleman presented it in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman defined emotional intelligence (or EQ for emotional quotient) as a person’s ability to recognize their emotions, control impulses, understand other people’s emotions, and build social relationships.

Emotional intelligence matters because it is correlated to everything from stress management and relationships to academic and career success. Marc Brackett, the director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence shares an exhaustive list of the consequences of low levels of emotional intelligence. He states that “poor EQ skills are associate with depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, aggression, drug abuse, destructive peer relationships, and poor physical and psychological health.” Conversely, higher emotional intelligence is linked to better school performance, more positive social relationships and lower stress levels in adulthood. In fact, in one study 71% of hiring managers reported that they valued a high EQ over a high IQ, citing such desirable qualities as being calm under pressure, effective conflict resolution skills, and empathy and respect towards colleagues.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence

While some children seem to have a natural inclination towards a high emotional intelligence, others struggle mightily with regulating their own emotions, never mind considering someone else’s. Like any other skill set, though, children can learn the skills of emotional intelligence. There are many effective, research based programs used in schools across the country.

Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence is one such program. Their curriculum focuses on teaching the specific skills and components that comprise emotional intelligence-building a “feelings” vocabulary, developing empathy, perspective-taking, self-talk and calming strategies. The center’s mission came about because “the well-being and sustainability of our society depend on each of us using our emotions intelligently.” Their program, called RULER, encompasses these ideas:

  • Recognize Recognizing what you are feeling on a spectrum of pleasantness and energy, how it is effecting you (feeling excited = can’t sit still), and how it may be effecting others.
  • Understand Understanding what may cause a feeling to arise helps in planning how to respond when that feeling arises in the future- “I get frustrated when I can’t get my work done because kids are talking. Next time, I’ll find a quiet corner to work on my own.”
  • Label This means learning to name feelings beyond mad, sad, glad, and bad. There are, after all, subtle differences in such “bad” feelings as “disappointed” and “defeated.” Emotions are complex and having a broad repertoire of “feelings” vocabulary helps in communicating about them effectively.
  • Express There are obviously some ways to express emotions that are better than others. The steps of recognizing, understanding, and labeling help children develop the ability to express their emotions in appropriate ways. If a child feels angry and they have learned to recognize what anger feels like and they know what’s making them angry, they are better able to express their feelings in a constructive way. This is especially true if they have role-played expressing difficult emotions in a supportive setting.
  • Regulate The ability to stop and think before acting (or acting out) is part of regulating oneself emotionally. So is developing a repertoire of strategies to manage strong or unpleasant emotions. Children practice positive self-talk, taking a moment to breath slowly and learning when they need to take a break from a situation. Regulating emotions helps with impulse control, empathy and managing stress.

The skills taught in programs such as RULER can have a significant impact on a child’s long-term health, happiness, and well-being. The benefits of recognizing and managing emotions, developing empathy for others and building strong relationships carry on well into adulthood.


Daniels, Denise, “Emotional Intelligence in Early ChildhoodEQuipping Kids for Life
Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, 1995
Tominey, Shauna L., O’Bryon, Elisabeth C., Rivers, Susan E. and Shapses, Sharon, “Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood” NAEYC March 2017