Here’s a staggering statistic: Kindergarten teachers report that more than 30% of children entering classrooms today lack the necessary social and emotional skills needed for school life. Yet many teachers rate these skills as more important to school success than children’s ability to read or hold a pencil. In fact, a child’s ability to recognize emotions is a better predictor of success in first grade than cognitive skills or family background.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the process by which children learn to recognize and manage their emotions. Decades of scientific and empirical research show that children who learn EQ skills are associated with numerous important life outcomes, including social competence, academic success, and physical and psychological health and well-being.
Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and co-developer of the RULER method, an acronym for the five components of emotional intelligence (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions), notes, “Research shows that poor EQ skills are associated with depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, aggression, drug abuse, destructive peer relationships, and poor physical and psychological health.” He goes on to say, “Children who are taught the RULER skills have higher grades and standardized test scores. They are less aggressive and less likely to bully. They are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, and are less anxious, depressed, and hyperactive.”
Research also reveals how a child’s physical heath is affected by their emotional well-being. The late Candace Pert, Ph.D., former neuroscientist of the National Institute of Mental Health and author of The Molecules of Emotions, stated, “By teaching children how to manage their emotions, we are literally teaching them how to control their own brain chemistries.” Children who understand and manage their emotions are better equipped to self-regulate and attain better physical and mental health.
Studies in the relatively new field of medicine of psychoneuroimmunology (PIN), the science of the mind-body connection, offer further evidence pointing to a complex neural circuitry linking the immune system to emotions. Several years ago, I was involved with developing a program for Pfizer’s Pediatric Health to help young pediatric patients manage their emotions to attain optimal health outcomes. The initiative, First Aid for Feelings, was introduced to pediatric residents so they could help patients who were dealing with hospitalization and complicated medical procedures. Following the implementation of this program, a survey revealed that children whose doctors had employed this model sustained shorter hospitalizations and required less pain medication. Once these young patients learned emotional coping strategies, the healthcare team was able to help them feel more in control and contribute to their own healing.
All of these findings offer strong testimony for the need to begin teaching EQ skills in early childhood. Kids need to be prepared to handle the opportunities and challenges they will encounter in their everyday lives. They need to be resilient and able to cope in an ever-changing world. We can’t expect to send our children off to school without the ability to interpret the world around them. Yet surprisingly, most children come to school unprepared to deal with the social and emotional obstacles they will face in the classroom.
Young children can learn simple EQ strategies allowing them to manage their emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Teach children a vocabulary for feelings so they have names for the reactions they are experiencing which are their emotions. Encourage them to express their emotions through play, music, art or exercise. Read together and talk about what the characters in the story might be feeling. Create an environment that’s conducive to sharing thoughts and feelings and be a role model for teaching how to express emotions. Validate children’s feelings without being dismissive or minimizing their emotions. Empathetic listening builds trust and allows children to let go of difficult feelings. An emotionally intelligent child will find it easier to demonstrate empathy, respect, tolerance and kindness. They will have the ability to make friends more easily and be better problem solvers.
In my decades of working with children around the globe, few things are clearer to me than the fact that teaching young children about their emotions is critical to their development and sense of well-being. All children can thrive when they can manage their emotions, regardless of language, culture, economic background or ethnicity.
Having a high level of emotional intelligence can have a lifelong effect. While IQ is fixed at birth, EQ can grow over a lifetime. The best opportunity to shape our children’s emotional intelligence is in their early years, and our homes are their very first classrooms for emotional learning. It’s never too early to give our children the emotional building blocks they will need to succeed.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.