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How to teach emotional intelligence to students

As a child, were you surrounded by adults who were emotionally attuned to your needs and modeled healthy ways to manage frustration and overwhelm?


I hope you were, but if not, you're not alone.


According to one study by the CDC examining U.S. adults from all 50 states:


"...approximately two-thirds reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE); one in six reported four or more ACEs.

Research shows that executive function skills thrive in stable, predictable, and nurturing environments.


Conversely, we know that executive function skills diminish when children are exposed to and experience repeated toxic stress.


With these data points in mind, it is critical that adults charged with the care of children understand how to model and teach emotional intelligence.


Let me show you how.


What are the barriers to fostering emotional intelligence?


As a parent or educator, does it ever frustrate you to the point of dysregulation when your child struggles to independently manage age-appropriate activities like:


  • Completing their homework

  • Following multi-step directions

  • Adhering to morning and evening routines

  • And more...


If so, you may unintentionally model a lack of emotional intelligence.


While all parents and educators have moments of stress and overwhelm that are likely inconsequential to student outcomes, creating healthy routines and habits at home and in the school environment is essential for developing strong executive functions.


As a product of the American public school system, I can attest to some of the barriers students have to developing emotional intelligence:


Social media

More so than ever, students are exposed to relentless imagery on social media, creating unrealistic expectations around gender performance and body presentation.


Without well-developed analytical skills to separate fact from fiction, this unattainable display of hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine imagery leads to a lack of empathy for themselves and others.


A focus on achievement, over wellness

So much of education is focused on achievement, rather than wellness.


For example, students may grow up in a home or community where a "C" is considered a failing mark.


Perhaps they are encouraged to engage in structured activities every day after school, which causes them to feel depleted and exhausted.


Trying to keep up with the Kardashians can become a full-time job that leads to a lack of self-regulation skills and a sense of "never enoughness."


While there is certainly value in striving for good grades and participating in afterschool activities, these activities can create exhaustion or lead to binary thinking about success and failure, damaging students' ability to develop emotional intelligence.


Fortunately, there are some small tweaks parents and educators can make in their weekly routines to prioritize mental health and emotional intelligence so students can lead healthy and purpose-driven lives that lead to improved emotional intelligence.


How to foster emotional intelligence in your classroom or home


Starting today, try these steps to foster emotional intelligence in your classroom or home.


Step 1: Hold space for students to become aware of their feelings


Many students believe emotional intelligence is a fixed biological trait rather than a skill to be learned.


In the United States, both men and women are trained to suppress their emotions through social interactions.


For example, how many times have you heard something like this said to a man or boy:


  • “Man up”

  • “Pull yourself together”

  • "Grow a pair”


For women, it might be more subtle but equally harmful:


  • "Calm down, you're overreacting"

  • "Why are you making such a big deal out of this?"

  • "It must be that time of the month."

When training executive function coaches, I teach them to start their sessions with students by "clearing the deck." This might look like asking a student something like:


  • "Is there anything you would like to discuss before we work on school work?"


If they bring up a moment in their day that was painful, rather than glossing over it, I encourage coaches to say this:


"Tell me more."


By holding space for a release of pent-up emotion, students can exercise their executive function skills to engage in planning, communication, and problem-solving around school work.


Managing school work is hard when they are ruminating on an argument with an older sibling or feeling bitter about teacher feedback on a recent exam.


Step 2: Explain that emotional intelligence is a set of skills that can be learned


All executive function coaches and experienced teachers know this secret...


The best way to get something done is by breaking it down into component parts.


Speech-language pathologists call this task analysis, while teachers call it chunking, but the steps are the same -- when it feels overwhelming, ask yourself:


What is the two-minute version of the thing I am avoiding?


At EF Specialists, our coaches teach students to break down emotional intelligence into three skills:


Emotional awareness which includes:


  1. Empathy towards others

  2. Empathy towards yourself


Emotional agility is our ability to harness emotions and apply them to problem-solving opportunities.


And self-regulation, which is our ability to calm ourselves or cheer up others.


When students understand these skills are skills rather than fixed traits, they can then explore where they feel strong and where they need work.


This opens the door to improved metacognitive skills, such as assessing their strengths and weaknesses and learning how to self-advocate for additional support.


To explore this practice further, check out our guide on assessing executive function skills.


Step 3: Create time to practice self-regulation skills


If you wanted to get stronger, you would hire a personal trainer or join a gym membership.


The same approach goes for developing executive function skills like emotional intelligence.


A wealth of empirical data shows that mindfulness routines improve mental health, self-regulation skills, and cognitive functioning.


Knowing this, parents and educators can foster these skills at home and in their classrooms to unleash the benefits of more emotionally intelligent students.


Since meditation can be challenging for students with ADHD, here are a few practices our coaches at EF Specialists use, which I also teach to coaches through the Executive Function Coaching Academy:


Finger breathing: Students run the finger of one hand along the outstretched fingers of another, breathing in as they go up one finger and out as they go down the same finger.


Walking meditations: Students can start their day or use part of a class period to walk around a sunlit area, notice the greenery, take deep breaths, and feel their soles connect with the earth. Even five minutes can be transformational.


Embedded reflection time: Teachers and parents can end the day by asking students, "What are you most proud of doing today?" This guided reflection helps students develop self-awareness and metacognitive skills.


For more tips on building executive function skills in the classroom or home, explore our articles by topic.


In Summary


Emotional intelligence are a set of skills that can be developed by working on three distinct skills:



To get started in guiding your students in developing these skills, try these steps this week:


  1. Start your interaction with a child or student by asking: "Is there anything you would like to discuss before we work on school work?"

  2. Explain to your students that emotional intelligence is a set of skills that includes emotional awareness, emotional agility, and self-regulation. Ask your students how they would rank their strengths in these skill areas.

  3. Have your student choose one self-regulation activity to test drive and ask them to share what was most helpful.


Remember, just because no one taught you these things doesn't mean it can't start with you. Be a trendsetter, not a trend follower!


🤙🏻



P.S. These are skills that executive function coaches work on with their students. If you want to try working on them with your students, consider joining hundreds of other educators and parents who have completed my Semester Success Blueprint Course. In less than 2 hours, this comprehensive course will teach you and your student the system I developed to help hundreds of students learn how to manage school effectively and raise their self-awareness and engagement with school.





About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 


With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.


He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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