Emotional intelligence (also known as EQ) sounds like a trendy new way of looking at how the brain works, but actually it was first detected and named in back in the 1960s when educators were beginning to think in a variety of new ways about how we learn and behave. Then, about a decade ago, it got a flood of attention as researchers began to suggest EQ might be more important than IQ, and a book about it became a best seller.

Today, there is less hype about it, perhaps, but the emotional health and strength of children and adolescents is clearly steadily gaining ground as a priority in education, perhaps helping to improve everything from academics and behavior to absenteeism and social isolation.

“Even more than IQ, researchers have found that our emotional awareness, empathy and the ability to handle feelings will determine our success and happiness in life,” says Sinead Smyth, a therapist working with the Gottman Institute, which is named for the researcher and author John Gottman, who promotes enhancing EQ in children. “Kids with high levels of emotional intelligence communicate more clearly, take turns and share, focus on resolving problems, and understand other kids’ feelings.”

Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says if schools help develop emotional intelligence, their students will be less impulsive, less inappropriately emotional and depressed, and are likely to get better grades and be more apt to attend class and participate. Beyond, that, he says, researchers have found ways for these skills to be taught, and he believes schools must make it part of their mission.

Erica Huck, a school counselor at Pyle Middle School in Rockville, Maryland, says that she repeatedly finds that students who have higher levels of EQ are more successful in a wide range of ways, particularly as they mature. They may be more quiet and reserved when they are younger, but if they have developed these skills, they will be able to use them as they gain confidence.

“Part of being an adolescent is being self-centered and impulsive. But some of these students know better how to keep emotions and impulses in check,” she says. “We all know those skills will serve them well.”

Like Brackett, she also believes that EQ can be developed in students, and she says increasingly it is a priority in schools as they determine that it not only makes students stronger and healthier emotionally, but results in improving their academic performance.

What is EQ?

The Oxford Dictionary defines EQ as “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Brackett calls it “the process of integrating thinking, feeling, and behaving in order to become aware of the self and of others, make responsible decisions, and manage one’s own behaviors and those of others.”

Brackett and the Yale Center have developed a system for imparting EQ skills that they call RULER, and the approach has been adopted successfully by a number of schools. The acronym stands for:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others.
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions.
  • Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.
  • Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context.
  • Regulating emotions with helpful strategies.


Many times today in education, EQ is discussed in talk about social-emotional learning (SEL), which adds some life skill components to those typically described in discussions about EQ.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is at the forefront of the effort to make SEL a priority. It has a variety of resources available to schools to implement programs that help students develop EQ, including a guide to making it a schoolwide or district effort and specific approaches in the classroom.

CASEL has developed this list of SEL core competencies:

Self-awareness: Know your strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”

Self-management: Effectively manage stress, control impulses, and motivate yourself to set and achieve goals.

Social awareness: Understand the perspectives of others and empathize with them, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Relationship skills: Communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

Responsible decision making: Make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety, and social norms.

CASEL reports that about 75% of principals are encouraging teachers to teach SEL in the classroom, and 90% of school districts have acquired material for students to learn about it.

What Can Educators Do?

Advocates say initially, attention to the emotional health of students has to become a priority for schools; too often it is talked about, but other priorities related to grades and curriculum push it aside. That requires that educators understand it and its value and make a commitment to it, perhaps reinforced by effective professional development and the expectation it be covered in class.

Teachers should make it second nature to be aware of EQ in their students and find ways to talk about it with them and help them develop it.

Another first step is for teachers to assess their individual students when it comes to EQ, and consider ways they can help them improve it or even determine if they need other services – a meeting with a counselor, a talk with a parent, or help from an outside professional.

The RULER system uses four tools that help students establish norms they will follow about emotions, and what is expected in connection with how other people feel. It can help them track, understand and regulate their feelings and respond appropriately, and then develop a “blueprint” to follow to guide emotions.

One of the most successful approaches for educators is immediate feedback handled in the appropriate way. Brackett says they should connect things that happen and the emotions that the student and perhaps another person involved are feeling. “So, if a student says something hurtful, they might ask them ‘Did you see what happened when you said that?’ Kids can be ‘emotional scientists’ and learn about how they feel and how emotions develop and affect others.”

Smyth agrees, and says that educators can point out emotions and their impact in a real event or in a book or movie. They can identify them and discuss their effect and how they were handled. Beyond that, she and other experts say educators should learn about their own EQ, be objective about their strengths and weaknesses, talk about them, and model good emotional health.

“Understanding and being able to talk about your emotional health is an important part of having strong levels of emotional intelligence,” Brackett says. “For a teacher or parent, it’s obvious that is a good starting point.”