Developing Emotional Intelligence

Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            It is one of the primary responsibilities of the school counselor to provide their students the necessary tools to be able to control their own behavior in a positive and appropriate fashion. This is what is known as EQ or Emotional Quotient.  Counselors teach their students how to understand and manage human emotions, encouraging the development of “internal assets” such as integrity, honesty, restraint, empathy, decisiveness, and friendship-making skills.

            John D. Mayer, a researcher and associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, a Yale University psychology professor, coined the term emotional intelligence in 1990 after exploring the relationships between cognitive brain functions (such as memory, reasoning, judgment, and abstract thought) and affect (including emotions, moods, and feelings of fatigue or energy).  They describe emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize how you and those around you are feeling, as well as the ability to generate, understand, and regulate emotions.  Once labeled, the concept of emotional intelligence spread rapidly. 

            In 1995, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and writer for The New York Times, expanded on the Mayer-Salovey theory claiming that the art of understanding and managing human emotions “can matter more than IQ” in determining whether a person leads a successful life (Goleman, 1995).

            Focusing on emotional intelligence or the emotional quotient concentrates our efforts on encouraging “internal assets”.  These assets including caring, motivation to achieve, commitment, to equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, self-control, planning and decision-making abilities, self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a positive view of personal future. 

            But the time a person reaches adulthood, emotional habits are fairly well set.  To change, an adult must unlearn, then relearn behavior. So, it’s up to us as the School Counselor to ensure that we are building the child’s emotional intelligence correctly from the beginning.

            Emotional intelligence works along with personally styles or traits.  People can be emotional intelligent whether they are extroverts or introverts, warm or aloof, emotional or calm.  It’s the development of such attributes as conflict-solving skills, self-motivation, or impulse control that proponents agree can contribute much to a child’s ultimate success.  Success also involves staying centered on a positive path to avoid risk behavior such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco use, sexual activity and others.

            Hundreds of studies show that how caregivers such as parents, teachers, counselors, etc. treat children in general – whether with warmth and nurturing or with harsh discipline – deeply affects a child’ emotional life.  But these caregivers can also intentionally guide children to develop emotional skills.  Adults can teach empathy by simply expressing their own feelings frequently, pointing out another person’s feelings, and encouraging the child to share his or her feelings.

            Children develop optimistic outlooks when they observe their parents’ optimism, says Lawrence E. Shapiro (1997).  Shapiro, who frequently uses creative games to teach, suggests the “Stay Calm” game to develop anger control.  While one child concentrates on playing pick-up sticks, another child is allowed to tease him in any way he likes as long as he doesn’t actually touch him.  Each player gets one point for picking up each stick, and two points for showing no reaction to the teasing. 

           We can also use the following suggestions to encourage the development of the internal assets that build up emotional intelligence in their children.

  • Helping people.  Regularly spend time, whether as a family or as a school community, helping others.  Volunteer at local shelters or nursing homes.  Show care for your neighbors.
  • Empathy.  Model mutual respect in the school community.  Do not tolerate insults, put-downs, name-calling, or bullying.  Talk about how selfish or hurtful choices and behaviors affect other people.
  • Decision-making skills.  Include your students in decisions that affect them.  Give them a chance to talk, listen to them respectfully, and consider their feelings and opinions.  Allow for mistakes; don’t blow up at a poor decision.  Instead, help them learn from their errors. 
  • Planning skills.  Give your teenagers daily planners or date books and demonstrate how to use them.  Show them how to plan ahead for long-term assignments so they’re not overwhelmed at the last minutes.
  • Self-esteem.  Celebrate each child’s uniqueness.  Find something special to value and affirm.  Express your love (unconditional positive regard) regularly and often.  Treat your students with respect.  Listen without interrupting; talk without yelling even if they are interrupting and yelling.
  • Hope.  Inspire hope by being hopeful.  Don’t dismiss your student’s dreams as naïve or unrealistic.  Instead, share their enthusiasm.  Eliminate pessimistic phrases from your professional learning community’s vocabulary.  Replace, “It won’t work” with “Why not try”.  My father always told me, “It never hurts to ask” and “The worst they can do is say no”. Just this thinking provides hope.
  • Assertiveness.  Teach your students the difference between assertiveness (positive and affirming), aggression (negative and demanding) and passivity (vulnerable and effortless).  Point out examples of these behaviors in movies, television programs, media, and the community.  Teach your students to stick up for themselves instead of going along with the crowd because it’s easier.


Goleman, D. (1995).  Emotional Intelligence.  City, State:  Bantam Books.

Shapiro, L. E. (1997).  How to raise a child with high EQ – A parents guide to emotional intelligence.  City, State:  Harper Collins.

Life is not a contest!

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.     – Anna Quindlen

            Let me remind you that life is not a contest.  So much of the time we treat it as though it were a foot-race – that the first to complete all the stages of development and get there (wherever there is) wins.

            Piaget saw this as “the American question”.  When he visited the United States from his home country of Switzerland, he was repeatedly asked, “How do you accelerate the progress of a child through the stages?”  His answer, in summary, was that children develop at their own rate.  And, he cautions, do not push children through any of the stages.  This is especially true in the adolescent years when children are already so aware of their peers.  Forcing a false comparison only deteriorates the self-image further.

            Piaget emphasized that the development of skills must unfold naturally and cannot be easily accelerated by adult activities.  These conclusions support the belief that students should not be expected to function at levels that are beyond them.  It is believed that pushing a child through the stages does not encourage deep thinking.  The child is just surface learning and thus will remediate at the formal operations stage to catch up on the material that was skipped.  This supports the idea that the opposite outcome is actually when a child is pushed through.  It actually slows down the logical thinking and cognitive processes and, usually, cripples the decision-making skills. 

            Speeding up the developmental stages confers no advantage.  In fact, if there is a relationship, it is an inverse one.  That is, if any change occurs at all by pushing a child through the stages, it is a negative one.  The child needs to experience the depth of each stage, not simply the surface.

            So, what can you do as a counselor to help guide students through these stages?

  • Be “askable”.  You want to be nonjudgmental so your students don’t fear disapproval or criticism when they bring an issue to you.  If you don’t watch for those windows of opportunities and respond honestly, children may not bring up any subject – small or serious.
  • Be open in all areas and subjects.  Books, pamphlets, television dialogue and music lyrics all can be used as a springboard to launch a chat.  The easiest way to communicate is by being open as questions occur during everyday occurrences.
  • Steer teenagers toward friends their own age.  Studies show that adolescents whose friends are the same age don’t have the behavior problems of those with older friends.
  • Encourage other pursuits.  Expose students to a broad range of activities so they can find something they want to get involved in.  Encourage activities that emphasize teamwork, strength, and character development.  Encourage doing volunteer work, playing instruments, going to sporting events, getting involved in the community, and other ideas that send a positive message.

One Positive Role Model

Research supports that children will thrive if they have just one positive role model.  Kids are not necessarily trouble makers.  It’s just that the teenage years bring on that developmental stage where they are individuating from their parents.  But, they still need that most important sense of belonging.  They just need a place where they feel comfortable, connected and welcome.  They need a mentor, friend, adult role model who believe in them and guide them to make positive life choices as a young person.  You can provide role models for your students that match values of the professional learning community!

            But, you can also be that support as the counselor.  Tired, tense and overextended counselors sometimes inadvertently fail at supporting their students in the way they need.  Educators often give material favors or “empty praise” as expressions of support, yet the teen remains apathetic.  Giving rewards doesn’t satisfy the question lurking deep inside, “Do my counselors and teachers really care about me?”  and therefore fail to be the real support they require.  We choose to spend time with people and activities that we love and bring us joy.  If we rob our students of our time in lieu of material and financial objects, then they get the underlying message they are not valued and/or loved.  Time is valuable, especially at this time of life when our teens are testing everyone’s love. 

            Try the following ideas, borrowed from both counselors and parents, to strengthen the counselor/student relationship:

  • Plan surprises.  Leave notes for your students or pull a few together for a special surprise such as a dessert you’ve prepared, popcorn party, etc. The time that you spent preparing the note or dessert sends an important message.  Remember, actions speak louder than words!
  • Play together.  If personalities are clashing, play can lessen the tension.  Pull the students to exercise, study together, simply play board games, etc.  Use anything that promotes discussion as the “play”.
  • Ask their opinions.  Allowing student input relates the message that their opinions are valuable and leads to less friction and more understanding.  Talking it out helps!
  • Be accessible. An “open door” policy requires making yourself available to students. Be available during transition points in your student’s day as well as for appointments when they need extended time.
  • Be there for your students.  Attend your student’s sports event, plays, concerts, etc. Your presence is a gift of time that is priceless.
  • Eat lunch with the kids.  Make it a habit to eat with the students. Whether you are pulling specific students for special time with you or simply eating in their space, your presence is time given to them.
  • Celebrate for trying.  Give flowers after cheerleading tryouts (to all – not just that make the squad), give a CD for running for class office or for completing a special academic project.  But, remember, these must be true gifts – not rewards every time your students do something.  They should not expect something – Surprise is important here. The point is to show that stepping out and trying is valuable.
  • Say no!  Being firm and consistent across the school culture speaks a message of love and loyalty.  On a deeper level that one only realizes as they mature, we appreciate our parents, teachers and administrators for being firm. 
  • Acknowledge their coming and going.  Welcome them as they come into school. Part with, “I love you. Be careful;” or “Hang in there”.