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Raising emotionally intelligent children

Group of toddlers using emotions emojis
Credit: iStock.com/AaronAmat

Decades ago children’s success was traditionally measured by (intelligence) IQ. Today, society no longer measures smarts on IQ alone: instead, our EQ (emotional intelligence) is considered pivotal to reducing stress, defusing conflict and building relationships.

“IQ is just your capacity to think logically and clearly and to solve problems. But this other area – our social and emotional capacity – continues across our lifespan and maximises what we all bring to our learning and experience regardless of intellectual capacity,” says Professor Michael Bernard.

Professor Bernard, from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education and founder of You Can Do It! Education - a social and emotional learning program, has long been interested in children’s social and emotional development.

“It's amazing what you can do in this area for very young children,” he says.

Since he founded You Can Do It! Education more than 20 years ago, more than a million students from age three up have been taught skills in confidence building, persistence, organisation, getting along with others and emotional resilience.

“About 25 per cent of a child’s achievement is accounted for by their intellectual ability. The brain’s intellectual potential is mostly set by about the age of four,” he says.

In contrast, our social and emotional brain develops over the longer term, using a part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex.

“This part of the brain isn’t responsible for intellectual capacity. It's responsible for self-awareness and self-regulation and self-management and social skills,” Professor Bernard says.

How EQ helps our IQ

When Professor Bernard started in the field, there was little research connecting traditional academic achievement with well-developed emotional skills. That was until studies on reading began to show children with weak literacy skills also had under-developed emotional and social capabilities.  

Today, we understand that while the ability to think logically and to reason are important contributors to the development of young children, as are genetics and our home background, so is the ability to manage our emotions, delay gratification, talk to people about our emotions and to control our behavior.

“All of that is such a strong predictor and contributor to student achievement that nowadays I think schools are much more aware of the importance of holistic intelligence as opposed to just the academic success of students,” says Professor Bernard.

Overall in terms of a child’s emotional development parents need to be aware of what their children are feeling to begin with, and be sensitive to those emotions.
Professor Michael Bernard

How can parents help improve their child’s EQ?

In his You Can Do It! Education programs for schools and homes, Professor Bernard shows teachers and parents how to talk about and teach skills like resilience, confidence and persistence.

“I think many parents just don't know what to do when their kids are upset. So they dismiss or disapprove of their emotions, or they let them run rampant,” Professor Bernard says.

Despite the challenges in doing so, Professor Bernard says focusing on EQ is becoming increasingly urgent.

“There are increasing numbers of young people at primary age and beyond that are experiencing emotional difficulties like anxiety. We have 60 percent of kids saying they worry too much. That's a big number and some of those convert into mental health disorders. The sooner we can provide children with education about emotions and negative emotions and what to do with them the better.”

One way parents can help is by teaching their child persistence. 

“It's important for children, as early as possible, to know that the more effort they put into something, the more they're going to learn and the more successful they're going to be. This is something that parents can begin to teach their children at a fairly young age,” Professor Bernard says.

Examples might be encouraging a child to keep working on a puzzle or on a new skill like drawing: easy to do with under five-year-olds as they are always trying so many things.

Modelling persistence and naming emotions

Parents should also model persistence themselves and use words that help our children’s longer term emotional development.

“When parents catch their child persisting, they need to acknowledge their child not by saying ‘Good work’ but by saying, ‘I see you're trying hard. You're not giving up.’ This helps the young child begin to see a link between what they do and their success, and to see that that learning doesn't happen immediately but requires keeping at something,” says Professor Bernard.

It can also help parents when they start to see their child’s emotions as an opportunity to build stronger connections.

“Overall in terms of a child’s emotional development parents need to be aware of what their children are feeling to begin with, and be sensitive to those emotions,” he says.

If a child is angry or sad a parent might help them label this emotion, so they begin to connect feelings to named emotions. In doing so, parents start to help their children become more aware of their emotions and to talk about them: both important aids for parents who can then start coaching children to manage their behavior when they're upset.

“This is huge for children,” says Professor Bernard.

Finally, it’s vital that parents and carers develop the understanding that emotions play an important role in a child’s development.

“They serve a purpose. Kids need to experience emotions to be resilient, so if parents protect them so they never experience negative emotions that will delay their development of emotional intelligence,” he says.

That’s important given the role EQ plays in our long-term success.

Professor Bernard says if we are considering success later in life, emotional intelligence is in some ways more important than traditional IQ.

“People who are successful are not simply getting there due to their IQ,” he says.