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Developing a child's Emotional Intelligence
For Parents and Teachers

From S. Hein's out of print booklet


The first steps to developing a child's EI are emotional self-awareness and emotional literacy. This means more than just teaching them to say "I feel angry. I feel sad." Instead, it means giving them a precise vocabulary with which to express themselves, particularly with respect to their negative feelings, since the positive ones take care of themselves. For example, I advocate we teach them to say:

  • I feel criticized. I feel afraid. I feel threatened. I feel invalidated. I feel mocked. I feel underestimated. I feel controlled. I feel lectured to. I feel punished. I feel confused. I feel bored.
  • There is tremendous potential power behind these words when they come from the honest mouths of young children who have not yet learned to hide their true feelings. I say "potential" power because the potential depends entirely on having at least one adult who will listen to them, who will hear them and who will respond.

    When we teach children to express themselves, we are helping them begin to take responsibility for their own emotional needs. We do this by teaching them to first identify and then to communicate their feelings and needs. When we do this, we are empowering them in a very tangible way. If we then respect their feelings, and we teach all children mutual respect for feelings, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will live to see a different world--a world where problems are solved by mutual respect rather than by force, power and violence.

    Another component of a highly developed high emotional intelligence is empathy. I believe children are by nature empathetic, and research supports this belief. What we need to do, then, is find ways to nurture this innate empathetic ability.

    In my experience, children want to make friends, not enemies. One way we all make friends is by finding out what we have in common. And the way we do this is through empathy, compassion and understanding.

    To really understand, though, requires that we be adept at listening and asking the right questions. We need to ask, for example, not just "what happened?" but, "how did you feel?"

    It has been said that to understand all is to forgive all. I believe emotional intelligence is absolutely essential to real understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.

    And when the brain is stimulated with positive feelings--when it is energized--it simply learns better. But when a child is afraid or confused, his cognitive brain shuts down, so he cannot learn. Years ago, John Holt recognized this when he said children fail because they are scared, bored, and confused.

    In this section I discuss several topics of special concern to those teachers and parents. These include discipline; fear and safety; and empathy, respect, conscience and morality. Then I offer several specific suggestions for adult caregivers.

    Consequences-Natural vs. Fabricated

    The word "consequences" is often used in discussions of child-rearing. Typically the word is synonymous with "punishment." For example, a common "consequence" for children is getting "grounded" or being sent to "detention".

    Such consequences fall under the category of "fabricated consequences." Fabricated consequences are those which are created by someone who has power over someone else. These are opposed to natural consequences, which will occur naturally without the intervention of an authority figure.

    Here is an example. If a child regularly hits other children, it can be expected that a natural consequence would be that the other children will avoid him and he will be left with no friends. A fabricated consequence would be to have the child write 500 times "I will not hit people."

    Children are helped more when educated as to the likely natural consequences of their actions, rather than being punished by the fabricated consequences imposed on them from above. Only the former may truly be called education.


    Discipline is one of the most controversial topics in the educational community. Throughout the world opinions differ greatly regarding the use, effectiveness and need for discipline in our classrooms. Personal definitions of discipline often stem from deep-rooted and emotionally divisive religious and cultural beliefs.

    Tragically, these various beliefs have often lead to defensiveness and heated conflict. Such strong emotional reactions make it extremely difficult for reason, objectivity, new ideas or even overwhelming scientific research to prevail. The result is a cycle of emotionally damaged children who in turn grow into insecure and defensive adults unswayed by reason and logic.

    Many Americans point to the current social problems in the United States as evidence of a lack of discipline, but they generally confuse discipline with punishment. The thesaurus, however, reveals a variety of additional synonyms for the word "discipline":

    chastisement, correction

    control, moderation, restraint

    conduct, habit, method, order, regimen

    development, exercise, indoctrination, preparation, training

    One dilemma, then, is: what do we mean by the word discipline? Clearly, there is a huge difference between chastisement and development, for example.

    Let's think for a moment what an emotionally literate child might say if he were "disciplined." Would he say "I feel disciplined"? Highly unlikely. Would he say "I feel developed"? Again, unlikely. But might he say "I feel punished"? I suggest this is much more likely.

    To better understand a child's emotional thought process, it is helpful to think about how you feel when you are punished. As a child, what associated feelings were programmed into your brain's deepest emotional circuits when you were punished? Did those feelings help you feel better about yourself? In other words, did they bolster your self-esteem and self-confidence? Or did they create feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment? Did they ever produce feelings of resentment, hostility or defiance? Did you feel loved, supported, and understood when you were punished? Did you feel helped and nurtured?

    Before you decide to punish a child, ask yourself this question: How do you want your children to feel? This question though, begs a larger question. That question is: What is our highest goal? Is it to get children to behave according to your (or society's) expectations or is it to help them learn to develop the self-discipline they need to achieve their own goals later in life?

    Your child’s self-esteem, self-concept, and self-worth are all riding on how you answer these questions. Indeed, the future of the world depends the emotional health of these future adults.


    Note: The book Punished by Rewards (Alfie Kohn) presents the findings from numerous research studies on the use of punishment and rewards. Life Skills 101 for Teachers (Norma Spurlock - available only from the author) offers a non-punitive approach to child development.

    Empathy, Conscience and Morality

    We help children and society when we help them develop a healthy sense of empathy and conscience without turning them into either insecure, shame-based, guilt-ridden, obedient conformists or aggressive, uncaring, defiant rebels. Rather than preaching to children or laying guilt trips on them we can simply help them become aware of how their actions affect others.

    For example, when one child takes another child’s toy, we need not either scold, label, punish or judge the child. We can simply ask the second child to express how he feels. Over time, the children will each get a chance to express their feelings and to hear about the feelings of others. It is in this way that they will develop a healthy sense of empathy and conscience.

    The goal of the adult caregiver is to raise children who will become responsible for their own actions and decisions. To become fully responsible we can’t claim that we did something because "someone else told us to" or "someone told me I should" or even "someone told me I must."

    Rather, we must become morally autonomous. In other words, we decided for ourselves what is right and wrong according to our own conscience within the framework of society.

    As Henry David Thoreau said, what is the purpose of a conscience, if not for making our own decisions even when they go against the majority? I ask myself what might have been different in Nazi Germany had each individual soldier followed his inner conscience and not external authority.

    Fear and Safety

    We all need to feel safe. Feeling safe includes our physical security and our emotional security. If children do not feel safe when they are young, they grow to be insecure as adults. Emotional insecurity is surprisingly widespread. To the extent that we feel insecure and afraid, we pass these feelings down to our children. Considering that the world is frightening enough on its own merit, we certainly do not want to add to our children's fears. Yet if we are insecure ourselves, it is impossible to avoid doing exactly that.

    The key, then, is to first work on our own feelings as adults. We do this by identifying our own fears. Then we take "ownership" of them. It is extremely important not to hold your students and children responsible for your fears. It is common to become overcome by fear and "take it out" on children. Over time, what they learn is to be afraid of you and other authority figures.

    For example, in one school I visited the children were receiving a long lecture and guilt trip about not walking quietly in a straight line (a very unnatural behavior for children) between the buildings. The teacher later told me she was afraid of being judged against the other teachers. Her own insecurity, then, was the cause of the lecture, not the children simply behaving naturally.

    When you identify and acknowledge your fears and insecurities, it is much easier for you to put things in perspective and remember that the children’s feelings and healthy emotional development are often more important than many of the things you worry about (and, of course, the vast majority of things we worry about never happen).

    As adults we help our children greatly by taking responsibility for all of our own negative feelings. These include, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, fear, frustration and worry. If you convey the message to your children that they are responsible for your negative feelings, they will start to avoid telling you (and others) things that they know will worry, frighten, disappoint or embarrass you. The result is a breakdown in communication and trust, which could easily result in outright lying.

    Between any two people honest communication and trust are essential. With out them, bonds are broken or never established. Relationships become strained, artificial and frustrating. Defensiveness mounts and respect is replaced by fear and mistrust.

    Here are some suggestions to help avoid such a sad scenario:

    • Always try to avoid judging a child's thoughts, behavior, and choices, but be especially careful of judging their feelings.
    • Never punish expressions of emotions or needs
    • Never make a child sorry they told you the truth
    • Avoid saying things like:

    Don't ever let me hear you say that again!
    Don't tell me that!
    How could you do a dumb thing like that!?

    In today’s world there are more psychological threats than physical. Very few of us face lions, bears or tigers. But as children we were all subject to the fear of disapproval, judgment and rejection if we didn’t "measure up" or "behave."

    Because we have all been judged, and because it doesn’t feel good, we all have our "guards up." The extra effort you invest in monitoring your own behavior and sometimes "biting your tongue" by not judging or criticizing your children will pay off in vastly improved relationships. Then your job as a classroom teacher will be easier and more enjoyable.

    One father I have known for several years used to have steady arguments with his teenage children. He used to complain that they didn’t appreciate him and never wanted to talk to him. Now they call him voluntarily and ask him to come visit them at college. I asked what changed. He said "I did. I just stopped judging them."

    More Suggestions

    • Express your feelings clearly and directly with a minimum number of words.
    • Avoid branding your child/student with negative labels such as: lazy, irresponsible, inconsiderate, selfish, spoiled, disgusting
    • Be especially careful not to invalidate your children’s feelings by:

    Ignoring their feelings
    Judging their feelings
    Labeling them
    Punishing them for expressing a feeling

    • Remember to first validate a child’s feelings, then address the behavior.
    • Avoid dismissing their questions, and therefore, feelings with the convenient: "Because I said so."
    • Never assume you know how a young person feels, always ask.
    • Never make him sorry they told you the truth. Remember that children lie when they are afraid and when they are needy, both of which are better addressed by understanding than punishment.
    • After conflicts, show interest in your child's feelings by simply asking, "How do you feel about the way I handled this? How are you feeling?"
    • Work on your own emotional skills.
    • Work on your relationship with your partner.
    • Communicate directly, rather than indirectly.
    • When you are expressing disapproval, find several things to approve of at the same time.
    • Tell them what you admire about them and what you respect about them.
    • Allow young people to question your beliefs and to form their own.
    • Ask them how you can improve.
    • Admit your mistakes; don’t try to pretend to be flawless.
    • At the same time don’t exaggerate your weak points.
    • Tell them when you feel bad for something you did.
    • Be real. Be sincere. In other words, be emotionally honest.


    Reduce your use of the following statements to avoid creating the respective negative feelings, all of which damage the self-esteem,

    ... Guilty/Judged

    You should...You shouldn’t...You should have...You shouldn’t have...Why didn't you...Why did you...

    ... Disapproved of

    I can't believe you...How could you have...Why didn't you...What do you think you are doing...

    ... Controlled, Obligated

    You need to...You have to...You should...You better...I need you to...

    ... Interrogated, Cross-examined

    Why did you...Why didn’t you...What were you thinking...How could you have...What's the matter with you?

    Communication patterns both reflect and help create a society’s psychological state. For example, as I have traveled I have noticed that some countries are generally more judgmental, self-righteous, afraid, insecure, hostile and defensive etc. than others. In short we might say they are simply more unhappy, and this does not seem to be due to a lack of material wealth. Changing the way you communicate to children is a step in a more positive direction.

    Negative Emotions

    Child development psycholgist William Glasser and educational pioneer Maria Montessorri both say a child’s behaviors are responses to natural inborn needs and how adequately the environment is meeting those needs. This fits well with the concept that our negative emotions are our bodies way of telling us that we are deficient in some area of need. For example, when we need to eat, we feel hungry and we take action to satisfy our hunger. The same process occurs with respect to our emotional needs. If a child feels frustrated, they understandably "act out" their feelings in an attempt to release this frustration. If a child needs attention, they will again take appropriate action.

    Thus, each time a child has a negative feeling, keep in mind that they have a natural emotional or psychological need which is unmet. Remember that it is perfectly natural for them to attempt to fill their UEN. Do not, then, scold them, invalidate them, or try to distract them or convince them not to feel their negative emotions. Instead, help them label the emotion, identify the UEN, and figure out an appropriate way to either fill or release their need.

    More specifically, this is done by asking the child to think about what their options are when they have a UEN. Then help them evaluate each option. As you might guess children are quite creative and resourceful. I find that most adults consistently underestimate children’s abilities to solve their own problems. As a teacher, it is clearly in your best interest to help your children learn to solve their own problems. But it is also in their best interests, for several reasons, not the least of which is that with each successful problem resolution their self-confidence and self-esteem are bolstered.

    The teacher that steps in too quickly to solve the problem by "sending a solution," as Thomas Gordon calls it, is doing the child a grave disservice over the long term. Sending a solution is expedient, but dangerous over the long term as it tends to create feelings of dependency and incompetence. Psychologist Martin Seligman calls this process "learned helplessness," a situation we most definitely want to avoid!


    Adults often admonish children about the importance of respect, but they just as often fail to respect the child’s feelings. When our feelings are not respected, we are not respected. What is true for us as adults is just as true for children. In fact, it may actually be more important that we show respect for a child’s feelings since her emotional brain develops before her intellectual brain. Thus if a child does not feel respected, then she is unlikely to learn to respect herself or others. She may, of course, learn to fear and obey others, but not respect them.

    The way to show a child respect, then, is to respect her feelings. Respecting anyone’s feelings consists of

    (a) asking them how they feel

    (b) accepting, acknowledging, and validating their feeling

    (c) empathizing with them

    (d) seeking understanding of their feelings

    (e) taking their feelings into consideration when making decisions.

    For this process to work efficiently several things are required. For example:

    1. The child must be aware of their own feelings; i.e. know how they feel.
    2. They must be able to express their feelings.
    3. They must have an extensive "feeling word" vocabulary.

    Also, the adult must:

    1. Know how to listen non-judgmentally & non-defensively.
    2. Know how to validate feelings.
    3. Believe that feelings have value.
    4. Believe that feelings matter.
    5. Believe in, and practice, the principle of mutual respect for feelings.

    Beyond this the adult must be willing to change his own behavior if the child feels uncomfortable, upset, afraid, confused, frustrated, or any other negative emotion. Likewise, if the child knows just what will make him feel better, the teacher must either make an attempt to "make it happen," or, if impossible, show sincere regret at their inability, and not just dismiss the child’s feelings with a trite or invalidating response.

    There is a tremendous imbalance of power between the teacher and the young child. By showing respect for the child’s feelings, you are sharing your power. In other words, you are empowering the child. At the same time you are showing her convincingly, not just with idle lip service, that she is important, that she matters, and that she has value.

    One helpful suggestion is to frequently ask a child or the class, "How would you feel if...." before making a decision which affects them. (This is the HWYF question.)

    * * *

    I believe mutual respect is the key to a free society. I would like to help bring the day when fear, force, punishment, violence and even bribery through external rewards are ahve been discarded as the primary means of social control, having been replaced by mutual respect. The sooner parents and teachers begin to earn the respect of children, the sooner they will win their voluntary cooperation, and the sooner the day of my dreams will come true.

    Values and Feelings

    As a teacher or parent, you are teaching and modeling values on a daily basis. When children don't behave as you believe they "should" according to your value system, you are likely to feel upset, angry, intolerant, disappointed, etc. When you find yourself upset, it is useful to identify this value, take responsibility for it, and communicate it to the child. This way the child is less likely to think he is a "bad" child. He is more likely to realize that you have certain values which help make you a unique person.

    For example, if you see that children are not cooperating you might want to say something like "Kids, I feel bad when you are not cooperating because I think cooperation is really important." Of course, be prepared to explain why it is important to you! Respect them and their young developing minds enough to give them an intelligent answer.

    If you teach with reason and respect, these are what your children will grow up to value. Likewise, if you teach with power, punishment and authority, then these will be the values they are likely to adopt when they raise their own children.


    What I have suggested above is a radical change in the way we communicate with and relate to our youth. Such change does not come overnight, but following these suggestions will tend to get easier over time and will feel more "natural." Further, the results will be their own reward.

    For generations we have used, abused, controlled, overprotected and underestimated children. It is no surprise, then, that we have the emotional problems we do. These suggestions will help reverse that trend. It is the best hope I see for the future of the human species, and in fact, for the continuation of life on this planet.

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