It was a crisp September morning, in Upstate New York (every day is crisp and cool when you live in New York, by the way). The year was 2015, and it was the first Monday of the month. I only remember this because I had just finished my once-a-year session at the gym known as Planet Fitness; or as I like to call it, “Free Pizza and Some Fitness.” As I walked out of the gym, stomach full from the free pizza, arms still the same size but my fingers stronger from holding the cheese-heavy pizza slices, I got a call that set my life on a new path. I was hired to teach third grade at a local elementary school. I had waited a whole year for this job; so it only made sense to flail my arms around in the middle of the Planet Fitness parking lot. For a minute, my lanky body and skinny arms could have been mistaken for those of an inflatable tube man. In fact, I should have gotten paid for my minute, because my antics undoubtedly brought in some new customers.
Two weeks later, I sat in my new office chair with my spine leaning as far back as it could go; my arms folded like a bouncer—except without the muscle part—and a feeling that this day couldn’t go wrong….Well, it went wrong. Uncommonly wrong!
My future students walked into the classroom at a turtle’s pace. In reality, their faces showed no excitement at all. Only one expression was written on all of their faces: fear. Fear of their new teacher and classmates; fear of how they act and what they wear, and what their peers might say about both; fear of being away from home. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of emotions. Fear of getting bullied. Fear of being a bully. Fear of farting by mistake; or worse—fear of taking that fart to the second level by mistake. And of course, fear of the work itself. Fear…fear…fear.
But why? Why is there so much fear in a place that is supposed to enhance trust, courage, curiosity, love, and control of your sphincter muscles (sorry, I had to)….Well, there are numerous answers to this question, but I’d like to focus on one for this particular blog post: Emotional Intelligence. It is my opinion that if we supplement Emotional Intelligence in our students, then we will begin to see less fear in the classroom, and more acceptance in the hearts of each student.
What is it?
It’s a beautiful day for recess: the sun is out, there’s a light breeze in the air, and the kickball field is just calling for attention. Some twenty students answer the field’s call. They rush toward the field—bellies still full from the lunch they scarfed down—in attempt to get there first (a big deal for elementary students). They all mob the field and take their places throughout. A third of the kids seem to have an understanding of the game; another third just happy to be apart of it, and the rest of the students just watch and cheer from the side.
The game begins. A kid named Matt (it’s always a kid named Matt) takes the plate. He’s a third-grader alright, but his body is ready for middle school and his face is growing a mustache that looks like it didn’t get enough nutrients. He gets into his kicking stance and prepares for the pitch. The kickball is pitched right down the middle. It’s pure poetry in motion. Matt pulls his hairy, thirty-year old leg back and swings it forward like a pendulum, and…BOOM! He blasts the ball into left field—and right into the hands of a peer. Out! they all call.
Now, here is the point where Emotional Intelligence (EI) comes into play. If Matt is able to brush it off, and head back to his team with the understanding that everything is going to be alright, then he is presenting a great example of a child with high EI. If, on the other hand, he decides to throw a tantrum because the pitch was too bouncy, and there should be a redo, then he is showing a poor example of EI, and making himself look silly at the same time.
Emotional Intelligence is simply, the ability to recognize, and control, one’s emotions and the emotions of others. It sounds so simple; yet, there are a number of students and adults who lack EI. To keep this post simple, as you could look up multiple resources to inform you of Emotional Intelligence, we will just look at a few ways to bring EI to your students.
3 Ways to Implement EI in the Classroom
1. Encourage Their Emotions
Teachers. What are your actions toward a student who blasts out a mean or innapropriate phrase during a lesson? Yea, sure you do. Well, if you’re not going to be honest, I will. The first strategy that I used to use, was no strategy at all, it was to tell the student, in a stern voice, to stop and focus on the lesson. Great strategy, teach! Though this may not have been a bad thing to tell my students, it sure wasn’t helping anything—at all.
Those types of actions, and any action for that matter, are teachable moments. Talk to the student about the action he or she just showed (both bad or good). Ask why they felt the need to do what they did. Explain why the action wasn’t appropriate in that situation. And give them a few tips on how to act the next time they feel like throwing a pencil across the room and hitting their arch-nemesis Bob.
2. Give Students a Chance to Work in Groups
Group work is another way to enhance Emotional Intelligence in the classroom. And it’s probably something you’re using already. Elementary students working in a group are like seagulls fighting over the last fry on a beach. Even as adults, we struggle to work in groups. There are several minds, with different ideas and personalities, all trying to agree on one solution. It’s naturally a challenge. But allowing students to work in groups allows them to practice working with other personalities and ideas. The other part of this is to teach it.
You can’t expect students to jump into a group and work together. It takes time and practice, and they need a good role model—you—to show them the way. Depending on the age group you work with, modeling, with the use of prompts is always a good start. Show them how to respect everyone’s ideas. Show them how to work with different personality traits. Most important, show them how to approach a disagreement. Do these things, and your students are another step closer to Emotional Intelligence.
3. Promote Failure
This last one is a tough one for most teachers I’ve encountered: letting students fail. You might say, Oh, but what about the grades? Oh, and what about the student’s self-esteem? These are all valid questions to worry about. Don’t beat yourself up. For one, test scores and data seem to be the driving force in education (which I am opposed to, by the way). And two, no teacher that I know wants to see their student struggle. If you are reluctant to try this step, just start small.
Start when a student approaches you with a question that you are confident they can answer on their own. Explain, in a kind way, that you want them to give their best effort before seeking you out. Then, assure the student that it is alright to fail, and if they do fail, you will be there to guide them to success. It’s that simple; and you just led your student to another level of Emotional Intelligence.
There is much more to Emotional Intelligence than this measly blog post. But I hope it’s a start. EI is, and will be, a big part of your students lives. So make sure you’re promoting it, and seek out more ways to bring it to your students. A good place to start would be research in the Mindset field, as well as the Growth Mindset field: both will increase Emotional Intelligence if used properly.