Surprise: Teaching Kids How to Process Emotion Helps Them Learn

Parenting expert Annie Fox argues that if we focus more attention on social and emotional learning, our school climates will improve.

Annie Fox makes the argument that by focusing more attention on character education, we can improve our school cultures. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.


We hear a lot about social emotional learning (SEL) and emotional intelligence (EQ), but what exactly do these terms mean, and what do they have to do with kids?

EQ involves the ability to think about feelings in rational ways, and to use the information to manage one’s behavior and maintain healthier relationships. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, points out that no matter how intelligent we are, if we lack people skills, we’re “not going to get very far.”

The role of education is to equip students to get as far as they possibly can. Kids with low EQ create academic and social problems for themselves and others, and the result is that the overall school climate suffers.

The good news is that we can improve school climate by raising EQ. If you are a parent or teacher, or want to be one, take note. Here are tips on how to create a safer and more compassionate school culture.

1. Teach the language of emotions. Expand students’ acceptance of the spectrum of human emotions while creating a school culture where talking about feelings is “cool.” Use fictional and historical characters plus people in the news to discuss and write about frustration, triumph, despair, aggression, courage, fear, betrayal, compassion, etc. Encourage students to consider the feelings of others while contemplating their next move in any situation. Notice when a student is having a rough time and model compassion by tuning in and asking, “Are you OK?” Do that and you’ve just contributed to a more positive school climate.

2. Teach nonviolent conflict resolution. Help students practice resolving conflicts constructively. Provide a slotted box for students to submit anonymous questions. Convene regular group meetings (at lunch, advisory, in an afterschool club) where the questions are read and students offer helpful solutions to other students.

3. Teach forgiveness. Consider a Truth and Reconciliation session. Those who have been hurt by disrespectful behavior need a chance to talk about how they feel. Those who have targeted others need a chance to apologize and make amends. Those who’ve silently stood by and allowed hurtful behavior to go unchallenged need an opportunity to talk about their own inaction. We also need to teach kids healthier ways of dealing with intense emotions. That way, when the next peer conflict arises, they’ll have the tools to respond more humanely and the support to use those tools.

4. Teach about the myth of justifications. We often use justifications to convince ourself that what we’ve done was OK even if we know it wasn’t. When deconstructing a peer conflict ask students, “What did you tell yourself to make that OK?” You may hear: “He started it.” “She thinks she’s so great.” “He’s just weird.” For many kids, justifications pass as “good enough” reasons for rudeness or social aggressive. Teach students that cruel’s not cool and no justification changes that. Acknowledging justifications helps kids realize that all excuses aside, what they did wasn’t OK. This is how students become more accountable for their actions and more thoughtful members of the community. Which is just what we want: Kids who reflect more and react less.

5. Teach them to work in groups. As social creatures, we need to learn to work well together. Yet we don't do as much as we could to make learning a collaborative experience on all grade levels. Working in groups teaches kids to deal with other personalities and styles of communication. It also provides exposure to differences of opinions and lots of practice in the art of compromise. With practice in the academic realm, kids are more likely to treat each other respectfully when they are in the social realm.

6. Teach compassion through service to others. Philanthropy through fundraising, volunteerism or contributing in other ways teaches kids empathy. As working in groups strengthens peer relationships, being part of the solution on a service-learning project helps kids develop leadership skills.

EQ skill-building can transform schools into supportive learning communities where all students have an equal shot at progressing academically and developing into people of good character.


ANNIE FOX, M.Ed. is the award-winning author of eight books. An online advisor to teens and parents, she is also a respected character educator. Annie’s award-winning books include: Teaching Kids to Be Good People and the groundbreaking Middle School Confidential™ book and app series. Learn more about Annie at her website


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