Therapeutic Classrooms, Therapeutic Teaching

Developing your pupils’ emotional intelligence

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With children and young people facing so many challenges to their wellbeing and mental health, having active strategies in the school environment to develop their emotional intelligence can make a real difference. 

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

– Aristotle

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of, control and express emotions and navigate through interpersonal relationships thoughtfully and with empathy.

What does that mean in the real world?

Imagine your two-year-old has kept you awake all night with tummy ache for the second night in a row, you’re up at 5 am, the kettle breaks just before you have had a chance to make your first cup of tea for the day and your partner decides to have a lie-in.

You find your stress levels are rising and your tolerance is low. What do you do? Do you curse the kettle, snap at your partner and become visibly angry and frustrated. Or do you notice that you’re feeling frustrated, tired and angry and identify that it is probably all down to lack of sleep?

You internally check your emotional state and:

  1. Explain to those around you how you’re feeling.
  2. Reflect on the impact of your feelings on their feelings.
  3. Express a calm disposition and try to empathise with everyone involved (not including the kettle).
  4. Do something to help you feel better and rebalance. You go and hug your two-year-old and tell her you love her even when she is grumpy and that she will be tired today because she hasn’t slept well. You reflect on the fact that your partner was out working a late shift and will need a lie in today. You have a cool glass of lemon water to rebalance your mood, take a deep breath then you are ready to begin the day.

Emotional intelligence is an essential life skill that helps you navigate your way through ongoing situations and challenges, from day-to-day problems to emotionally traumatic issues. It is essential for professional and personal success and is the key to developing self-regulated, well-adjusted humans.

How is this relevant to schools?

People with high emotional intelligence (EI) are often more successful than people with high intelligence (IQ).

The task of developing resilient, emotionally intelligent children should begin as early as one-year-old.

However, sadly it is often overlooked. Every child needs the opportunity to develop their emotional intelligence and parents play a huge part in this during the first four years of life.

However, it is evident that in some cases parents are unable to focus on their child’s early development as much as society would expect. One reason for this may be due to more parents struggling with external emotional factors such as divorce, abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism.

Parents can struggle to manage and regulate their child’s emotions due to high-stress factors affecting their own emotional states and circumstances. We are also seeing a rise in the number of children in the care system.

These children have probably experienced reoccurring breakdowns in relationships as well as early trauma. As a result, there is a raise in attachment disorders. More children are entering schools without the basic skills needed to function effectively in a classroom environment.

Making quality friendships, understanding another’s frame of reference, solving conflict and problem-solving are all skills developed through emotional intelligence. It is evident therefore that many children are not entering school with a readiness to learn.

Take an average classroom of 30 pupils – according to figures from the NSPCC and Young Minds:

  • Ten pupils will have witnessed their parents separate.
  • One will have experienced the death of a parent.
  • Seven will have been bullied.
  • Three will have behavioural or emotional difficulties.
  • Three will have a mental health disorder.

That could be 24 children with emotional wellbeing needs. Schools have a significant role in focusing on mental health and wellbeing and thus preparing children for the social and emotional aspects of their future. In fact, can we go as far as saying it is now the job of schools to educate children in emotional intelligence, relationships and empathy? Is it now the job of teachers to teach like second parents?

It all begins in the classroom

School can be a safe place for children. Consistency, routine and boundaries all play a part in the child’s ability to feel secure. This is often a stark contrast to their lives outside of school. It is within the classroom that the teacher has responsibility for the child’s wellbeing and has influence over their development. The teacher is the holder of boundaries, classroom rules and expectations. It is within this space that they can create any world they wish.

They have the ability to create a microscopic world with the power to focus on specific areas of a child’s development purely by the way in which the classroom is run. This is the world in which the child exists for most of their week. So, in its very nature, this is the world in which the child has the capacity to learn and develop not only their academic knowledge but their social and emotional knowledge and their emotional intelligence. The classroom can be a very powerful space indeed.

What can you do?

By means of “second parenting”, the teacher can focus on developing the key skills of emotional intelligence and begin a “classroom culture” focused on wellbeing. Here are some hints and tips to get you started. It is important to remember that whatever you decide to implement with the class, explain it to them a few days before to prepare them and clarify your expectations.

A wellbeing focus

Introduce emotional intelligence and wellbeing as a focus in your classroom. Do circle time. Talk about what emotions are, how we support each other to manage emotions, which emotions might be hard to deal with, etc. Explain that your class is now going to work hard at understanding their own emotions and helping others through theirs.

Highlight situations where children are struggling to manage their emotions throughout the day, reflect on emotions you can see them displaying in the classroom: “Emma I can see your feeling disappointed in your work today. You are worried you have not done well enough, I can tell because you’re sinking in your seat and your head is in your hands.”

Get the class thinking about how they can help one another. Create a whole-class culture focused on identifying emotions and behaviours and solving them. This will develop self-awareness and empathy.

A visual display

Have a visual display focused on emotions that you can refer to during the day. Use it as an anchor for any experience the children are having and any situation you find yourself helping them through.

  • Print out and display colourful faces expressing different emotions, choose characters reflecting different genders and ethnicities.
  • Put the words under each emotion to help the children recognise the name of the feelings.
  • Point to the images, name the emotions and refer to the board as often as you can within the school day.

A lovely exercise would be to create the images for the board using photographs of the classroom children. Ask them to see if they can show you the different emotions with their bodies and faces and take a photo. Use these as the images on your display board.

Kind and caring jar

Introduce the kind and caring jar as a technique for recognising emotions and developing empathy. Reward the children/the class for sho
wing empathy, reinforcing the importance of noticing others and offering support and help.

Have a clear jar somewhere in the room. Explain that each time a child notices their peer doing something kind for another child, they should write it on a piece of paper and place it in the jar.
Focus on emotions and behaviours: “Lucy has been kind today. She sat next to Jack when he was feeling sad. Jack seemed to cheer up after this.”

Link this activity to difficult situations the children face each day. For example, playground issues: “Adam is going to go in the caring and kind jar for sorting out the argument at playtime and saying sorry. He then made sure he was extra nice to Sarah all day.”

Introduce this at the beginning of every day until it becomes part of the class ethos. You can then read these messages out at the end of the day or after register.


By using these exercises your class will begin to develop an understanding of emotions, empathy and self-awareness. There may be less conflict and a rise in helpful attitudes among peers. These are small easy steps in beginning to focus on emotional intelligence as a school.

Further Information and Resources

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