Emotional Intelligence: Building Strong Foundations in Early Childhood

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ describes the ability to both empathise with others and to understand and express our own emotions. It’s often expressed by the acronym, EQ – although this shouldn’t be mistaken for the similar term, IQ. The latter stands for intelligence quotient and describes cognitive abilities.

Conversely to EQ, a person’s IQ is nurtured through education. However, there’s a strong relationship between EQ and IQ, with the emotional element requiring the same diligent care and attention for healthy development. This is especially true during the early formative years of a child’s life.

Together, EQ and IQ complement each other and the championing of both is equally important. It’s also true that raising a child’s EQ has a positive effect on their IQ. Thus, building strong foundations in the early years can have a significant impact on later life.

Defining Emotional Intelligence

EQ, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can be defined as:

“The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

In a world where we’re now increasingly aware of how mental health has a strong effect on a person’s current and future happiness, success and physical health, nurturing the building blocks of emotional intelligence must be given the highest consideration.

The earlier we make strategic efforts to do so, the more likely a child is to be able to:

  • Excel in social situations
  • Communicate effectively
  • Form healthy relationships
  • Empathise with others
  • Understand and manage their emotions
  • Express themselves

The more adept a person is at all the above, the better this impacts their mental health and wellbeing.

Developing and Improving Children’s EQ

It’s important to approach emotional intelligence with the same care and effort that we do for other areas of a child’s education. In the same way as academic prowess, the level of EQ a child can achieve is bespoke to them. We owe it to the future generation to help them develop their own emotional intelligence to the utmost of their ability.

Parents, caregivers and early education professionals have a wide variety of tools at their disposal. These can all be utilised to help tots, toddlers and pre-schoolers create the sound building blocks that will lead to them achieving their best EQ.

One powerful way we can do this is to lead by example. Seeing and being around adults that have healthy emotional behaviour is incredibly influential to young minds. Other, more structured, techniques include:

  • Healthy discussions about feelings: Regularly ask your child how they’re feeling and allow them to feel listened to when they reply. Building this into daily life is key. This ranges from simply asking if they enjoyed something through to letting your child verbalize how a challenging situation made them feel.
  • Give a child time to speak and listen to what they’re saying: Allow them the time and safe space to express their emotions. In many situations, this might be difficult – especially when they’re learning to translate feelings into words. Be sure to give them ample opportunity to talk. Listen – really listen – to what they’re saying and be sure to empathize and validate their efforts.
  • Use positive reinforcement: Praise is by far the best tool, and this is never more valid than when a child is working through how they’re feeling and making sense of their emotions. Be sure to acknowledge this positively, as this will encourage them to explore their EQ even more deeply.
  • Encourage empathy: This can be especially useful in situations when, for instance, another child’s behaviour might be challenging. Encourage your child to think about how the other person might be feeling and why their response could influence that.

Early childhood education centres can further build upon the work being done within the family home. They might include mindfulness techniques and play-based learning, This, in combination with positive reinforcement for all efforts (no matter how large or small) helps build the skills that increase emotional intelligence. These include:

  • Developing a growth mindset
  • Enhancing communication skills
  • Learning how to collaborate with others
  • Creating inner calm

A good way for parents, caregivers and early childhood educators to help young children build the basis of a healthy EQ is to think of it as a five-step process:

  1. Recognition: Help teach children to understand and identify emotions. You might want to talk about body language, facial expressions, word choices and tone of voice, for example.
  2. Understanding: Talk about what situations might lead to various emotions (anger, sadness, happiness etc) and what behavioural impacts they might have.
  3. Describing: Teach children to name their emotions. This is a crucial learning element that, given time, will help your child process and deal with a whole spectrum of different feelings.
  4. Expressing: Your child needs to learn how to express their emotions – but it’s equally important for them to learn how to do this appropriately. Be patient, it will take time. A typical example could be a child having a tantrum. There’s a very good reason small children go through such stages – it’s a learning curve of how to deal with complex emotions. A measured response goes a huge way towards helping a child process this and work out how to respectfully communicate their feelings.
  5. Regulating: Children learn best about regulating their emotions through a combination of discussion and observation. Help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms by talking about them and by considering your own emotional behaviours.

At Evoke Early Learning, we place equal importance on both IQ and EQ development. From our philosophy that value and respect of each child is unique to embracing the Reggio Emilia Approach, our highly trained and passionate team works with our children to provide the ultimate preschool environment to fast track future success.

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