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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Oct 26, 2022

5 ways to strengthen emotional intelligence in the classroom

By Victoria Hanson

K-3 Educator

5 ways to strengthen emotional intelligence in the classroom

By Victoria Hanson

A trap I fell into while working on socio-emotional skills with my students was ONLY focusing on the social component.

I knew that emotional intelligence is an important skill to foster in children: it helps us to better understand ourselves as we move through our daily lives. This knowledge of self then helps us to better understand and empathize with others.

But I favored lessons on empathy and social interactions, and as a result, the seeds I planted didn’t always take root.

It became clear that I was expecting my students to have larger background knowledge about emotions than they actually did.

There are many adults who do not have a strong base for emotional intelligence. We often lack the words or comfort levels to share how we’re feeling with others, as well as the tools to help navigate situations when big emotions arise. Increasing emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness. From there we can learn how to better self-regulate. Helping students to tune into their bodies, recognize the physical sensations that come with experiencing an emotion, and to consider how they would like to respond are cornerstone traits to strengthen this life skill.

Below are five ways that we can infuse more practice with self-awareness and regulation to help strengthen emotional intelligence in the classroom.

1. Name emotions with accurate language

This might seem like a simple approach, but it is very powerful. We may think students are already familiar with naming emotions, but they are often very limited in vocabulary, understanding, or both.

In his book Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence To Achieve Well-Being and Success, Marc Brackett highlights the importance of increasing emotion vocabulary in children by stating,

“The more words that children can use, the better able we’ll be able to support them. When we use a wide variety of terms to describe emotions, our children learn the words, but they also absorb the lesson that describing their feelings is a natural, positive thing to do” (Brackett 113).

This doesn’t have to be complicated! I’ve found that the two simplest things we can do to increase emotion language are to name emotions and to explore the clues that tell us that we or others are experiencing an emotion. Here are a few ways that we can do this:

Use literature

Using characters in the books we read in class to help identify and explore an emotion is an easy place to start. It can be helpful to ask students questions like “How do you think the character is feeling?” and “What clues tell us that they are feeling this way?” We can use this approach to examine facial features, ask students to think about a time they felt the same way, or invite discussion about physical sensations they might feel in the body when experiencing a certain emotion.

We can also share literature that deals with social-emotional learning and invite class discussion. We are lucky to live in an age where there is a gorgeous variety of picture and chapter books on these topics. Use books that you may already have in your classroom, chat with your school librarian, or explore communities online that offer quality recommendations.

Use everyday situations

We can invite students to pause and check in with their own bodies during the day. This can be especially meaningful when the atmosphere in the room feels a certain way.

For example, if the room is full of energy, students seem particularly lethargic or disengaged, or when stress is high before a testing scenario. It may be helpful for us to name what we are noticing in the room and invite students to see if this feels true for them. We can ask students to pause and notice the physical sensations they are feeling and to consider what emotion they are experiencing. From there we are able to work with students to identify what they may need as support.

Use yourself as an example

Naming emotions we feel in ourselves as they arise throughout the day can also be an impactful way to normalize emotions and connect with students more deeply. Stating how we’re feeling and what clues our bodies are giving us and sharing what strategies we need to self-regulate in the moment can be powerful for students to hear.

As always, use your best judgment about what and how to share depending on your students, their developmental and maturity levels, and your own personal comfort levels.

2. Share the science

My students loved learning about their brains. There was always an intense focus that emerged when I shared the “why” behind something as non-concrete as emotions and behavior. When it was broken down, it suddenly made sense and the knowledge empowered them to make different choices. They also loved sharing the knowledge with others–it was a great topic of discussion whenever they had a substitute.

Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain helped provide my third-graders with a concrete example of how their brains play a part when they experience big emotions. It gave them a clear visual of the three major parts of the brain that go into emotional regulation. It also provided a clear “why” behind the work we were doing to support their growth in this area.

Looking up Dan Siegel’s work or exploring Scarlett Lewis’s Choose Love program can help give more examples of age-appropriate language around this topic. Feel free to adjust for your students and their interests or developmental needs. Younger students may need a more simplified model or older students might be interested in more complex topics like the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

3. Introduce and integrate strategies

Providing students with simple, concrete tools that they can practice and access when experiencing big emotions is key. There are currently a lot of resources for educators on this topic and finding strategies that work for you and your students can take time.

Throughout my own process I’ve learned to be honest about what strategies work for me, but also to be open to things that don’t. I would sometimes shy away from techniques that weren’t my favorite but found that some students gravitated towards those.

Here are three categories of strategies and some simple examples from each that I’ve found to make a difference with my students.


There’s more and more evidence that we have become a population of shallow breathers. When we feel stressed or anxious, we have the tendency to hold our breath high in our chests, rather than allowing our bellies to expand and our lungs to fill to capacity. Working on this “belly breathing” (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) is one of the simplest things we can do to help encourage our students to re-connect with themselves.

Invite students to sit tall in their chairs with their feet planted on the floor. They may choose to close their eyes, or find a soft gaze somewhere on the floor. Students may also choose to place a hand on their bellies if they wish to.

From here, we invite students to breathe in through their nose, if they can, and to exhale through their nose. Experiment with counting the students through the breath for equal counts of four.

Or experiment with a count of four on the inhale and six on the exhale. Encourage students to reflect silently or out loud on how they feel after several rounds of breath.

This is such a simple technique and is an easy one to write off. That being said, it is perhaps the tool that my students accessed the most once they became more comfortable with it.

Quiet time

Noticeable changes began to arise in my own classroom when I started carving out time for students to explore quiet, stillness, or sensing into their bodies.

This will look very different at each age and maturity level, but one simple technique to try is a five-sense activity. Invite students to sit quietly and mentally notice five things they can see.

From there, they can choose to keep their eyes open, or rest their gaze on the floor as they make note of four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can touch.

Journaling, nature or building walks, glitter jars, or Responsive Classroom’s “Quiet Time” are other examples of ways to help students connect inwardly and self-regulate.

Mindful movement

Allowing for movement breaks throughout the day has been considered beneficial for students for a while now. You may already have some type of practice for this woven into your daily classroom life already. Sometimes it seemed hard to find time during the day to get my students up and moving and I needed ways that students could access movement, even if they were required to stay seated. Below is a short and simple series of chair movements I would use if my students needed a break, particularly in testing situations.

First, ask students to scoot as far forward in their chairs as needed so that they can plant their feet flat on the floor. Ask them to imagine that they have a string coming out of the tops of their heads and someone is gently pulling on that string to help make them sit tall and strong. Invite them to rest their hands on their thighs and either close their eyes or gaze at the floor. Take a few breaths here.

You can then invite students to inhale and stretch their arms over their heads. Then exhale and slowly twist their upper bodies to the right, resting their right hand on the back of their seat and their left hand on the outside of their right thigh or seat. Encourage them to keep breathing and to keep their spine straight. Exhale to unwind and then repeat on the left side.

Finally, invite students to keep a straight spine and lift their right leg off of the ground, crossing their right ankle over their left knee. They may choose to stay here and take a few breaths, or perhaps start to bring their chest down towards their legs. After a few breaths, uncross the right leg and repeat on the other side.

4. Make time for reflection

Carving out intentional time to connect and reflect is a wonderful way to cultivate awareness and deepen the practice. This ensures that everyone feels comfortable and that you are reaching the community in an effective way.

Reflect with students

Inviting students to be active participants in this journey informs and empowers both them and you. Regularly checking in with students can be as simple as asking them to reflect internally after they’ve implemented a strategy. Asking questions like “How did you feel before?” and “How do you feel now?” can foster an internal awareness and strengthen the process of slowing down to consider how we are feeling and what actions we can take to support ourselves.

We can also ask our students for feedback on what they feel is working and what is not, both for themselves and as a class. They can share their thoughts with you independently (privately in one-on-one interaction or recording their ideas on a sticky note), in partnerships, or in group situations like during whole-class meetings. How you choose to do this will depend on your students’ comfort levels.

One year I had a small reflection journal for students to use partly for this purpose. We would try a new regulation strategy and, after practicing it for a week or so, I would ask them to record how they felt when using the strategy or when they thought they might use it in their lives. This gave them a chance to consider whether it was something that felt good for them. Some students also used the journal as a tool to reflect during or after experiencing a big emotion.

Reflect with colleagues

If you have a group of colleagues or friends from other districts who are also interested in fostering emotional intelligence in the classroom, connect with them when you can!

Troubleshooting, problem-solving, and sharing wins with people who are on the same journey can be helpful and supportive. There are so many things to learn from each other! We can often gain new perspectives or feel seen by others when we connect in this way.


Self-reflection is an often overlooked tool. As educators, we tend to excel at reflecting on what might have worked with a group of students and adjusting accordingly. But do not forget that you are a part of the process!

Remember to consider your needs and limits as well. It is just as important to make sure that what you are implementing is working for you too.

5. Honor the process

Increasing emotional intelligence within our classrooms can sometimes be challenging and uncomfortable because it asks us to grow. Know that there may be times when things feel difficult for you or your students and that this is okay.

Here are some important pieces to help us move through it.

Follow through

Once we start to dive into this journey with our students, it is important to follow through. This includes honoring the requests students may make of you when it comes to self-regulation. You may find yourself feeling frustrated or defaulting to old ways that you used to show up in your classroom.

For example, I had a student who thrived on taking a meditation break with our classroom glitter jar, particularly during writing activities. There were times when I wished he would just sit down and get his work finished. But once we had set the clear expectation that he was still responsible for coming back to the activity to finish his work after he had self-regulated, the glitter jar only helped him to become more productive.

Be consistent

Consistency is also an important part of the process. There may be times when you feel like what you’re introducing isn’t sticking. Some students continue to show up in the same ways and struggle with the same issues over and over.

Make adjustments as needed, but trust the process as well. Students often need time and consistency to feel safe enough to start implementing these strategies and share their internal world. This helps students know you will honor their needs and they in turn will want to honor yours.


As educators, we know the importance of modeling and leading by example. It is powerful to take part in this process with our students and let them see us! When you ask students to journal, journal with them.

When you invite students to share their reflections, share with them. When you ask students to try a new strategy, try it with them. It sends a powerful message and learning alongside our students is one of the most beautiful things we can do.

We are most likely also working on strengthening our own emotional intelligence in the process. Things will inevitably come up for us as we explore this topic with our students. Be gentle with yourself as things arise and seek support from friends, colleagues, and professionals as needed.

Victoria Hanson

K-3 Educator

Victoria Hanson is currently traveling and teaching in a variety of ways, working more closely with students and educators in the realm of mindfulness education.
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