Four mindful back-to-school questions to build emotional intelligence

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These questions can help parents and teachers spot issues early, and identify concerns and opportunities to spark a more

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Picture a middle school student who we’ll call Ethan. He entered third period today with a scowl on his face. He squirms and fidgets in his chair, unable to focus. When his teacher asks him about last night’s homework, he bristles with annoyance and says he didn’t do the assignment. It’s not clear why Ethan appears angry, and chances are Ethan may be a little unsure himself.

Great teachers and parents have always known that a student’s emotions can derail the educational progress, and a growing body of research suggests that students in classrooms that rate high in emotional intelligence may actually perform better. Last year, the World Economic Forum included emotional intelligence (alongside skills like creativity and critical thinking) among the top skills required for success in tomorrow’s global workforce.

But too few classrooms today are teaching the tenets of emotional intelligence. It takes a team effort on the part of the parents and teachers to help young learners more effectively communicate and regulate how they’re feeling. At ClassDojo, an online site that connects parents and teachers, and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we’re using technology to build awareness of skills such as mindfulness through popular tools that parents and teachers are already using to communicate.

So where should parent-teacher collaborations start?

Here are four questions parents and teachers can ask young learners that will help to spot issues early, and identify concerns and opportunities to spark a more meaningful conversation with them about emotions.

How do you feel at the start of the school day?

A student’s emotional life does not begin and end at the classroom door. A student who is grumpy in the morning could dislike the subject of his first class. He could also be having trouble at home, or perhaps had a disagreement with his sibling over breakfast. When a student acts out in the morning, he could be signaling to parents that he’s anxious about school that day. Or perhaps he isn’t grumpy at all, and he’s simply tired from lack of sleep.

However he’s feeling, a student’s emotions in the morning can help set the tone for the rest of the day. Parents and teachers who help a student understand and label his feelings can support him and improve the day ahead.

What emotions do you feel throughout the day while learning?

A typical day of school presents many ups and downs for a student. Learning which emotions are animating student behavior at a particular moment, and what kinds of reactions to look for later, can take the guesswork out of determining how a student is feeling.

Take, for example, a student crumpling up her assignment after getting a poor grade. She appears to be experiencing anger. But it’s also reasonable to assume that she is feeling disappointed or embarrassed.

If a student is angry, it may be best to discuss expected classroom behavior and whether she believes the grade to be unfair. If disappointment is the primary emotion, then it’s better to discuss what the student did to prepare for the assignment and what strategies could be used to better effect next time. Parent-teacher collaboration can help to spot patterns that reveal what emotion is actually being felt and determine how best to help.

Do you feel differently when walking the hallways, sitting in the lunchroom, or at recess?

Does a student feel nervous when moving between classes? What about sad during lunch? Different times and locales can carry their own emotional weight. A student may be nervous about being bullied while at his locker, or sad because he has nobody to sit with in the cafeteria.

Learning how different times and places affect your child’s anxiety can go a long way in helping to identify the cause of stress. This is critical because chronic stress can release hormones that hinder a student’s ability to learn by affecting the brain’s structures associated with executive functioning and memory.

How do you feel at the end of the school day?

Are your children heading home feeling happy about how the day went? Are they able to leave a bad day at school, or are they taking the stress to bed with them? Are they feeling tired and burned out? Parents can talk to their child over dinner or an after-school snack. Instead of asking the more typical question of how their day went, ask how the day made them feel. 

When we understand the causes and consequences of our students’ emotions — and their varying ability to recognize, label, and regulate those feelings throughout a given day — we can provide greater insight tomorrow. We may learn to more productively express our own emotions. We can help students like Ethan learn better, and help ourselves become better educators and parents in the process.

Marc Brackett is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Chris Frank heads up research initiatives for ClassDojo. Together, they work to bring mindfulness to kids around the world. A set of related activities for home and school that can be found at classdojo.com/ideas.

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More reading:

How (and why) to create space for kids to have emotions

What to do about an angry child?

Want your kids to tell you about their day? Here’s how.

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