Emotional intelligence: What it means for kids

By Peg Rosen

At a glance

  • Emotional intelligence is the ability to be smart about emotions.

  • It can help kids with learning and thinking differences manage their challenges.

  • There are things you can do to develop your child’s emotional intelligence.

Consider this scenario: Samuel is struggling with his math homework. Instead of yelling and giving up, he tells his mom how frustrated he is and asks for help. Or this one: Samuel’s friend gets some upsetting news and cancels their plans to hang out. Samuel understands why his friend doesn’t feel like socializing and makes other plans.

These responses might not seem like a big deal. But they’re signs of an important set of skills that make up what’s known as “emotional intelligence” (EI). This type of intelligence isn’t measured by IQ tests. Yet it’s crucial to helping us work through challenges and respond to situations successfully. It also helps us make positive connections with the people around us.

Emotional intelligence can be especially helpful to kids with learning and thinking differences. At the same time, certain learning and thinking differences make it harder for some kids to develop it. Learn more about EI and how you can help your child build this key ability.

What emotional intelligence is

EI is the ability to be smart about feelings — our own and other people’s. It involves being able to notice, understand and act on emotions in an effective way.

The concept of EI has been around for decades. It was made popular by the 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The author, psychologist Daniel Goleman, described EI has having five basic parts.

  1. Self-awareness: When people know what they’re feeling at a particular time and understand how their moods affect others.
  2. Self-regulation: When people can control how they respond to their emotions. They consider possible consequences before acting on impulse.
  3. Motivation: When people can accomplish goals in spite of negative or distracting feelings they may be having.
  4. Empathy: When people can understand how others feel.
  5. Social skills: When people can manage relationships. They know what kind of behaviors get a positive response from others.

Why EI is important for kids with learning and thinking differences

Think about the challenges Samuel might face every day. Tasks that are easy for his peers may be difficult for him. He may study hard but get poor grades anyway. He may feel embarrassed about his learning differences and afraid to ask for help.

One of the key roles of EI is shaping how we respond to challenges. Is Samuel has learning and thinking differences, EI can be like a GPS that can help him navigate his way around obstacles and toward success. It allows him to size up situations, put them in perspective, and come up with ways to work through them.

The five factors that make up EI come together to help Samuel achieve the best outcome. Here’s how that might play out when he’s struggling with that math homework:

  • He realizes he’s getting frustrated.
  • He quickly considers the outcome of yelling or throwing his book on the floor.
  • He comes up with a better way to respond — explain how he’s feeling.
  • He wants to try again, despite being frustrated, because he understands what he’ll gain in the long run.
  • He asks his mom for help.
  • She pushes a little too hard, but he understands it’s because she really cares and wants to help him find success.
  • He says he needs to go at a slower pace and would like to try doing it again by himself.
  • The next day, he waits until after class and tells his teacher he’s having trouble understanding.

Without emotional intelligence, the outcome would likely be different. Here’s how the scenario might play out:

  • He throws his pencil down in frustration the minute he gets stuck on a problem.
  • He yells at his mom when she come in to help, thinking she’s just there to nag him.
  • He storms out of the room and never comes back to try again. He doesn’t see any point in it.
  • In math class the next day, he tells the kid sitting next to him that the assignment was stupid.
  • When the teacher asks the students to hand in their work, he says he didn’t do it. He doesn’t tell her after class that he was having trouble with it and ask for help.

Why some kids struggle with EI

Many kids with learning and thinking differences don’t have any trouble with emotional intelligence. Some have particularly high EI, in fact. But trouble with EI can sometimes be an early sign that a child has a learning or thinking difference.

Kids with might miss social cues because they’re not paying close enough attention to pick up on them. Kids with an might misinterpret what others are saying to them. And kids with might not pick up on social cues at all.

On the flip side, it’s not uncommon for people with to show very high EI. Some researchers think this may be due to their brain’s natural ability to think in the “big picture.”

How you can help your child

The good news about EI is that it isn’t set — with help and practice your child can develop it over time. That’s true even for kids who are weak in this area due to learning and thinking differences. It just might take them longer to get there.

Many school districts offer social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that teach kids to be aware of emotions and act on them effectively.

There are things you can do at home, too:

Talk about challenges. Ask kids how they feel when they’re struggling with something. Put a name to the emotions: sad, angry, overwhelmed, etc. Then ask why they’re feeling the emotion they just named.

Work on strategies. Brainstorm ways kids might have done something differently to get a different outcome. Controlling emotions in order to think of solutions is a big part of EI.

Help others. Have kids join you in taking care of people in need as a way to build empathy. You can join a volunteer effort, or just bring them along when you take food to a sick neighbor.

Emotional intelligence is tied into many other key strengths. Learn how you can empower your child by working on self-esteem and social skills. And discover concrete tips for helping your child develop EI.

Key takeaways

  • Some kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble with emotional intelligence.

  • Schools may offer social and emotional learning (SEL) programs to help build EI in kids.

  • Talking about challenges and feelings helps build emotional intelligence.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Donna Volpitta, EdD is the founder of Pathways to Empower. Her work draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and education.