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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

Making Emotions Matter for Leaders

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When a school in Texas began developing emotional intelligence as a core value, they had to start at the top.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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A few years ago, I led an optional training on emotional intelligence for interested teachers at my school. During one of the exercises, “Listening for Feelings,” participants were seated in pairs, facing each other. They received emotionally evocative prompts, and one member of each pair was invited to speak while the other gave their full attention, without interrupting, for two minutes. Then, they switched roles. The aim of the exercise was to identify the feelings behind the words being expressed. 
After the training, one of the teachers told me, “As I was listening for feelings, something shifted inside of me. I saw my colleague in a new light, and I had a new understanding of the challenges we’ve been having in our department.” 
The following year, this teacher became a department chair and started to embed ­emotional intelligence practices in her department.

The Connection of Well-Being and Emotional Intelligence

This focus on emotional intelligence at our school was deliberate. We decided to prioritize mental and emotional well-being as a response to the growing youth mental health crisis, and emotional intelligence became a clear focus and an essential component of our approach. My division head and I decided to start by exploring how emotional intelligence was being taught outside of education. We felt that the program Search Inside Yourself, which was developed at Google to teach engineers emotional intelligence skills, would work best for our school’s needs. To show our school community the value of emotional intelligence, we wanted to emphasize that emotional intelligence is a set of skills in high demand beyond school, as shown by an incredibly successful company like Google offering this training to its employees. 
For six years, we focused on this emotional intelligence work. We normalized conversations about emotions, and a growing number of ­students, teachers, and parents began to understand emotions as important information they can use to build relationships and strengthen community. Recognizing the influence of emotions in learning, decision-making, relationships, and overall well-being contributed to developing a more supportive school climate. 

If schools want to teach emotional intelligence to students effectively, educators must first be willing to start their own emotional intelligence journey.

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I was inspired by one simple and transformative idea: If schools want to teach emotional intelligence to students effectively, educators must first be willing to start their own emotional intelligence journey. Three essential lessons on growing emotional intelligence among school staff emerged from our years of work in this area, and we are eager to share them with others.

Lesson #1: Real change comes from the top.

When our school began this work, I was reminded of something I had experienced years before I started working in education. After I finished my degree in psychology, I facilitated workshops on emotional intelligence for civil servants. When I covered the topic of the interpersonal domain of emotional intelligence and spoke about skills such as empathy and mindful listening, many of the participants would say something like, “This is what my boss needs. Why am I the one being sent to this training?” 
Those comments came roaring back to me when I first tried to bring emotional intelligence work into our school. It made sense: How could we engage teachers in the work of cultivating emotional intelligence if they saw their school leaders neglecting those skills? I realized the only way to create emotionally intelligent schools was to engage leaders in the work—from the head of school onward. Real change comes when those who lead can model what emotional intelligence means. If emotional intelligence truly matters, it must be embodied by those in charge. We cannot expect mastery, but we should demand honest engagement in the work of developing emotional intelligence from our school leaders. 
I focused my efforts on onboarding our admin team and department chairs and offered training opportunities that most of them could attend. It was the first step in the process of cultivating a shared mindset, developing a common language, and fine-tuning a set of skills they could model for teachers.

Lesson #2: Cultivate a shared mindset around emotions.

During one faculty training I led, teachers engaged in exercises aimed at bringing to light their ideas about emotions. They were invited to share what they thought about emotions and emotional intelligence before the training. Here were some of the actual responses participants from that session wrote in an exercise:
  • “Emotions have no place in an educational setting.”
  • “People should be able to handle their ­emotions without help or training.”
  • “The important thing is to just be positive.”
  • “Emotions should be ‘deleted.’ ”
Now, picture those same educators being told by their administrators that emotional intelligence can be the key to school success. It doesn’t work. The plant of emotional intelligence in education doesn’t grow if we don’t provide the soil—a shared mindset around emotions. The RULER approach, developed by the Yale Center for ­Emotional Intelligence, calls it the “emotions matter” mindset. The idea behind this mindset is that for us to strengthen our emotional intelligence, we must recognize emotions as an essential aspect of what it means to be a human being. Emotions influence our thoughts and actions and are always present in our personal and professional lives. 

Most educators have not received an 'emotion education.'

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Most educators have not received an “emotion education.” How many of us attended schools with programs that systematically addressed the understanding and management of emotions? Misconceptions about emotions and the meaning of emotional intelligence abound. For schools to share a mindset around emotions, educators must be presented with evidence-based information consistently and systematically as part of their professional learning. Research shows emotions influence attention, learning, memory, decision-making, relationships, and health. We all need to know the science behind emotions so we can use that ­information to guide our thinking and actions and help our students do the same. 
In our school, for example, we devote the first few minutes of every faculty meeting to highlighting aspects related to emotional intelligence. We might review an ­emotional intelligence skill or an emotion regulation strategy or engage in a brief mindfulness exercise. We send weekly emails to students, parents, and teachers that present emotional intelligence as an integral part of our approach to wellness. We also open each high school assembly with three mindful breaths to help us center ­ourselves, mindfully observe our feelings, and connect with our values.

Lesson #3: Adopt an approach to emotional intelligence that is not just for students but also adults.

The previous points lead to this final, crucial one: Emotional intelligence should inform how schools fulfill their mission, from how leaders lead to how teachers teach. ­Frequently, schools introduce emotional ­intelligence within social-emotional learning ­programs designed to teach ­students but don’t include a clear path for teachers.
When emotional intelligence becomes a focus for adults and not just a lesson the adults teach their students, relationships improve—relationships between teachers and students and between teachers and other adults in the community, like colleagues and parents. When ­relationships improve, school culture improves. 

Teaching is considered a highly emotional profession, and emotion profoundly influences learning.

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If you need help identifying the right SEL program for your school community, use the program guide designed by CASEL. It allows you to identify and compare evidence-based programs based on your priorities and needs. We chose the RULER approach because it aims to infuse the ­principles of ­emotional ­intelligence into the ­foundation of schools by training people of all ages.

EI Is an Ongoing Journey

Six years into this journey, a work in progress, we are beginning to see tangible results. Department chairs are now conducting department meetings while giving mindful consideration to the emotions present in the room. One of them told me that the first agenda item when they meet as a department is to reflect on their feelings and their students’ feelings. Then, they identify the behaviors that contribute to ­creating the emotional climate they want in their classroom. In addition, our teachers are finding innovative ways to incorporate emotional intelligence into their instruction, not because they are asked to do it but because it has become an intrinsic aspect of what education now means for them. 
Teaching is considered a highly emotional profession, and emotion profoundly influences learning. Schools are saturated with emotion. Emotional intelligence needs to become part of the DNA of educational institutions, and that requires school leaders willing to lead the way, a shared mindset that recognizes ­emotions are at the core of education, and a systemic approach that engages all school members, starting with the adults.

Juan-Diego Estrada is the director of wellness and an upper school counselor at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas. He is a certified teacher of the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence and leadership program Search Inside Yourself and a Duke-trained health and well-being coach.

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