Early Childhood: Emotional Intelligence, and Why It Matters

Rachel F. - Mom of Two

In the field of early childhood a debate rages between two diametrically opposed approaches to education. In one camp sits firmly the academic approach. Advocates of this educational philosophy argue that preschool must be a platform to prepare children for the rigors of first grade and beyond. 

These settings tend to be more structured and teacher-driven, with children learning basic skills in a more formalized way. The key phrase used by proponents of the academic approach is “readiness” and it is hard not to be impressed with its results. 

In a good academic program, children begin reading and writing, adding and subtracting, etc. at a very young age and are therefore “ready” for whatever might come their way in school.

In recent years there has been a severe backlash against the academic approach led by supporters of the “play-based” or “child-centered” philosophy. Play advocates argue that pushing early academics is not only ineffective, it is also dangerous because it puts undue pressure on young children to perform tasks that are beyond their developmental capabilities. 

Instead, play-based preschools offer plenty of time for unstructured, non-directed free time. The learning tends to follow the interests of the children rather than adhering to a pre-set curriculum.

In these early childhood environments, children’s skills are developed through their play; so, for instance, the block corner provides opportunities to test mathematical theories. Writing practice might take the form of creating a shopping list for ingredients needed for a cooking activity. Even scientific concepts such as gravity and centrifugal force are explored, albeit unknowingly, on the playground equipment. 

As a friend and colleague once taught me, “When faced with the question “What is the better option?’, the answer is usually both and neither.” In this case, his theory couldn’t be more true.

The ideal preschool environment would find ways to elevate children’s play so that it allows for the teaching of very high-level, sophisticated material. It would seamlessly blend child-led learning with teacher-facilitated activities. School readiness would be embedded into play. 

Which is the best educational approach for early childhood? Clearly, both. But also, definitely, neither.

Imagine a school where before entering the classroom, the teacher thinks not about what she’s going to teach that day, but about her emotions and whether her mood might affect the children in her class. As they enter, she greets each child and his/her family by asking how they are feeling. Instead of an emphasis on literacy, special attention is paid to enriching children’s emotional vocabulary beyond “happy” and “sad”. 

Typical activities, whether academic or play-based, are replaced with games and projects designed to teach impulse control, empathy, and conflict resolution. During story-time, the teacher talks less about what happened in the book and more about which emotions the characters are experiencing. A “peace corner” sits in one area of the classroom; a beautiful space where two children can go to calmly settle disputes with the help of an impartial third child. 

These very unique preschools have begun to pop up in small pockets around the world and rather than engage in the “academic” versus “play-based” debate, they have shifted their focus entirely to what is known as emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence, the capacity to identify and manage one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others, is a critical skill that does not get nearly enough attention in most early childhood classrooms. In fact, in a typical preschool, two children fighting over a toy, or a child experiencing a big emotion are often viewed as problems to be solved as quickly as possible, a distraction from the real learning that needs to take place. What if, instead, we saw these moments for what they really are: rich opportunities for teaching social skills and self-understanding? 

Rather than having children spend their earliest years trying to master the cognitive knowledge they may or may not need before they get to school, educators should be investing their time and energy filling up childrens’ tool boxes with the skills they will need to flourish in school no matter what they are expected to know.

And before I’m accused of spouting the latest in “new-age hippy drivel” let’s look at some cold hard facts. 

For children with high emotional intelligence, it is usually easier for them to pay attention and remember what they are learning.They are more engaged and more cooperative. And they have more positive relationships with their teachers and peers; all factors that heavily influence success in school. 

In the most quantitative of terms, many studies have shown a correlation between high emotional intelligence and strong test scores. But the benefits of emotional intelligence are not limited to academic settings. More and more companies are recognizing the role emotional intelligence plays in identifying a good employee and have started to factor it into their interview process.  

So what can you do at home until the educational revolution arrives? First and foremost, we as parents must model emotional intelligence for our children. This includes not only regulating our own emotions in front of our kids but demonstrating empathy and validation when it comes to their feelings as well. You can also expand their emotional literacy by replacing the simplified feelings words we typically tend to use when talking to young children with more nuanced descriptions: frustrated, thrilled, disappointed, for example. 

Rather than jumping in immediately to solve children’s conflicts for them, or conversely allowing them to duke it out unassisted with a sibling or friend, be a facilitator in the problem solving process. This can be an actual situation your child finds himself in: I see you both want the toy. Does anyone have an idea for a compromise? Or you can practice these skills with role playing activities or puppet play. You be the daddy and I’ll be the kid. What would you tell me to help me stop crying? The idea is to give children as many opportunities to explore both their own feelings and the feelings of those around them as possible.

If we were to take stock of the emotional intelligence of everyone in our orbit, most of us would be able to identify at least one person that seems more evolved than the rest: a partner who is admiringly self-aware; the friend who deftly navigates arguments within our social group; that one coworker who is always able to offer wise advice and deliver it in a way that makes it easy to hear. 

In an adult, these traits may seem like a natural part of his or her personality. But what if these skills could be taught at a very young age? And, more importantly, what if teaching them was prioritized in early childhood settings over ABCs and 123s? As an educator who will never stop dreaming of a better future, I cannot help but wonder what our world would look like if we raised an entire generation capable of using their emotional intelligence to bring good into the world. 


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