The implementation of “social emotional learning” is a method for developing the skills of emotional intelligence.  Why is this important, and how can it be achieved?  

     Healthy classroom environments depend on the creation of a classroom culture that allows children to develop emotional intelligence competencies.  Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies are developed from the ability to be aware of one’s own emotions and patterns of behavior (Self-Knowledge), to manage negative or destructive emotions effectively (Self-Management), and to share in positive relationships and experiences with others in a way that enhances learning and life satisfaction (Relationship Management).  Research suggests that life satisfaction derives from the development of Prosocial Behavior, the precursor of Empathy (Caprera et al., 2000; Malecki & Elliott, 2002).


     The first step in the EQ process is becoming aware of our emotions and naming them.  Research posits that naming our emotions allows us to “slow down” and consider them before acting, which provides a link between emotional and cognitive processing in the prefrontal cortex (Barbey, 2012). The amygdala is a kind of reaction center, and often causes us to overreact or choose an action that doesn’t help solve the problem we are facing. The emotional brain must be allowed to practice the skills of empathy and understanding, receive feedback from the surrounding environment, and evaluate the correctness of judgments made as a result of emotional input.

    Research shows that simply naming feelings begins to sooth the amygdala, reducing our emotional reactivity (Lieberman et al, 2007). Discussion of feelings and understanding differing points of view allows children to foster communication between the emotional brain and the rational brain.  The “Six Seconds Pause” serves this purpose, allowing an individual to engage the cognitive brain in a search for six ideas, while calming the emotional brain.  Having completed the pause, one can take a deep breath and consider the message of the emotions he or she is feeling, navigate emotions, and choose the best course of action.


Understanding the Message of Emotions

   Robert Plutchik’s research (2001) on emotions describes eight basic emotions.  The figure below represents this model. The cone’s vertical dimension represents intensity, and the circle represents degrees of similarity among the emotions. The eight sectors are designed to indicate that there are eight primary emotion dimensions defined by the theory, arranged as four pairs of opposites. In the exploded model the emotions in the blank spaces are the primary dyads—emotions that are mixtures of two of the primary emotions.


(Figure reprinted by permission of American Scientist, magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society.)

   Each emotion has varying intensity and can combine with another emotion to create other feelings.  Helping children to understand that emotions are important aids them in focusing on their own and other’s feelings in a situation.  Plutchik points out that an emotion is not simply a feeling state: emotion is a complex chain of loosely connected events; the chain begins with a stimulus and includes feelings, psychological changes, impulses to action, and specific goal-directed behavior.  In other words, feelings do not happen in isolation. They are responses to significant situations in the life of an individual, and often they motivate actions. 

   In addition, it is important to teach children that more than one emotion can be felt at a time.  No wonder it is sometimes difficult to understand what we are feeling!!  At the Synapse School, the Self-Science curriculum teaches children about emotional messages and facilitates the use of those emotional messages in decision-making.


The 8 Basic Emotions

    Each of the eight basic emotions has a message that can aid individuals in making good decisions. Taking a pause to consider our feelings can help to make this message clear.

  1.  Fear:  The message is that something needs to change.
  2. Anger: The message is to fight against problems.
  3. Joy: The message is to remind us what is important.
  4. Sadness: The message is to connect us with those we love.
  5. Acceptance: The message is to open our hearts.
  6. Disgust:  The message is reject what is unhealthy.
  7. Anticipation:  The message is to look forward and plan.
  8. Surprise: The message is to focus on new situations.

 (For more on these basic emotions, see this article about decoding emotions for children, this one for adults, or this resource page on emotional literacy — or our 90-second video)



The Development of EQ Competencies

    The Six Seconds model of emotional intelligence describes three stages of emotional intelligence development (Freedman, Jensen, Rideout, & Stone-McCown, 1998).  At the Synapse School, children learn the eight EQ competencies that make up these three stages. 

     Know Yourself: The important factors here are the ability to name emotions and develop an emotional literacy.  This competency requires practice, just as we must practice to develop our reading and comprehension skills to become literate. At the same time, individuals must be “self-observers” in order to gather data about patterns of behavior that have become a part of an individual’s behavior repertoire.  

     Reflection is an important part of this process.  It is also necessary to journal in order to detect patterns of behavior and their antecedent circumstances. A trusted friend, an EQ Coach, a teacher, or a non-judgmental family member can help an individual reflect on patterns of behavior. Taking an emotional intelligence assessment, such as the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment (SEI) or the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment for Youth (SEI-YV) can be an informative aid in this process (Freedman and Ghini, 2005, Jensen and Van-Dijk 2009).

     Choose Yourself: For human beings, choice equals a feeling of control.  Feeling in control increases confidence in one’s abilities and capabilities.  It is imperative that students feel that they have choices in their classroom; a classroom that doesn’t allow student-choice tells students that they are not capable. 

     Choice also aids the development of Optimism, an important EQ competency that allows a student to feel that they have the ability to overcome obstacles.  Adversity is ever-present in life; the belief that it can be overcome lies in the development of optimism (Seligman, 1995).  Following on the heels of the competency of optimism, intrinsic motivation is an EQ competency that develops when a student is able to execute, evaluate, and learn from a choice made.  Classrooms that allow students to make choices, encourage them to think about the consequences of choices, and remind them to consider mistakes as opportunities to learn help children develop self-efficacy, optimism, and intrinsic motivation.

     Give Yourself: Connecting to a purpose that is aligned with a student’s goals gives the student the intrinsic motivation to pursue those goals.  Classrooms that encourage students to set and meet goals and to understand why those goals were chosen by the student stimulate this connection.  Student satisfaction derives not only from “a job well done,” but also from the knowledge that completing the job satisfied an inner connection to something larger than the self.  

     Today, many schools require students to complete a certain number of hours of community service. Service Learning is an example of one of the ways schools attempt to help students develop the EQ competency of pursuing noble goals.  Leadership jobs in an organization also allow students to test and develop their skills in this area. Finally, development of the above EQ competencies creates empathy for others that is necessary for an individual’s healthy emotional development.  “Empathy shatters rigid ideologies and destroys stereotypes” (Goleman, 1995).  Students who develop the EQ competency of empathy emerge as natural leaders, garner the respect of their classmates and teachers, and enhance their own development as individuals with an understanding of the richness and diversity in the world we inhabit.


   There are eight specific, learnable, measurable competencies that support these three macro areas.  The eight competencies are shown in this graphic:



Practical Suggestions
for the
Classroom Teacher or Parent

     How do you help children in your classroom or family develop emotional intelligence?  Below are a few suggestions that can start your classroom or family on the way to becoming aware of, naming, and using emotional messages to inform good decision-making.  

1. Observe your classroom/home environment

Take a few moments each day and just observe your classroom or home environment.  Which children appear relaxed and happy?  Which children talk incessantly?  Which children are shy and retiring?  Get to know the patterns of behavior between your children and take notes on how they are relating to each other.  These notes will be valuable clues to their learning style, approach to learning, and ability to manage their emotions and relationships.

2.     Create stories that will become a part of the fabric of your classroom/home

The brain learns best through the context of stories.  Stories stimulate multisensory integration and help the brain to order and orient the things it needs to know.  If you think about your own school years, you will most likely realize that it is the stories that you remember (about teachers, classmates, friends etc.) that stimulate your memory and give depth to your learning.  Creating classroom and family stories fosters interdependence and a sense of “we” that builds emotional intelligence. Research shows that anxiety reduces short-term memory, but does not affect story memory (Cozolino, 2009).

3.     Give choice/Encourage Connection

Choice stimulates intrinsic motivation (Fatum, 2008). It is through the opportunity to make choices and evaluate the consequences of those choices in a safe environment that we learn about ourselves.  Classrooms and homes that allow children to make age-appropriate choices, within boundaries that allow feelings of safety, encourage self-efficacy and independence.

4.     Emphasize emotional meaning/Model the importance of emotions

Our Western culture does not acknowledge the importance of emotional understanding and meaning.  The Behaviorist tradition of psychology and the “scientific” approach to research have given individuals the idea that emotions are dangerous and to be avoided.  Nothing could be further from the truth (Damasio, 1994; LeDoux, 1994).  It is through understanding the message of our emotions that we are empowered to act in ways that connect with our best judgment. In class and at home, adults must model this understanding of emotions by validating children’s feelings and then helping them explore options in response to those feelings.

5.     Create an active and cooperative atmosphere

Research suggests that competition builds stress and stressed brains have a difficult time learning (Medina, 2008).  Classrooms and homes that encourage a collaborative and cooperative approach to problem-solving allow children to approach learning in a calm and relaxed manner, opening the door to cognitive processing and memory (Vail, 1981).

6.     Make time each day for journaling and reflecting

The brain benefits from time to reflect (Medina, 2008).  Ideally, reflection should occur every 90 minutes throughout the day, giving the brain time to integrate new learning with old and encode it in memory.  Practice of new concepts is vital also, allowing children to experience what they are learning actively.  The brain changes constantly with new learning and rewires itself as new elements are stored in memory and practiced as they are learned.

7.     Reframe mistakes

An essential component of learning is to feel safe enough to make mistakes and be able to reframe them in a way that allows learning to occur.  Homes and classrooms that allow children to learn to reframe mistakes lower stress and increase cognitive processing capability.  Reframing also builds self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation as children can evaluate how to correctly use their skills, as well as decide which new skills need to be developed.

8.     Celebrate feelings

Celebration is such an important concept. Our brains are naturally structured to focus on the negative elements.  Indeed, these stick like Velcro!!  Positive occurrences are often treated in a matter-of-fact way as the brain is not inclined to focus on them for survival.  Celebration of accomplishments allows children to build optimism in a realistic way and teaches them to focus on the things that they do well.  It is important to teach our children to use their strengths to support their challenges.  The child who can say, “I stink at soccer, but I am very good at art,” is learning to balance his/her emotional response to challenges and to value him or herself.

9. Take Children’s Aspirations Seriously

When children have a goal, support them to pursue it.  Pursuit of personal goals increases self-efficacy and a sense of personal effectiveness.  Children who set and monitor progress toward their goals build an effective lifelong skill that enhances the development of executive function. (Here is a related article)

10. Consciously model and teach EQ Skills

Recognize the power of role modeling, start with yourself. Children are very aware of a sense of cognitive dissonance when adult actions diverge from expectations set by those adults. Adults increasing EQ appears to affect the development of children’s EQ skills. Children of emotionally intelligent parents learn to trust their feelings, regulate their own emotions, and solve problems (Grayson, 2012).


Final Thoughts

Emotions affect how and what children learn. Unchecked emotions raise an individual’s stress level and stressed brains find it very difficult to learn (Medina, 2008). At the Synapse School, teachers model the concepts presented in this article and teach children to develop EQ competencies.  As our founder, Karen Stone McCown observed, “If we don’t help children to create a ‘neural dialogue’ between their emotional data and their cognitive processing, we are limiting their capacity to grow and learn in a healthy manner” (Stone McCown, 2005).  As a lab school, Synapse looks to lead the way for families and students to learn emotional intelligence, modeling and applying these best-practices from educational research to our school.  We invite you to come and visit the Synapse School to learn more, and we look forward to welcoming you.


EQ matters.  Academically and socially, children who learn these skills are better prepared to deal with the adversities of life, to learn from mistakes, to reframe difficult situations, and to adapt to life’s constantly changing circumstances.  (Durlak & Weissberg, 2011). 





Barbey,A.K., Colom, R., & Grafman, J. (2012). Distributed neural system for emotional Intelligence revealed by lesion mapping. Downloaded from by guest on May 28, 2013.

Caprara, G.V., Barbaranelli, C.P., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P.G. (2000). Prosocial foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychological Science, 11, 302-306.

Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment & the developing social brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. London: Penguin Books.

Fatum, B. (2008).  The relationship between emotional intelligence and academic achievement. Unpublished dissertation, University of San Francisco.

Freedman, J.M, and Ghini, M. (2005).  Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment.

Freedman, J.M., Jensen, A.L., Stone-McCown, K., & Rideout, M.S. (1998). Self-Science: The emotional intelligence curriculum. San Mateo, CA:   Six Seconds.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than  IQ.  New York: Bantam Books.

Grayson, R. (2012). Social, developmental, & organizational psychology applied to camp. Retrieved from on May 28, 2013.

Jensen, A., & Van-Dijk, C. (2009). Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment – Youth Version. Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Network.

LeDoux, J. (1994). Emotion, memory and the brain. Scientific American, 270, 50-57.

Lieberman, M.D., (2007). Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58:25, 9-89.

Malecki, C.K., & Elliott, S.N. (2002). Children’s social behaviors as predictors of academic achievement: A longitudinal analysis.  School Psychology Quarterly, 17, 1 – 23.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Pear Press: Seattle, Washington.

Plutchik, R. (2001). The nature of emotions. American Scientist 89 (2001): 344.

Seligman, M.P. (1995). The optimistic child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression & builds lifelong resilience. New York:  Houghton Mifflin.

Stone-McCown, K. (2005). Emotional intelligence: The cornerstone for positive

 Vail, P. (1981).  Emotion: The On Off Switch for learning. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press.

Willis, J. (2007). Brain-friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA.


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