Emotional intelligence (EI) sits at the crossroads of cognition and emotion, with poor wellbeing mostly the direct result of undeveloped EI. Poor mental health is often simply the inability to understand and manage internal emotion states that are driving poor thoughts and behaviours. EI facilitates our capacity for resilience, motivation, empathy, reasoning, stress management, communication, and how successfully we navigate complex social interactions and conflict.
EI matters. A lot.
However, implementing a program into classrooms to increase emotional intelligence and self regulatory behaviours can be complicated, particularly in busy school schedules with many demands on teachers and administration. More than 100 years of research and thousands of studies show us that it is critical to a successful and healthy life, with strong EI consistently predicting financial, social and physical health. If we want successful students, we must build emotional intelligence. With our deep experience in change management and project implementation, we have found that there are a few things which are common to every successful venture. Six things that work together and build off each other. Rare is the successful project that is void of one of these elements, and it all starts with strong, clear, decisive leadership.
1. Lead the charge and create a coalition of the willing
Leading is more than just strong decrees and leveraging your hierarchical power. Strong leadership is leading with clarity and empathy, and developing a small group of like-minded people that can help drive the change on your behalf, and with you public backing.
Doing something new triggers a fear response in the brain, even if it’s something you know you will benefit from or you really believe in. Therefore, you need to show people it’s ok by leading the charge. Just like leading a tribe into battle, people need to see it is possible to experience the change and still be safe, which will give them confidence to overcome the fear and throw themselves into the new initiative. With wellbeing initiative this is extra important, as it is a more nebulous and invisible concept than a curriculum initiative or a physical health program. People will be scared of their own inexperience in the mental wellbeing space, and say things like “I’m a teacher, not a counsellor”. What they’re actually saying is I’m scared of what might happen if I do something wrong. What you need to show them is that doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Start strongly, lead a small coalition of the willing, slowly build momentum and talk about as many early success stories as you can. Leadership is critical, and having a team of people around you who can become evangelists for the cause will pay off in spades. Time invested here with save time down the track.
2. Make sure you keep regulated Put your own mask on before worrying about anyone else’s. People are pretty good at sniffing out hypocrisy. Showing emotional dysregulation, particularly when people resist your directions, sends a message that you’re all talk and no substance. Practice what you preach and make sure you show others what good wellbeing and emotional regulation looks and feels like. This of course has the added benefit of making life more pleasant for yourself as well, but failure to do this will undermine psychological safety and say that it’s actually ok to show low EI. Lead by example.
3. Stay the course
Anything worth doing can be difficult at times. There will be days when staying committed to the course of improving emotional regulation muscles in staff and students will feel unpopular, exhausting, inconvenient and hopeless. In these moments remember that this is about better outcomes over the long term, and that overcoming short-term pain for long-term gain is one of the key tenants of EI. Be stoic, be resilient. This is particularly important for your coalition of the willing, they need to see that you’re not a fair weather sailor, that you can be strong through the storm to get to the other side.
And let’s not forget how important this is when new technology adoption is involved. Technology can be seen as inconvenient and frustrating when trying to get used to things – which is compounded when lack of wifi, firewalls and the new programs themselves experience hiccups. Then the brain screams – “See, at least the old way was reliable, even if it didn’t actually do the job, it was predictable!” The brain hates any change, and the complexity of connectivity and digital environments mean there will always be some bumps along the way.
4. Celebrate involvement, not just results or ‘wins’
Results will come, but involvement is much more critical than simply results. In the early days good results can be as much related to chance and circumstance than effective leveraging of the new way. Celebrating quick wins is important of course. However, If you only celebrate results, and those wins were simply a consequence of chance, then people learn that they don’t need to do anything in order to win and you lose the opportunity to have a bigger more sustainable impact. Results will differ between classes and grades for a varying number of reasons, rewarding enthusiasm and involvement is better for long term adoption of the change. Watch and track the level of involvement and celebrate people who are adapting to the change, the results will follow.
5. Don’t disrupt trust circles (protect psychological safety)
When leaders who are given the responsibility to drive change get scared that it might not be working, there is a huge desire to micro-manage and jump hierarchical levels to ‘sort it out yourself’. While there may be some rare instances where this might be prudent (say in cases where a leader has very particular experience or expertise that can help solve a peculiar problem and time is of the essence), in ninety-nine out of one hundred cases this is a bad move. You may win the battle, but you will lose the war. All this does is undermine your team you are supposed to be managing. It is much better to provide the support they need in order to get the job done. This shows that you trust them, you’re willing to support them if they make a slight misjudgement and help course correct, and will avoid you getting burnt out by feeling you need to be constantly vigilant in order to ensure success.
6. Include your parents and care-givers
We all know that wellbeing is more than what happens at school, it is also about what happens at home. We have never come across a parent that doesn’t want a better, more peaceful life for their children. Including the parents has a number of important effects. It encourages reinforcement of key ideas and embeds regulatory behaviours as a life skill, and not just something done in a particular context. It encourages some of the more resistant teachers to be a little more enthusiastic about the program as they see the parents excited about it. It give parents some good tools and emotional skills to better control their own emotions, and the emotional environment in the home, which better prepares the students for when they arrive a school. And finally, it shows parents that you care about their children’s wellbeing, and are actively doing something about it.
Today’s world is more complex and confusing than ever. We all have a role, indeed a responsibility, to use whatever tools we have to help teach better emotional intelligence and create better communities for everyone.