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The importance of emotional intelligence for student wellbeing

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Video Transcript

Phil: Doctor Katie Kjelsaas. Now, Katie, we were students back in UQ days. We were undergrads. We were mates that bonded over statistics. We happened to sit next to each other in a statistical course many, many moons ago, and we never looked back. You've gone on, got your doctorate in clinical psychology at UQ. I ended up going to Griffith and doing things over there. And you got the University medal because you're amazing and an amazing deal with the APS Prize. That's the Australian Psychological Society Prize. Right now, you're one of the lead clinical psychologists at the Australian Center for Emotional Focused Therapy at Morningside. I think so. Tell us a little bit, what is emotion or emotionally focused therapy?

Katie: We humans are socially bonding mammals, Phil, we function best when we're securely connected to safe others and our entire systems. Our nervous systems are set up to reward us when we sustain secure connection and to set off lots of alarm bells when we don't. And we see this in every social setting, from little family units up to the entirety of our society. And we see it really clearly in schools. When our students feel safe and loved and valued, they function so well. They're able to kind of achieve their full potential and really, sometimes surprise us with what they're capable of. But when they feel under threat, when disconnection threatens, it's like all the smoke alarms in their house start to go off. They have all kinds of difficulties with performance and behavior. So emotionally focused therapy says, let's understand that the emotional systems in the brain are the oldest and the strongest and let's leverage them to achieve wellbeing and to maximize our performance, but also just our health and our happiness. So that's kind of a foundation of emotionally focused therapy.

Phil: How do you, in a quick summary, talk about the different types of attachment theory and the different connections that children can form to their significant other teachers or friends or parents.

Katie: Well, Judy Feeney, a researcher at UQ, put it really nicely, I think in one of her papers, she says all relationships are actually about distance regulation. Can we get the distance right between us and the other person? Isn't that cool? And so we often talk about attachment on two dimensions. But just for simplicity, if we think about a spectrum that runs from extreme avoidance to extreme approach behavior. And even now, as we set up that spectrum, some of the teachers listening can probably place kids on it. Who are the kids who avoid contact with me at all costs? And who are the kids who are just up in my face constantly.And the thing is, when we talk about secure attachment, it's not this mythical midpoint at the middle of this continuum. Secure attachment actually means being able to move flexibly between approach and avoidance and recognize that both are really useful strategies, right? And everything in between. So sometimes the right thing to do in order to maximize your wellbeing and regulate your system is to pull back and take some time for yourself. And sometimes the right thing to do is to speak up. And so what research shows us time and time again is the people the individuals who are securely attached have access to their entire range of emotions and are able to use it adaptively. And when people can do that, then they can use attachment flexibly. Then they can use it as a servant rather than a master or use emotion as a servant rather than a master. And that's when we see them really excel.

Phil: What you're talking about, there are crucial to that is with this ability to be flexible is that emotional intelligence part which is understanding and managing your emotions and then understanding and managing those emotions around you and other people as well. And it was interesting that right there you linked that and obviously what we do with the Switch4Schools stuff, we link emotional intelligence and the development of emotional intelligence with the ability to be able to navigate the complexity of people but also navigate the complexity of life. And by doing that, you improve your mental health and wellbeing. And there's a link there, right. Between mental health and wellbeing and emotional intelligence that is inextricable without one, you can't have the other. I'd be really interested to get your view on that link between what is emotional intelligence, which links to improved mental health and wellbeing.

Katie: Well, Phil, I think maybe for a long time we've looked at emotions in therapy as sort of woo woo hippy dippy crap that we can't quantify. But actually, what the last maybe 20 to 30 years of neuroscience has been teaching us is that emotions are signals in the brain. And they should be valued as much or more than we value cognition, thoughts. And in fact, when we start to break down what's happening in the brain around emotion, and Dan Siegel and others like him have done some really fantastic work on this. We find that the emotional systems in the brain are older, they're more extensive networks, and they're stronger. And really they're far more efficient. When you get an emotional signal like that anxious feeling, you get in your gut for a test, we know that what this actually is a collection of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of sensory observations that your body made. And it collects these. And instead of saying, I could read you 10,000 thoughts about what's going on for you, it collates them down into this incredibly succinct, efficient message. And so it's like the brain's best most efficient messaging system, emotion.

Phil: Sometimes it works against us, too. Right. So there's emotional survival mechanisms that we know. We know when we can feel that kick when somebody comes up to us in the classroom or another teacher or someone else does something and you just feel that kick that emotional thing. I want to react right now, right. So that very same emotional response. That response that you're talking about, that we can use for good. We often also use for not great. And then we react with five to handle. And we often say that you can tell how badly somebody flipped your lid or lost your head. As dancing would say, it's directly correlated to the the size of the apology you need to make the next day. That's how you know you haven't done that well, but it's not about demonizing that it's not about saying I need to shut that off. It's about knowing how to manage and use that, which is the real skill, right? That's the Jedi trick, right. The emotional intelligence trick.

Katie: Yeah. In fact, in emotionally focused therapy, we distinguish between two different levels of emotion. We've got our primary or core emotions, the six that Ekman talked about in his research that are kind of the adaptive emotions. And pretty much all research shows us that these, in the right circumstances will prime an adaptive response. But these guys are quick. Some research says 125th of a second to register a primary emotion. And then often we move into reactive secondary emotion. Reactive emotions are more complex. They're usually defensive, and they're often maladaptive. So those are the kind of things I think you're talking about when you're using Dan Siegel's idea of flipping the lid. This is reactive secondary emotion. This is where we lose contact with our core emotions, and we lose contact with the prefrontal cortex that helps us make use of them. And so there's that sense of actually, rather than demonizing emotion, wanting to slow it down and get in touch with what's going on underneath. So the kid who's freaking out flipping chairs in your classroom, he's anxious. And underneath that anxiety is probably a deep fear. If you can help him get in touch with and name that fear, then we can help him find a solution that's far more adaptive

Phil: And naming it sort of creating a language creates that conceptual vessel, right? For this sort of learning to take place. A large part of our consciousness, as we know, is linked to our linguistic ability. And so if you don't have the language, if you can't it's hard. It's almost impossible to conceptualize it because there isn't a word for it. And words create this little bucket that you can delve into, which is so fascinating. So maybe bringing back to this looking at sort of emotional reactivity and a lot of the wellbeing issues that we see in the classroom. In particular, there's a lot of concern around anxiety and depression. And with the increased awareness and salience of these two things as being important things to keep a handle on. A lot of teachers that writing to us talk to us about they are more fearful of them as well. They're scared of doing something wrong. What does the teacher do in that situation? How do we look at anxiety and sadness without fear? How do we strip some of the fear out of these issues for teachers who think that they now need to be counsellors as well as teachers? What can we do for those guys?

Katie: I think you said something so important earlier. Phil, when you talked about just naming emotion is very important. One of my favourite studies ever involved people stuck in an FMRI machine looking at disgusting and horrifying images. And in one condition, they're allowed to just name the emotion that came up. They're not even naming it to anybody. They're just lying in their FMRI on their own, saying a word. And in the other condition, they had to lie in silence. And in the condition where people named the emotion, they found the activation in their amygdala, which is one of the big emotional centers of the brain, went down by at least 50%. Insane, right. Just naming it. No wonder Dan Seigal has that wonderful catchphrase, “name it to contain it”. And Mr. Rogers, the US TV personality says, “anything mentionable is manageable”. I love that.

Phil: If no one's seen that Mr Rogers movie, I think there's a movie that Tom Hanks did, wasn't it? It's the most beautiful movie. And it leads most people into this rabbit hole of Google searching who he is, particularly if you didn't grow up with Mr. Rogers. Right. It's the most amazing, that I say, watch that and watch, “Inside Out” on Pixar. That's a good starting point, right?

Katie: Yeah. These are great PD viewing for teachers who are interested in motions, right? There's also a really wonderful documentary about Mr. Rogers as well, the name of which eludes me. But that's another good resource. Coming back to that. I think I want teachers to just think about a couple of things presence, naming emotion and validating and normalizing emotion for their students. And so for teachers to just think about being present, first of all, just coming alongside a student who's struggling, not even feeling the pressure to say anything at all, pulling a chair up near that student. Or if that feels weird, asking another nice student to do so. Naming, asking your student to name what they're feeling, or even for students who struggle with emotional literacy and language, providing some words and asking them to pick the one that resonates with them. You can get a whole bunch of gorgeous emotional wheels. And I know you've got some resources like this in your platform that people can access that can maybe help a teacher who's not sure what words to offer as well. And thirdly, when our students do have the courage to stay with us or to name what's going on for them, validating and normalizing those emotions saying, “yes, it makes sense that you feel anxious. This is a new subject and it is hard and normalizing. It lots of other kids struggle with this too. You're not alone. It's totally okay to have this struggle, and it's great to talk about it.” The more we can destigmatize this idea of sharing emotion and also get away from the idea that there are negative and positive emotions and the positive ones like joy and surprise and happiness and curiosity are welcome in the classroom and the negative ones are not. The more we can get away from that idea, the more we can build healthy, resilient kids who can turn towards their emotions and use them adaptively.

Being emotionally connected with your students, attending to your own emotion in the classroom and to theirs and using it adaptively can help you achieve your goals in the classroom can help you have the kind of present attentive engaged experience that most teachers want to have, right? I know sometimes we get jaded in education, we get tired. But I have to say in all my experience meeting teachers when I was one and now consulting with schools, what I see is so much passion, even in the people who are burnt out, so much desire to actually make a difference in their students life. Share the thing, the subject matter area that they're passionate about or share a life skill. And I would just say to those teachers, this can help you have the kind of classroom experience you want to have with your students and not just all that kind of higher order, lovely, inspirational teaching stuff. But it can also help you finish the class on time, minimise your outside work, minimise complaints and disruption from parents and students. It can actually help your experience in the classroom with your students, run more smoothly and be more enriching for you and them. Yeah, it's scary. Everything new is scary, but just lean into it. Just try a little bit and see what happens.

Phil: I always find that chat is very enriching. There are some people which I talk to feel dumb for the experience, you'll be opposite. I always feel more intelligent, more uplifted and more inspired with our chat. So for that reason alone, we may have to have another chat at some point when we get some feedback on this video. And I'm sure there'll be lots of teachers who watch this video and be wanting to ask follow up questions. So as we do that, I might drop you another line. We might have another conversation, but it's been a real pleasure. And hopefully through our discussion, we've been able to help somebody help make a more emotionally intelligent world. And one by one, improve the decision making and emotional skills of everyone.

Katie: Sounds like a good plan, Phil. It's been a pleasure talking with you.


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