Emotional Intelligence for Middle and High Schoolers

One of the reasons our team wanted to develop a new kind of school was because we felt traditional schooling doesn’t put enough emphasis on developing emotionally intelligent kids. But what is emotional intelligence and how do you develop it?

Emily Veno
August 30, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

Have you ever met somebody who was brilliant with words or numbers, but struggled with relationships? What about somebody who wasn’t successful in traditional academics, but had a gift for overcoming setbacks with a smile? It’s possible that the person you’re thinking of had a mismatch between their IQ (the “intelligence quotient” number representing traditional intelligence, like processing speed and vocabulary) and their EQ, or emotional quotient. My parents used to describe this as “book smart” vs. “street smart!”

Psychologist Daniel Goleman brought the idea of measuring one’s “emotional quotient” to prominence in the 90s in his book Emotional Intelligence. Since then, many fascinating study results have highlighted the importance of EQ as a predictor of life outcomes. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that kids with strong social & emotional skills in kindergarten were more likely to achieve success as adults, nineteen years later. Another study found that kids who were able to practice self-control (another component of EQ) were more likely to be physically and mentally healthy, plus financially successful, in their 30s.

One of the reasons our team at Prisma wanted to develop a new kind of school was because we felt traditional schooling doesn’t put enough emphasis on developing emotionally intelligent kids. Our program for middle and high schoolers weaves social and emotional learning into a project-based curriculum, where kids build social skills in collaborative problem-solving workshops, and self-awareness through and weekly 1:1s with a mentor coach trained to help them set goals and check in with their own feelings. Kids earn “badges” by demonstrating mastery of social-emotional skills, which appear on their transcripts right next to traditional subjects like science and history.

There are a lot of resources available online for teaching emotional intelligence to very young children (the “terrible twos” or being a “threenager” is no joke!), but we believe emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more so, to develop in older children. In this post, we’ll unpack the different aspects of emotional intelligence in the pre-teen and teen stages of development, and provide concrete strategies from experts and the Prisma curriculum to build your child’s emotional intelligence.


What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, manage, and effectively use emotions in ourselves and others. This ability greatly influences our thinking, decision-making, and relationships.

Here’s a breakdown of the different aspects of emotional intelligence and the typical challenges children might encounter during middle and high school (from ages 8-18):


Self-awareness involves the recognition and understanding of one's own emotions and their impact on thoughts and behaviors. In terms of child development, 8-12 year olds are starting to develop a clearer sense of identity but may struggle to fully understand or articulate their emotions. This quest for identity intensifies during adolescence (13-18 years old), leading to confusion or frustration. Additionally, the hormonal changes of puberty can cause a rush of “big feelings” and mood swings, making it even harder for adolescents to understand and manage their feelings.


Self-regulation is the ability to manage one's emotions in a healthy way, controlling impulsive feelings and behaviors, and adapting to changing circumstances. This skill is connected to executive functioning. Younger children (8-12 years old) often have a harder time focusing, controlling their impulses, and managing their emotions compared to older kids because the brain regions responsible for self-regulation are still developing. As children grow, they typically get better at self-regulation, but the hormonal changes that occur during adolescence can temporarily make it harder for teenagers to regulate their emotions, leading to increased impulsivity and mood swings.


Motivation involves having a positive outlook and a strong will to achieve one's goals, despite obstacles. As children approach adolescence, they often face increased pressure to perform well academically and socially. This pressure can sometimes lead to stress and anxiety, which may temporarily decrease their motivation. However, it’s also common for children, as they get older and develop special areas of interest, to become more motivated to excel in those areas. It's a balancing act between managing the pressure to perform and staying motivated to achieve their goals.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions of others. While children start developing empathy at a very young age, it becomes more refined as they grow older. However, they may sometimes struggle to see things from another person’s perspective, leading to misunderstandings or conflicts with peers, especially during adolescence when social dynamics become more complex.

Social Skills

A child who has great social skills has the ability to interact well with others, communicate effectively, work well in a team, and manage conflicts constructively. As children grow and social dynamics become more complex, they may struggle with forming and maintaining relationships, navigating social hierarchies, and managing conflicts.

Responding to Your Child’s Emotions

John Gottman is a renowned psychologist who has conducted extensive research on relationships, marriage, and parenting. One of his significant findings related to parenting is the concept of 'Emotion Coaching'.

According to Gottman, parents typically respond to their child's negative emotions in one of the following ways:

  1. Dismissing: The parent disregards the child's emotions, minimizes their feelings, or seems indifferent to their emotional needs. An example might be saying “There’s nothing to be worried about, stop being silly!” or not acknowledging a child’s emotions at all.
  2. Disapproving: The parent criticizes the child's emotions, punishes them for expressing their feelings, or otherwise shows disapproval of their emotions. Think the old-school parent telling their son “Boys don’t cry! Are you a pansy?”
  3. Laissez-Faire: The parent acknowledges the child's emotions but fails to set boundaries or help the child manage their feelings or solve the problems that may be causing them distress. This might sound like “I understand that you are angry, it’s okay to feel that way.”
  4. Emotion Coaching: This is the most beneficial approach according to Gottman. Emotion Coaching parents are aware of their child's emotions, empathize with their feelings, validate them, and then guide the child in managing their feelings and problem-solving. This might sound like Laissez-Faire parenting, but with extra steps, something like: “I can see why that would make you angry, I would be angry if my artwork got thrown away too. Do you want to talk about it or brainstorm what you could say to the teacher to prevent this happening again?”

Gottman’s research showed that children whose parents used the Emotion Coaching approach were better at regulating their own emotions, were more resilient, and had better overall social skills. This approach helps children to develop healthy emotional intelligence which includes understanding their emotions, being able to self-soothe, understanding others' emotions, and being able to deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way.

Helping Your Child with Self-Awareness

An emotionally intelligent child can both understand and manage their own emotions and recognize the impact of their feelings on their thoughts and actions. It’s easy to stop just at “How did that make you feel?” and not dive deeper, into “How might how you were feeling have impacted how you behaved?” and it’s this second question that is key to strong self-awareness.

Here are some strategies and concrete examples for helping middle and high schoolers improve their emotional self-awareness:

  1. Encourage Reflection: Regularly ask your child about their day, how they felt during different activities or interactions, and why they think they felt that way. For example, after a frustrating sports defeat, you could ask them how they felt at different moments of the game.
  2. Teach Them to Identify Emotions: Help your child expand their emotional vocabulary by teaching them different words to describe their feelings. Use books, movies, or real-life situations to point out different emotions (“How do you think Uncle Tim might have been feeling today?”)
  3. Use Visual Aids: Visual aids can help children (and adults!) identify and label their feelings. It may seem like kindergarten at first to use a feelings chart, but Prisma learners really enjoy using this interactive online emotion wheel or apps like Mood Meter.
  4. Model Self-Awareness: Demonstrate self-awareness by openly discussing your own emotions and explaining how they impact your behavior. For example, if you’re feeling stressed and snap at your child, apologize and explain that you reacted that way because you were feeling stressed.
  5. Validate Their Feelings: Let your child know that it's okay to feel a range of emotions and that their feelings are valid. When we have to push down our feelings too often, it can cause challenges later on with identifying how we are feeling.

Helping Your Child with Emotional Regulation

Developing emotional regulation is crucial for emotional intelligence and overall well-being. The ability to self-regulate helps children and teens control impulses, manage stress, and make thoughtful choices. Many mental health conditions can develop or be exacerbated by a lack of emotional regulation skills.

Try some of these strategies if you haven’t already:

  1. Teach Coping Mechanisms: Simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing, counting to ten, or closing their eyes and visualizing a calm scene can be helpful. Try the "4-7-8" breathing technique where they inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds.
  2. Discuss Consequences: Encourage your child to think about the potential outcomes of their actions, which can promote self-control. If your child is frustrated with a sibling, ask them what might happen if they yell versus taking a few moments to cool down and then address the situation.
  3. Encourage Physical Exercise: Physical activity can be a healthy outlet for stress and emotion. Encourage your child to go for a run, bike ride, or engage in some physical activity when they're feeling emotionally charged.
  4. Encourage Mindfulness: Mindfulness activities can help teenagers become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. Many teens might not respond well to their parents telling them to meditate, but popular meditation YouTube channels or apps may do the trick here.
  5. Avoid Tech as a Self-Soothing Mechanism: The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using technology as a way to self-soothe. This can lead to a cycle of dependence without addressing the underlying emotional issue. If your child is upset, rather than allowing them to retreat into a video game or social media, engage them in a conversation or suggest alternative ways to cope like reading, drawing, or taking a walk.
  6. Model Emotional Regulation: Children learn by observing their parents. Show them how you manage your emotions in stressful situations. If you're stuck in traffic and visibly frustrated, demonstrate deep breathing and talk through your process of calming down. If you come home from a stressful day at work, think before you let your child hear you say “I need a drink!” Unhealthy coping mechanisms like escapism or substance abuse can be learned through your example.

Helping Your Child with Social Skills

Social interactions are the context where your child can put their strong emotional intelligence into practice, and can help them develop better relationships.

Here are some strategies and examples to help your child develop social skills:

  1. Role-Playing: Use role-playing activities to help your child practice different social situations. For younger children, you might take turns playing the roles of a guest and a host at a party, focusing on greetings, conversations, and farewells. For teens, try practicing a tough conversation (like addressing a conflict with a friend or asking a teacher for an extension on a project) out loud in advance.
  2. Encourage Group Activities: Participating in group activities is the best way for your child to develop teamwork and cooperation skills. Enroll your child in team sports, music ensembles, or group art classes. As kids get older, make sure they have some unstructured, minimally supervised time to hang with peers and manage their own disagreements.
  3. Practice Active Listening: Teach your child the importance of listening to others' opinions and thoughts. Have conversations where you both take turns speaking and actively listening without interrupting, and encourage your child to ask you questions.
  4. Discuss Non-Verbal Cues: Teach your child to pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. A fun way to practice this could be watching a movie scene on mute and challenging each other to interpret the characters' emotions and intentions based on their non-verbal cues.
  5. Encourage Volunteering: Volunteering can help kids develop empathy, compassion, and a sense of social responsibility. Younger kids can tag along with you to volunteer as a family, and teens should volunteer independently at organizations with a genuine need for their talents. Encourage them to make it a regular practice rather than a once-a-year holiday event (see our guide on service learning at Prisma here).
  6. Model Positive Social Interactions: Of course, the best way to teach is through your example. Demonstrate positive social interactions by treating others with kindness, respect, and empathy. When interacting with service workers, neighbors, or friends, model polite behavior, active listening, and empathy. And don’t speak for your kids in those situations, either! Let them politely order their own food, ask questions, and respond to questions about their own life.

More EQ Resources for Parents

  1. CharacterLab is a nonprofit organization that shares research about the conditions that lead to social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being for young people in a digestible, actionable way. We highly recommend their “Tip of the Week” newsletter!
  2. Children with special needs like ADHD or autism may especially struggle with some aspects of emotional intelligence. Understood is an organization with many fantastic resources for parents about how these struggles might manifest and what to do about them.
  3. SixSeconds is an organization that helps people around the world build emotional intelligence skills. They offer a special, interactive course specifically for parents.
  4. Biggies Conversation Cards help you connect through conversation and build resilience in your elementary aged child.
  5. MyKinCloud is a family mindfulness app for yoga, meditation, and connection
  6. ThreeGoodThings is a digital happiness journal for kids ages 7 and up.
  7. AtlasCo is a self-improvement app with podcasts and journaling for teens.
  8. If your child loves games, check out this list (sortable by target age) of video games that can teach empathy and compassion.

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