Wisdom Beyond the Blackboard

Learning the important lessons of emotions and empathy

The ABCs. The multiplication table. The ecosystem of a rainforest. There are so many valuable lessons to be learned in the school classroom, and parents understandably place a high priority on their children’s “book learning.” But I’d like to argue in favor of a different kind of wisdom, the kind that comes not from a textbook, but from inside. While the “three R’s” (readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic) are certainly important, the three E’s—emotions, empathy, and expression—will serve your children well throughout their whole lives.

When kids start school—whether in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade—it’s often the first time that they’ve had to learn the complex lesson that they are not the only person whose needs and desires matter! Yup, now they are surrounded by several other children, and the teacher must give equal attention to every single one. This can come as quite a shock to a three-, four-, or five-year-old who has been used to being the center of the universe! And the resulting meltdowns or outbursts don’t just affect one child at a time, they distract from the learning process for everyone.

That’s why we see decades of research on the importance of emotional intelligence, or “EQ”: Children who are able to recognize, understand, and manage their own emotions are better equipped to handle the everyday challenges of growing up. Kindergarten teachers have long said that EQ skills are much more important to a child’s success in school than knowing how to hold a pencil, or even knowing how to read! And schools across the country are now incorporating social-emotional skills training into their daily curriculum.

Unlike IQ, which is pretty much fixed at birth, EQ can grow with time and training. For instance, one of the most important elements of EQ is empathy—which can, in fact, be taught. It starts when a child learns to recognize her own emotions; when she looks into a mirror and makes a “mad” or “sad” face, she can then spot that feeling on the face of another child who is angry or anxious. She can appreciate the anxiety of a new student who doesn’t know anyone, and reach out to make that child feel welcome and comfortable. When you help a child understand that crying is a perfectly healthy way to express sadness, he’s more likely to empathize with and console another child who is feeling upset. And when a child is taught to manage anger—that most dreaded of preschooler emotions!—with strategies such as counting to ten, running around outside, or expressing verbally how she’s feeling, she is much less inclined to throw disruptive tantrums or take her anger out on someone else.

All of this gives the EQ-equipped child a true head start when he enters a classroom for the first time. So I urge parents to start teaching their children at a very young age what it means to have certain feelings—and, most important, how to express those feelings in socially appropriate ways.

Show your child what emotions look like: You can literally use a mirror, look at pictures in a magazine, or go online to show him what an “angry” or a “sad” expression looks like. Have him make the faces and see what it feels like when he frowns or smiles.

Provide a vocabulary for expressing feelings: Maybe he’s feeling mad because the teacher scolded him, or frustrated because she wants to play with another child’s toy. Thunder and lightning might make him feel scared, or nervous, or anxious. Feelings are so much more understandable, and manageable, when you can express them in words.

Teach her about empathy: Start with the bedtime stories you read at night: Ask your child, “What is this character feeling? How do you know? What would you want to say to her? What do you think made him feel that way? How do you feel in that kind of situation?”

Then when the new school year starts, it will be so much easier for your child to join a classroom filled with other children, sit down on the colorful rug or at their little table, and be ready and eager to learn.