7 Ways to Boost Kids’ Emotional Intelligence

by | Jan 16, 2011 | Communication, Listening, Emotional Intelligence, Parenting, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Research shows that boosting our children’s emotional intelligence and ability to read nonverbal cues can enhance their ability to fit in, get along, bounce back and handle life.

One in 10 children have Emotional IQ deficits

Did you know that most of the time our kids aren’t listening to our words nearly as much as watching our posture, gestures and facial expressions and hearing the tone of our voice?

Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted a series of classic studies and found that the percentage of communication actually sent through spoken words is only seven per cent!

The greatest portion of our messages–over fifty-five per cent!–is communicated through our body language and thirty-eight percent is through the tone of our voice.

Unfortunately, that puts a number of kids at a disadvantage because they lack the ability to read critical nonverbal cues so essential for getting along in life.

One in 10 kids unable to read nonverbal cues

As I worked on my doctorate and in special education, I learned just how essential nonverbal communication is for our children’s success.It is important to help children recognize their body posture, facial expressions, and voice tone constantly send messages to speakers and if they don’t interpret or send nonverbal messages correctly, serious misunderstandings can happen. Research now proves many of today’s plugged in kids are having problems.

Drs. Marshall Duke and Stephen Nowicki, child psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta, conducted tests with over 1,000 children and found that one out of ten children, despite normal and even superior intelligence, have significant problems in nonverbal communication. Their disability may explain why they have trouble getting along with others, and just don’t seem to fit it.

The researchers also discovered the most popular and well-adjusted children are highly competent in recognizing particular emotional signals and expressing their feelings to others. Their recommendation: Enhance your child’s skills in reading nonverbal messages!

Simple Ways to Boost Kids’ Emotional IQ

Here are ideas to enhance children’s ability to read nonverbal messages adapted from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. For more ideas refer to the chapters: Sensitive and Insensitive.

1. Make An Emotion Scrapbook

Help your child collect pictures of a variety of facial expressions, and paste them into a scrapbook. Be sure to include the six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, surprised, afraid, and disgusted.

Now make a game of naming the emotions with your child by asking,

“How is this person feeling?”

You can also help your child learn to predict the body language and voice tone that would accompany each facial expression such as:

“If you were angry, how would your voice sound?”

“How would a sad person stand?”

“What about a person who is disgusted?”

2. Guess People’s Emotions

Watch other people’s faces and body language at a playground, park or shopping mall with your child. Then help humor her try to guess emotional states:

“How does her face look?”

“He’s standing with his arms crossed, how do you think he’s feeling right now?”

“Listen to the sound of that man’s voice. How do you think he feels?”

“See how that woman is seated next to the man. She’s crossing her legs and folding her arms. Do you suppose she wants to be with him or not?”

3. Watch Silent Movies

Turn off the sound on your television, and watch the show together. Make a game out of trying to guess how the actors feel from just what you see.

There are dozens of nonverbal things people do to express their feelings. Point out those behaviors to your child to help him recognize how people communicate with their body language.

Tension behaviors might include: blinking eyes rapidly, biting nails, twirling hair, clenching jaws, grinding teeth.

Withdrawal or uninterested behaviors could be: folded arms, crossed legs, rolling eyes, not facing the speaker.

Expressions of interest might be: nodding, smiling, leaning into the speaker, standing or sitting close to the person.

4. Play Emotion Charades

A fun quiet car game is to have family members play charades–but only with their face and body. Riders must try and correctly guess the person’s emotion. 

You can play the same game at home, of course. For kids who have a difficult time naming or identifying emotions, start at an easier level by providing “Feeling Cards” (a clearly identified emotion that is cut from a magazine and glued to an index card.

5. Observe Good Listening Behaviors

Be on alert for people demonstrating good listening habits, and point them out to your child:

“Do you see how that lady is facing the man while he’s talking? She’s showing him that she’s interested in what he has to say.” “Look how that girl over there is nodding her head while the other girl is talking. That’s a great way to show you’re listening.” “Did you notice how Aunt Ellen always has her eyes on you while you talk? It makes you feel she wants to hear what you’re saying.”

The more children understand what good listening nonverbal behaviors look like, the greater the chance they’ll use them on their own.

6. Use the “Bridge of Your Nose” Technique

One of my students was so shy that whenever students were paired to share an idea, she’d quietly ask me: “Do I have to look at my partner?”  By accident one day, I said to her: “Don’t look at your partner’s eyes–just look right between them at the bridge of his nose. He’ll never know the difference.” The technique worked like a charm! With a few practices, she no longer needed the technique, but instead looked confidently right into her partner’s eyes. Suggest the tip to your child if he feels uncomfortable using eye contact.

Some kids have a tough time with eye contact – they may be overly sensitive or are on the Autism spectrum. When I taught Autistic students I’d ask them to gently look at the bridge of my nose. For some kids, begin by just encouraging them to hold their head up – even looking at the back of a wall behind the talker’s eyes.

7. Teach Eye Contact and Smiling

Researchers have discovered well-liked children consistently use the nonverbal skills of eye contact  and smiling.  Using them dramatically  increases their social successes. These are  also two of the easiest success behaviors to enhance in your child. Here’s how:

As you’re talking with your child, gently remind her to use eye contact:

“ Look at me.” or “Put your eyes on my eyes.” or  “I want to see your eyes.”

And, whenever your child displays a great smile, point it out!

“What  a great smile!” or “That smile of yours will win people over.”

By consciously reinforcing these two important skills and modeling them regularly, your child will soon be smiling more and using eye contact and you’ll be enhancing her success potential.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

Portions of this blog were adapted from the book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Please respect this copyright. Thank you.