How to Boost Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in Students: A Q&A with Drs. Maurice Elias and Steven Tobias

By Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., and Steven E. Tobias, Psy.D., coauthors of Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students: 30 Flexible Research-Based Activities to Build EQ Skills (Grades 5–9)

How to Boost Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in Students: A Q&A with Drs. Maurice Elias and Steven TobiasDeveloping emotional intelligence (EQ) in students is essential to preparing them for success in college, careers, and adult life. In March, Free Spirit authors Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., and Steven E. Tobias, Psy.D., discussed in a webinar through edWeb what EQ is, why you should teach it, and how you can build valuable EQ skills in your students. Watch the recording of “How to Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students,” then read on for a bonus Q&A with Drs. Elias and Tobias.

Q: Do students’ ages make a difference when deciding whether to focus on one, two, or three of the EQ areas?
A: No. The key principle is matching the instruction realistically to the time available. We believe that EQ Area 1—Self-Awareness and Self-Management—is the foundation for the other areas. That’s why we feel that if one were to do two areas, one could do Areas 1 and 2 or Areas 1 and 3, but Area 1 is essential. We also know that, in general, the younger the child, the longer it can take to learn skills, so you want to be mindful of that in how long you focus on an EQ area. Our specific recommendations, in the webinar and in our book Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students, apply to grades 5 through 9.

Q: Many of the teachers in my school would appreciate these skills. Is there a book study for your text? We could perhaps use that as a way to start the discussion in our school as well as to earn recertification points.
A: There is no book study per se, but the structure of the book lends itself well to what you are thinking about. Specifically, you could structure a book study like this:

  • Session 1: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Should We Teach It?
  • Session 2: Adolescent Brain and Developmental Considerations
  • Session 3: Lessons and Materials and the Pedagogic Structure of Intervention Design
  • Session 4 (or more): Specific Lesson Activities (which can be discussed, piloted, and then discussed again as a group—with the process repeated, perhaps across EQ Areas, as time allows). Note that there is much value to simply piloting lessons—even if students have not had prior lessons and context—just to get a feel for the procedures and timing.

If you need this to be formalized for it to count for recertification points, you can reach out to Steven or me, and we can review your process and progress.

Q: Is there any general questionnaire or scale you recommend to assess EQ (all three areas) in 9- to 14-year-old kids?
A: The two best known and most feasible scales are the EQ-i:YV by Reuven Bar-On and James Parker and the DESSA-mini.

However, if you are engaging in a specific intervention, you may find that what these scales are assessing does not match what you are doing. Or you might want to supplement these measures with an assessment more tailored to your particular focus. In that case, guidelines in The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development by Maurice Elias, Joseph Ferrito, and Dominic Moceri can be useful in helping you develop that assessment.

Q: What are some resources to apply this work with preschoolers? What would work for creating a positive class management environment in preschool classes?
A: Materials consistent with the EQ approach in the webinar can be found at Research Press Publishers, including the ICPS curriculum for preschoolers and kindergartners and the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving curriculum for grades K through 1. For creating a positive classroom environment, materials from Free Spirit are relevant, such as The School Climate Solution by Jonathan Erwin and Activities for Building Character and Social-Emotional Learning PreK–K by Katia Petersen, as are resources from the Northeast Foundation for Children (The Morning Meeting Book and Rules in School).

Q: Do you have or know of programs that have implemented this instruction and been evaluated? Like in an RCT?
A: The best summary of the evidence can be found in this article:
Durlak, J. A., et al. “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” Child Development 82, no. 1 (2011): 405–432.

CASEL also provides guides that summarize empirical evidence for a large number of programs at elementary, middle, and high school levels. The programs they identify as SELect—which are the basis for the interventions included in Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students—have the strongest empirical evidence behind them. There are very few RCTs, and those that do exist are limited in the grade levels and demographic populations to which they are applied.

Q: We don’t have advisory classes in my school, but I want to help with my own kids’ emotional intelligence. Are there strategies that can be integrated in an academic class like algebra?
A: Yes. We believe that EQ can be integrated in any academic class:

  • When students are working in small groups, you can have them focus on using good communication skills and understanding and respecting others’ perspectives.
  • Algebra itself involves problem-solving. Have students look at the steps they go through in solving an equation and how they can use these kinds of steps in other problem-solving situations.
  • Have students discuss different ways of thinking about and solving a problem.
  • Have students periodically do a self-calming breathing exercise, and prompt them to use the exercise before a test.
  • Encourage students to talk their way through a problem—to verbalize the process—and to make positive self-statements such as, “I can get this if I keep trying,” “This is hard but I can do it,” and so on.
  • Set clear goals for each year, unit, and so on, and state your goals to students. Encourage students to set goals for themselves.
  • Have students periodically reflect on what they have learned and have them self-evaluate.
  • Have students come up with study plans, which include:
    • Who are you going to study with?
    • What are you going to study?
    • When are you going to study?
    • Where are you going to study?
    • How are you going to study?

Q: Is there any place we can see a sample lesson from your book?
A: Yes, you can see a preview of our book at Free Spirit Publishing’s website. You can find Lesson 1 here.

Q: Does your book include sample role plays?
A: Yes. Role playing is an important strategy for students to learn and practice EQ skills. It makes EQ more concrete for students, it helps you assess other areas of skill deficit (communication, self-control), it helps build relationships among role players, and it is usually fun.

Q: Would you share resources for songs about emotions?
A: Happily! Go to to find some samples and ways to access materials that have been prepared with the highest degree of attention to evidence-based approaches. Most recently, Don McManus and his team have developed emotion-focused musicals that can be used as productions in schools.

Q: Is this program implemented only by counselors or teachers in the classroom? Does it apply to special education?
A: The approach in Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students is designed to be flexibly implemented by teachers in the classroom, counselors, school psychologists or social workers in the classroom, nurses, vice principals in charge of discipline, playground supervisors, or anyone else responsible for students’ social and emotional well-being, which is basically everyone. Any of these professionals can also lead the book’s lessons in pullout groups of varying lengths. The program can be done in a formal and sequential manner, but school personnel can also pick and choose skills and lessons most relevant to their roles and circumstances. The book also provides guidance regarding what to do per the number of sessions available and, most importantly, for those running after-school and out-of-school programs.

The skills in Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students are ones that can be found in most IEPs—students need self-awareness and self-management, social awareness and relationship skills, and responsible decision-making and problem-solving. The way to adapt the lessons for special education populations (behavior challenges or emotionally troubled, in particular) is to plan on taking two to four sessions to cover what is written in a single lesson in the book. Plan on using all the practice examples and more, not just some. Plan on regular review of the use and potential use of the skills. You will find that the pedagogic structure of the activities is geared toward fostering retention and generalization.

We recommend not moving on from EQ Area 1—Self-Awareness and Self-Management—too quickly. And we also suggest supplementing lessons with resources such as What Do You Stand For? For Teens and other student leadership materials from Free Spirit, which you can find at their website in the self-help for teens and student leadership sections.

Ultimately, we believe that inspiration precedes remediation, so motivating students with leadership and service opportunities will make them more likely to actively want to build the skills needed to take advantage of those opportunities. Preparing students with special education classifications for their future roles as citizens is no less important than preparing any other population of students, and it deserves explicit attention since many special education students come to believe they are neither capable nor valued.

Q: How would you recommend advocating for this work with a principal or superintendent?
A: The evidence laid out in the first section of Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students—and summarized in the initial slides of the webinar—makes the best case for someone who is genuinely open minded. The benefits to behavior, academics, and college and career success—particularly among disadvantaged or minority students—as well as to teacher job satisfaction, should provide as much incentive as one might wish. Of course, these benefits accrue when the approaches are used extensively and continuously. Working with a pullout group of students will not change the climate of a school or raise a school’s test scores—but it will improve the school experience for the students involved and those teachers who have them in class and may well improve these students’ academics over time.

Maurice EliasMaurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is a professor and former director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, Rutgers University. He is also director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, academic director of the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service, and founding member of the Leadership Team for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Dr. Elias lectures nationally and internationally and devotes his research and writing to the area of social-emotional and character development in children, schools, and families. He is a licensed psychologist and writes a blog on social-emotional and character development for the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Ellen, near their children and grandchildren.

Steven TobiasSteven E. Tobias, Psy.D., is the director of the Center for Child & Family Development in Morristown, New Jersey. He has over thirty years of experience working with children, parents, families, and schools. Dr. Tobias feels a strong commitment to children’s social and emotional development and provides consultation to schools as a way of reaching many children, including those who are underserved in terms of their social and emotional needs. He has coauthored several books with Dr. Maurice Elias, including Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers. He has given lectures throughout the United States on topics related to parenting and children’s emotional development. Dr. Tobias lives in New Jersey.

Boost Emotional Intelligence in StudentsMaurice and Steven are coauthors of Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students: 30 Flexible Research-Based Activities to Build EQ Skills.

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