Design for Change USA Blog

The Best Way to Teach Emotional Intelligence to Students (Emotional Intelligence, Part 1)

Updated: Nov 17

“Emotional awareness and understanding are not taught in school. We enter the workforce knowing how to read, write and report on bodies of knowledge, but too often we lack the skills to manage our emotions in the heat of the challenging problems we face.”

-Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0


Emotional Intelligence Starts with "How Are You Feeling...?"


“How would you say you’re feeling?” My teacher asked, handing me a page which listed emotions in three extensive columns. The words were so numerous that they pushed out any remaining white space on the page. I felt my hands begin to sweat, my chair becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and after a moment she asked me again “Andy? Pick a word or two, how would you say you were feeling in this moment?”


Rarely in school are we forced to wrestle with emotional intelligence. This was my first formal lesson where I was forced to address my emotional vocabulary and it wasn’t in elementary school, middle school, high school or college but instead right at the end of my Masters program. Somehow I had made it this far in life without really realizing how limited my own emotional intelligence was.


In the years since I've struggled to increase my own emotional intelligence but also I’ve integrated it into my curriculum, no matter what I'm teaching, in hopes of my students becoming more emotionally proficient than their teacher one day, if they aren’t already. Emotional intelligence requires us to identify the emotions we are feeling, how we manage them and our ability to identify them in others. In this post I’ll focus on just the first of those requirements for Emotional Intelligence: identifying the emotions we are feeling as we feel them.


What is the Emotion Wheel, and How Can Students Quickly Use It?


It was a few years ago that my wife, a college speech communications instructor and life coach introduced me to the emotion wheel attached here. While it probably had the same amount of words as the list that stopped me in Grad school, this was more approachable and inspired me not only to do more work naming my emotions but also encouraging my students to do the same.


Use the emotion wheel to help students describe their feelings by doing the following:

  1. Start with the inner circle and identify the general emotion the student is feeling

  2. Explore the emotions that fall under the general emotion and pick one or more to dig into

  3. Specify the context of these emotions by choosing emotions from the outermost circle that fall under the chosen emotions

  4. Reflect on the situation at hand and have the student confirm, "I feel [specific emotions chosen] because of [the reasons or particular situation that arose]."


How to Introduce and Teach Emotional Intelligence: An Activity for Middle School and High School Students


The last two years I’ve asked my students to look at the emotion wheel and tell me their reactions. When I did this for the first time with students this year, one said “I was overwhelmed by how many words there were.” When you think about the words we typically use to describe our emotional experiences we tend to hit on sad, mad, and happy. After looking at the wheel, I pose the question to students ‘what problems might you run into if you go on to live your life just using those three emotions to describe your experience?”


I then ask students to think back on the past week and identify a particular moment that made a sizable impact on them. Then I ask them to pick two words outside of the core categories that best explain how they were feeling in that moment. I follow up with ‘how did that emotion feel? Did it have a physical impact on you? Describe the experience of feeling that emotion.’


As the year goes on, the activities evolve into sharing with a partner, small groups and eventually discussing with the entire class. If our school or nation is reeling from a disaster I will ask them to focus on their response and identify their feelings in this activity, the same goes for moments of collective joy. This activity gives teachers a lot of leeway to modify for their specific classroom and school environment. If you make this a regular part of your curriculum, you’ll be amazed at how much more adept your students become in identifying what they’re feeling. You might even get more truthful and wholehearted answers when you ask them ‘how are you feeling?’


To wrap things up, the steps for teaching students this activity for learning emotional intelligence are:

  1. Show students the emotion wheel and ask for their reactions

  2. Ask students "What problems might you run into if you used just three emotions (sad, mad, happy) to describe your experiences?"

  3. Ask students to reflect on the past week and identify an impactful moment for them

  4. Ask students to pick two words from the outer circle of the emotion wheel and follow up with having them describe the experience of feeling those emotions

  5. Encourage students to respond to one another as they take turns sharing the words they chose

  6. As the year goes on, sprinkle this emotional intelligence activity into the classroom by asking students to identify their feelings when current events or changes occur in the classroom, community, or world

You can also encourage students to reflect on their emotions by exposing them to social causes from our empathy media channel, our ongoing collection of podcasts and interviews with students across the country who are sharing their community's problems and solutions.









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