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Why Emotional Intelligence is Essential for All Adolescents (Not Just Students with Learning Differences)

What kind of person were you in high school?

Take a moment and try to think beyond the old labels and stereotypes popularized by movies and television: jock, nerd, princess, perfectionist. Were you ever impatient as a teenager? Impulsive, anxious, driven, or dreamy? Unrealistic or unmotivated?

Think back to thirteen, sixteen, eighteen. How well did you handle your first break up, the loss of a true friendship, or a change in life circumstances like a move or a parents’ divorce? Did you always act in accordance with your personal values? Were you comfortable handling issues that put you in conflict with a teacher, a friend, or even with yourself? When these moments of conflict occurred, who did you talk to or go to for help and perspective? A parent, sibling, friend? A counselor or religious support? Did the person you went to always have the “right” advice for you?

Now, imagine that in addition to navigating the so-called “normal” pitfalls and challenges of adolescent development, you were also saturated with 24/7 social media, where influencers shared curated lifestyles of what you should aspire to as a teenager, and algorithms fed you a steady diet of content meant to keep you isolated and clicking? And then, like back-to-back tidal waves, layer on a global pandemic that ripped away day to day social structures, global anxiety about the future, an epidemic of loneliness that has reached a level prompting federal intervention, and a society that is more divided than ever?

Given the daily landscape adolescents now occupy, is it any wonder that educational organizations, researchers, and nonprofits across the United States have turned their attention to the importance of emotional intelligence?

First coined in the late 1990s and later re-popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is described as the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you.

Emotional intelligence, also referred to as EI, has evolved into an essential and necessary skill in today’s modern world. In fact, a 40-year study at UC Berkeley found that EI is nearly four times more powerful than IQ at predicting future success. While every individual has different baseline EI levels, EI is a skill that can be taught, nurtured, and developed. Individuals in both the mental health and education spaces often work to help individuals grow and improve their EI skills.

Middlebridge School’s innovative Emotional Intelligence curriculum sets the program apart from other schools. These daily academic courses allow students to focus on their potential for emotional development, understanding of psychology, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and resiliency.

You may wonder, what does someone with high emotional intelligence look like? Individuals with higher EI have a deeper grasp of the correlation between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They can identify their feelings and see how these feelings impact their behaviors while understanding the impact these behaviors have on the people around them. They tend to more successfully navigate difficult situations, have a greater ability to positively influence other people, express themselves clearly, and have a greater understanding of the world around them. With this greater understanding comes stronger family ties, more healthy intimate relationships, and lower anxiety levels.

High levels of emotional intelligence also look like strong interpersonal skills. These skills, including communication and conflict management, are critical in today’s world, both in the classroom as well as in the workplace. By learning how to avoid inappropriate impulsive decisions, being aware of someone else’s emotions, and coming from a place of greater empathy, teenagers with higher EI can grow into strong teammates and leaders.

If you look at effective leaders you admire, you may notice that they often have strong emotional intelligence skills. In an ideal world, leaders are self-aware, work to resolve conflict with understanding, speak confidently, avoid inappropriate conversations, and provide constructive and appropriate feedback. Teaching teenagers the importance of emotional intelligence will not only help them to be a better classmate but provides them with the opportunity to grow into the leader that they aspire to be.

As emotional intelligence has gained traction in recent years, it has become evident that it is a crucial part of all healthy adolescent development and learning, not just for students with neurodiverse learning needs. Think of some behaviors that you often associate with a typical teen–perhaps impulsive or emotion-driven come to mind. Now, think of a teen with more developed EI skills, a teen with stronger self-monitoring, stress management, healthy relationships and family systems, and positive conflict management skills. These skills are crucial in propelling teenagers forward in healthy adolescence and in life.

In recent years, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic, educational organizations have seen a dramatic rise in adolescent and teenage anxiety. Imagine EI as a toolkit that you are providing teenagers with. This toolkit can help them assess situations, cope with stressors and anxiety, and work to navigate social conflict constructively. Healthily expressing emotions helps teens process their experiences, rather than internalizing, which may lead to worsened anxiety. By noticing and labeling emotions as they fluctuate, teens can make space for these feelings.

There are many ways for parents and educators to help teens further develop their EI skills. At home, you can practice speaking openly about your emotions, questioning your own opinions, taking responsibility for your own feelings, practicing mindfulness, and continuing to educate yourself. Additionally, you can find counselors or programs for your child who can help support this growth. One such program would be Middlebridge School, where adolescents have access to a full Emotional Intelligence program built into their academic day.

Middlebridge School’s EI curriculum has a heavy focus on metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” through the cultivation of mindfulness, which promotes students to become confident, passionate, and engaged adults. Their introspection and subsequent fostering of natural talents is key to giving young people an optimistic vision of the future, directly leading to motivated success and the ability to direct, then sustain, capability in their chosen fields.

A happier, healthier, more optimistic vision for the future? Sign us up.

About the Authors

Katherine Hollander Padwa, LMHC & Shannon McCarthy Leventhal, Director of Admissions for Middlebridge School. Middlebridge School is a nonprofit, co-educational, boarding and day high school for students ages 13-19 with learning differences. Founded in 2008, the school sits on 38+ acres across from beautiful Narragansett Bay. In addition to creating an environment of academic excellence for complicated learners, Middlebridge focuses on emotional intelligence, leadership, community engagement and service-learning, and outdoor and immersive hands-on education, to prepare graduates to thrive at college and beyond.


American Psychological Association — COVID-19 Pandemic Led to Increase in Loneliness Around the World

Berkeley People and Culture — EQ and You: An Introduction to Emotional Intelligence for Professionals

Harvard Business School — Why Emotional Intelligence is Important in Leadership

Harvard Graduate School of Education — Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It

Harvard Magazine — The Loneliness Pandemic

Journal of Environmental Psychology — Fear for the Future: Eco-Anxiety and Health Implications, a Systematic Review

Mental Health America — What is emotional intelligence and how does it apply to the workplace?

Norwich University — Emotional Quotient (EQ) and Leadership

Pew Research Center — People in Advanced Economies Say Their Society Is More Divided Than Before Pandemic

Pew Research Center — Political Polarization in the American Public

Psychology Today — Emotional Intelligence

Reuters — Guilt, Grief, and Anxiety as Young People Fear for Climate’s Future

Verywell Mind — Emotional Intelligence: How We Perceive, Evaluate, Express, and Control Emotions

Yale Sustainability — Yale Experts Explain Climate Anxiety