The Best Strategies to Help Foster Emotional Intelligence in Children of All Abilities

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L March 13, 2023

The Best Strategies to Help Foster Emotional Intelligence in Children of All Abilities

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify, assess and manage one’s own emotions, as well as those of others. EI plays a major role in communication and relationships, allowing individuals to recognize, interpret and respond appropriately to their environment.

Some of the key aspects of EI include: being aware of and managing one’s emotions; recognizing, understanding and empathizing with others’ feelings; regulating behavior in different social contexts; building strong relationships with others through effective communication; and making rational decisions based on the situation

Parenting is no easy feat, but teaching your child about emotional intelligence can give them the essential skills they need to succeed. By cultivating EI in our children, we are investing in a skill that will serve them now and throughout their lives. In this blog post, we'll explore why EI is so important for children and how parents can help foster it in their own families.

Emotional intelligence in children

Children's emotional intelligence is composed of several components that allow them to identify, understand and manage their own emotions and those of others. These include self-awareness - the ability to recognize one’s own emotions in the moment; emotion regulation - being able to control how one reacts to a certain event or situation; empathy - understanding and appreciating the emotions of others; and social skills - the ability to interact with their peers and others in their environment.

Self-awareness helps children recognize their own emotional states. This means understanding not just what they are feeling, but why they are feeling it. To do this, children need to be able to identify and label their emotions in a variety of situations.

Emotional Intelligence

The ability to regulate emotions is essential and the learning process begins very early, however is not expected to be “mastered” until a child is much older. Emotional regulation involves being able to recognize and manage difficult feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or embarrassment before they get out of hand. Emotional regulation also involves being able to delay gratification and think before acting impulsively.

Empathy allows children to understand how others may be feeling and respond to different situations. This means being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, imagine how they might feel, and act accordingly.

Finally, social skills help children interact successfully with the people around them. This requires understanding and practicing different communication techniques (verbal and non-verbal, alternative communication devices, etc.) as well as developing conflict resolution skills. Having these skills helps children build strong relationships which can make them feel happier, more secure, and better equipped to handle life’s challenges.

Emotional intelligence and sensory processing

Sensory processing and emotional intelligence are closely intertwined. Sensory processing is the process by which you receive sensory information from the world (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures on your skin, and movement) and respond accordingly. One area of sensory processing specifically affects emotional intelligence: interoception.


Interoception is the ability to sense and interpret signals from the body, such as hunger, fatigue, temperature, pain, heart rate, and breathing. Interoception plays an important role in emotional intelligence because it allows us to accurately identify our feelings and triggers as they arise. With a better understanding of our internal cues, we can then better manage our emotions and behavior in any situation. Moreover, in becoming more aware of what’s going on internally during moments of stress or anxiety, we can learn how to regulate ourselves better. For example, if we understand that our heart rate is increasing due to stress or anxiety, we can practice deep breathing exercises or take a few minutes for mindful meditation in order to help relax the body and mind.

Signs of challenges with emotional intelligence

Children who struggle with emotional intelligence face many specific challenges.

  • They may find it difficult to regulate their emotions, leading to impulsive behavior or outbursts of emotions. This will often occur over a “small problem” and the child struggles significantly to come back down to a calm state.
  • They may be unable to recognize and respond to the emotions of others, leading to difficulty forming relationships. Despite trying to make friends, they will struggle.
  • They may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts such as empathy and perspective-taking which can lead to further problems in social settings. This can be seen on the playground, in sports, and at social events like birthday parties.
  • They may lack confidence in their ability to manage their feelings or take responsibility for their actions.
  • They may have difficulties navigating through school situations that require emotional regulation, such as not doing well on a test or being told to complete an assignment differently than they expected.
  • They are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression due to their inability to properly process and manage their emotions. In fact, one study stated that, “emotional intelligence (EI) has been identified as a predictor of mental health” (2019).
  • One study found that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is connected with emotional regulation challenges (2023).

Tips and tricks for improving emotional intelligence

If your child is struggling with emotional intelligence or if you have a young child and you want to help foster emotional intelligence skills, here are some tips and tricks to incorporate into the daily routine! These can be utilized at home, in therapy sessions, and at school.

Identifying emotions

Before your child can understand emotions within themselves, they need to know the words of different emotions! Start with identifying emotions that you feel during the day - this includes positive and negative emotions and will help “normalize” all emotions. Talk about the different ways non-verbal communication can show how a person is feeling. Ask your child questions like, “Did you see how I laughed at that cartoon? Why do you think I laughed? What emotion do you think I was feeling?”

Then begin identifying emotions in your child by asking them questions. Try to avoid telling them how they feel; instead, say things like, “You were smiling on the swing, was that because you felt happy or sad?”

Practicing identifying different emotions takes practice and consistency. Include it into as many conversations as possible. Also talk about the emotions of people you see when you’re out and about. You can ask your child to guess how someone might be feeling based on their facial expressions. This can also be done while reading books and watching TV.

Modeling strategies and empathy

Children learn by watching - more so than by what we tell them. Therefore, if you are able to manage your emotions effectively, your child is more likely to do the same. If you frequently lose your cool, your child may follow your lead.

This means that you must first identify your own personal strategies for when you are frustrated or overstimulated (learn more about sensory overload in adults here). Then, be sure to verbalize what is happening in the moment. For example, if you’re beginning to feel overstimulated from too much noise in the house and your strategy is to use noise cancelling headphones, talk about the situation with your child. “I’m feeling really overloaded by so much noise right now, so I’m going to put my headphones on so I can feel calm.”

Additionally, showing your child how to empathize with others will teach them how to do so also. This starts with empathizing with your child. Instead of telling your child, “It’s fine, you’re ok, it’s not a big deal!” when one of their toys breaks and they begin to cry, try this - “I see that your toy broke and you’re crying; it seems like this made you feel sad.” Then be sure to provide support in some way, such as giving them a hug or helping them fix the toy. The more you can validate your child’s feelings and provide support, the more likely they are to do the same.

Open conversations around emotions

Along with identifying emotions, it’s important to communicate to your child that emotions don’t have to be “good” or “bad.” It’s more about what we do with our emotions - some emotions may cause us to react in certain ways and that often has consequences. For example, if your child is mad at their sister, they may react by hitting her. This likely has a consequence.

Talking about emotions

Talking with your child about what they can do when they are upset is important. Feeling mad is not necessarily a bad thing; we all feel mad sometimes. If we hit someone when we are mad, there will likely be a consequence that we don’t like, so we must make a different choice when we’re mad.

Allow your child a safe space to talk about all the emotions they feel throughout the day.

Personalized sensory diet

If your child is struggling with sensory processing along with emotional intelligence, it’s important to include a consistent, personalized sensory diet into the routine. A personalized sensory diet will provide a variety of sensory input to help your child meet their sensory needs, which will help them feel more calm and grounded. When your child is feeling calm and grounded, they are better able to identify their emotions and practice strategies.

Click HERE to learn how to identify your child’s sensory needs and create a personalized sensory diet!

Consistent boundaries

Children thrive with consistent boundaries - it helps them know what to expect. It also allows them to understand what consequences are associated with certain actions when they are feeling certain emotions. If there is a consistent boundary around hitting each other when they are mad, your children will know exactly what happens when they get mad and hit each other. Vice versa, they will also know what happens when they get mad and use a calming strategy (with your assistance if necessary).

Present boundaries and consequences in a neutral way. “When we hit someone, this is the consequence.” Try to avoid placing shame (“This happened because you were bad.”) and instead keep it simple and clear.

Primitive reflexes

Retained primitive reflexes can have a negative effect on sensory processing and emotional intelligence. When primitive reflexes are retained (aka stuck in the body), the brain is often operating from a lower level, instead of at a higher cognitive level; the brain and body are often in a state of fight or flight. This prevents the child from managing their emotions - they truly don’t have the cognitive power to stop and think before acting. One study found that, “Unintegrated primitive reflexes make it more difficult for children to self-regulate.” (2022)

Learn more about primitive reflexes HERE.

Overall health

It’s also important to look at your child’s overall health. This includes their sleep routine and sleep quality, any potential nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, etc. If something is “off” in your child’s routine or in their body, it can affect their ability to manage their emotions. Think about the last time you got a terrible night’s sleep - how well were you able to manage your emotions? One study found that “less sleep was associated with a 55% increase in the likelihood of mood deficits” (2020).

Daily activity for kids

Also take a look at your child’s physical activity and how often they are getting outdoors. One study found that “females who did not regularly engage in physical activity reported having less control of their feelings” (2019). Another study found that “moderate-intensity anaerobic exercise is associated with greater mood improvements” (2018). Additionally, one study found that exposure to natural light positively affects mood and sleep (2021).

Additionally look at your child’s screen time, their social environment, and any extracurricular activities or creative outlets. One study stated, “Results revealed that more screen time at age 4 predicted lower levels of emotion understanding at age 6. In addition, television in children's bedroom at age 6 forecasted lower levels of emotion understanding at age 8.” (2019) One study discussed using technology to teach emotional intelligence and found that “Technology is best seen as an instrument of assessing and teaching socio-emotional skills, but not as the only means to an end, because what makes us human can only be taught within an ecology of human interaction in real-life situations.” (2019) Additionally, one study of university students found that “Extracurricular activity participation (ECAP) was positively associated with goal self-regulation strategies, which, in turn were related to higher levels of academic success and emotional wellbeing.” (2019) And finally, a study looking at free drawing tests and emotional intelligence in children ages 5-6 found that “there is a positive and significant effect of emotional intelligence on children's creativity” (2022).


Ultimately, we want our children to grow up healthy and happy. While that looks different for everyone, emotional intelligence plays a key role. From understanding our own emotions and strategies when we’re overstimulated, to maintaining positive relationships with friends, emotional intelligence plays a part in our everyday lives. Try some of the strategies in this article - start small and stay consistent!

Listen to our podcast about Understanding Emotional Intelligence and the Connection to the Sensory System.

Check out our video about How to Teach Emotional Intelligence to Kids Using Sensory Activities 

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialist. She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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