Administration & Leadership

Evaluating Your Emotional Intelligence and SEL Leadership Skills

The most effective leaders have high levels of emotional intelligence and character traits related to social and emotional learning.

February 2, 2024
Fredrick Kippe / Alamy

What are the emotional intelligence (EQ)/social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies needed by school leaders? Janet Patti, with Steve Tobin and Robin Stern, in the books Smart School Leaders: Leading with Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders, has answers I have used with district leaders, principals and vice principals, and members of leadership teams.

My adaptation of the approach in those books covers four domains of competencies and is best used as a self-assessment, as the wording reflects.

An Emotional Intelligence/SEL Improvement Plan

As evidence accumulates about the importance of a leader’s EQ/SEL skill set, it’s clear that it’s in each of our own interests to improve areas that are not our strengths. We should do this even if no one is watching—i.e., even if you are not formally accountable for improving in these domains. Here are some guidelines for developing an EQ/SEL improvement plan.

For competencies you wish to improve, the first step is a bit of careful self-monitoring and/or asking your colleagues for feedback.

For example, what if you don’t feel that you give constructive feedback to others? Start by keeping a journal of situations where you notice that you gave feedback to others, or you could have but did not. Perhaps you thought about it but hesitated. Perhaps you were more critical than you needed to be, without also giving clear recognition of what was going well and how to improve on doing a task or handle a situation better. Track the area for a full weeklong schedule in your school.

Then, notice patterns and begin to formulate a plan for improving. This can include asking those who you feel are good at giving constructive feedback for tips about how you can do better. Maybe you will ask one or more of them to be your informal coach. Seek out resources from Edutopia, or from CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) or SEL4US (Social Emotional Learning Alliance for The United States). Also, see what resources your professional association can offer you.

To get you started, here are some ideas that I have found most useful in real-world practice, from the books that Janet Patti has contributed to and from Cary Cherniss and Cornelia Roche in Leading with Feeling!.

Improving Self-Awareness

Keep a diary of times when you have a trigger situation—a circumstance when you feel you have lost your cool, feeling especially frustrated, angry, or dejected. Note who was involved, what you were doing, and when and where it happened.

  • What was it about your experience that really set you off (e.g., something someone said? Did?)
  • What were the specific emotions you experienced? How did they change over the course of the situation?
  • Why do you think you were set off in that particular way, at that particular time?
  • How did you react? What were the consequences—direct and indirect, short and long term—of your reaction?
  • What can you do to handle similar situations better next time—even if it means, at first, doing something less reactive, even if not the optimal response?

Promoting Self-Management

Breathing is the most effective long-term strategy to calm ourselves down, especially in anticipating a difficult situation (like a trigger situation) or as soon as we recognize it occurring (before we get emotionally hijacked and lose our cool). Calming self-talk at the same time also helps.

Start by practicing taking three to five deep breaths—in through your nose, out through your mouth—and develop a mantra you say repeatedly during these situations as you are breathing (e.g., I am not going to let that/him/her get to me…; I am going to keep calm…); keep your breaths even. Some find it useful to add belly breathing, which involves (where appropriate!) keeping a hand on your abdomen so that you can feel the movement of your inhalation and exhalation.

Becoming More Socially Aware

Small things matter—any one of these will improve the mood and climate of those you are leading:

  • Provide opportunities for people to talk about “good news”—for example, start meetings with a sharing moment, and encourage those who do not have time to speak to give you the news to enter into the meeting minutes.
  • Be more generous with your praise, and make praise specific. People don’t mind knowing that they are appreciated just for doing the most basic parts of their job description. Better to say, “I appreciate the organization and illustrations in that report,” rather than “Good job with that report.”
  • Become a more positive person. At the end of the week, make a list of something positive that happened each day—it does not matter how small the event (a particularly good cup of coffee, a nice interaction with a student, being appreciated by a parent, getting a budget request approved—all count the same!). Ask yourself what emotions and sensations you experienced for each and what thoughts you had. How can you apply these insights into the coming week? For example, knowing how that nice, small interaction with students made you feel might encourage you to intentionally have more-frequent small interactions with students, staff, or parents.

Creating Better Relationships and Problem-Solving

Think about two or three individuals who have inspired you. What was it about these people that was inspirational? What were the principles they stood for? How did they go about solving problems and resolving conflicts? How did they communicate? How did they tell stories? What can you take from this to apply to your current relationships and problems? Use this prompt: “What would X, Y, Z have said/done/thought about in the situation I am in/going to be in?”

A school cannot function better than the collective social and emotional competencies of its leadership. By striving and acting to lead more effectively, you are more likely to help build EQ/SEL, character, and a positive climate for your staff, your students, and the entire school community.

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