School Climate & Safety Opinion

Preventing Bullying With Emotional Intelligence

By Marc A. Brackett & Susan E. Rivers — February 18, 2014 7 min read
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Emotions matter, and they matter a great deal in school. A child who feels anxious, jealous, hopeless, or alienated will have difficulty learning, making sound decisions, and building relationships.

Emotions also are at the heart of bullying—a major public-health problem facing our nation’s schools. At least a third of all American kids report that they have been bullied, a terrible experience for any child that can manifest in many ways, including through physical aggression, verbal abuse, and ostracism. At the root of each of these symptoms is a lack of emotional understanding and self-regulation.

The nation’s awareness about bullying in schools may be at an all-time high. Most educators probably could recite the definition of bullying—a repetitious, intentionally aggressive pattern of behavior involving a power imbalance. Many realize, too, that though bullying has occurred since time immemorial, it should not be regarded as a rite of passage.


Bullying has adverse emotional consequences for all players. The targets are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. The perpetrators experience depression, anxiety, and hostility, and are prone to substance abuse and antisocial behavior. The bystanders often feel hopeless, insecure, and show symptoms of trauma. And the bully-victims—the targets of bullying who also bully others—can suffer the most, including having a greater potential to inflict pain on others by committing crimes and partner abuse later in life. Everyone involved tends to have poorer school attendance and academic performance. One incident of bullying can derail an entire school community, disrupt the well-being of many families, and leave indelible scars on children’s lives.

It is true that bullying-prevention efforts are on the rise. In fact, 49 states now have anti-bullying legislation in place, and the number of schools using anti-bullying programs continues to grow. These legislative and programmatic actions demonstrate a commitment to addressing a critical problem. They have cost our nation billions, and, yet, according to nationwide surveys, bullying rates have not declined. The results of six meta-analyses confirm that current anti-bullying programs are not working. Most are ineffective because they address the symptoms of bullying, not the underlying causes, which likely include a lack of emotional intelligence—a set of skills for understanding, communicating about, and regulating feelings.

Emotional intelligence needs to be a central component of bullying-prevention efforts from preschool to high school classrooms. Taking the law-and-order approach, characteristic of many existing programs, does not offer youths or adults the fundamental skills needed to regulate powerful emotions that, when unregulated, can lead to psychologically and physically harmful behaviors. Developing emotional intelligence is typically absent from the roll call of anti-bullying policies: zero tolerance, “hot spots” monitoring, rule creation, and one-shot assemblies. Even well-intentioned bystander interventions can have inadvertent consequences. For example, encouraging children to stand up to bullies can create anxiety and possibly lead them to be at risk for retaliation. We know that current practices are failing our nation’s children.

What all children need instead is an education in emotional intelligence. This will help prevent children from resorting to pushing, picking on, or hurting peers as an emotional release. And for the moments when bullying is inescapable, it will help targets of bullying and bystanders develop the skills they need to manage their fear and anxiety, communicate their needs, and get support.

The results of six meta-analyses confirm that current anti-bullying programs are not working."

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in the self and in others; understand the causes of emotions and their consequences for thinking and behavior; label emotions with a sophisticated vocabulary; express emotions in socially appropriate ways; and regulate emotions effectively.

Emotionally intelligent children and adults experience a broad range of emotions—from elation and serenity to grief and anger—and they use this information to maintain healthy relationships. They experience greater well-being and fewer instances of depression, anxiety, and aggression. Their relationships are more supportive, and they perform better at school and work. Those who lack emotional intelligence are prone to poorer mental health, a higher propensity to use illegal substances, and increased aggressive behavior.

Fortunately, emotional intelligence can be taught just like math or reading. It is easily integrated into the standard academic curriculum and can improve classroom instruction and school climate. The result includes a better school, with happier and more effective educators and students and a decline in bullying. But there is a catch: Adults need training, too.

Most of us have not had a formal education in emotional intelligence. In particular, teacher training does not include formal instruction on how to apply the science of emotion to engage students in learning, model effective self-regulation strategies, manage classrooms effectively, or create a positive classroom climate. How can we expect children to learn age-appropriate vocabulary and regulation strategies when it comes to expressing their emotions if their teachers have not had adequate training in these skills? Schools wouldn’t ask a teacher without mathematics training to teach geometry, algebra, or calculus.

RULER, a program designed to teach the skills for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions, is one effective approach to teaching emotional intelligence. Developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which we direct, RULER has helped more than 500 schools integrate emotional intelligence into their daily routines, from language arts lessons to faculty meetings to the enforcement of behavior-management policies. RULER embeds best teaching practices and a shared language of emotions into everyday instruction across all grade levels. And, importantly, RULER provides professional and personal development for all adults in the learning community—school leaders, teachers, support staff, and families.

A step in this process is for school communities to write an “emotional intelligence charter.” Written collaboratively, the charter provides the backbone for creating an emotionally supportive learning environment. It can help community members articulate how they want to feel, what they will do to foster those feelings, and how the community can work together to prevent and manage unwanted feelings and conflict. A second tool, the mood meter, builds emotional self-awareness, helping everyone gauge their feelings throughout the day, set goals, develop self-regulation strategies, and realize learning objectives.

Research shows that children who attend RULER schools experience less anxiety and depression; have fewer attention, learning, and behavior problems; are better problem-solvers; display greater social and leadership skills; and perform better academically. Classroom climate also improves. Stronger and more positive teacher-student relationships, greater teacher-student engagement, better classroom focus, lower teacher burnout, and enhanced instructional practices are just some of the benefits.

A recent meta-analysis on social- and emotional-learning programs like RULER confirms that teaching emotional intelligence is the common feature among schools that have safe, caring, and productive learning environments. The best outcomes occur when lessons are taught regularly and with high quality. Indeed, in these schools, not only does bullying decrease, but mental-health indicators and academic scores also go up.

We believe evidence-based SEL programming deserves federal funding. One House bill, the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 2013 (HR 1875), would give the U.S. Department of Education the authority to allocate funds and establish programs to address children’s social and emotional needs. If it passes, and we are hopeful that it will, it will provide federal support for teacher-preparation programs which integrate social-emotional learning into their curricula.

Neglecting the emotional education of children and adults risks leaving children at the mercy of every emotion they feel and every aggressor who comes along. This neglect has created a gap in our educational system, one through which bullies and their targets have slipped. Systemic, evidence-based SEL programs fill that gap, giving children, and the adults who teach them, opportunities to develop the skills they need to be healthy, effective, and compassionate. As Aristotle wrote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as An Emotionally Intelligent Approach to Bullying Prevention


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