David, a school counselor, took a deep breath when he saw a missed call from his principal. As he touched the screen to call back, he braced for the “bark and the bite” he was accustomed to hearing from Principal Carrie.

Principal standing in a school hallway in front of lockers with arms crossed on her chest

This time was different.

In fact, he told us he was stunned when the voice that picked up sounded kind, even cheerful. He couldn’t believe it. After years of working together, he had grown to dread interactions with Principal Carrie, as had most of his colleagues. But this was clearly a different version of her. Who was this new principal, and what had she done with Carrie?

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Carrie was finishing up a year of engagement in emotionally intelligent leadership coaching—a program designed to enhance leaders’ well-being through education and training in social and emotional skills.

Recent research from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence supports the notion that emotionally intelligent school leadership predicts educator well-being, and we know that well-being and emotional intelligence skills are necessary for effective leadership, especially in times of crisis—from higher job satisfaction to lower emotional exhaustion and turnover intentions. Indeed, even when leaders, especially in education, have little to no control over their environment, they have control over their own behavior and can still cultivate a culture of healthy relationships and emotionally intelligent responses to uncontrollable circumstances. School leaders who have decided to invest in their own emotional intelligence and well-being consistently report interactions like the one between David and Carrie.

But doing so is no easy feat. Carrie came to us as many school leaders have in recent years: chronically stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The job she loved was feeling increasingly unsustainable. Her distress was also affecting her colleagues, to the detriment of teachers and students alike. Carrie had been in education for nearly 25 years, but it was the last four years that had shaken the sustainability of her career. And who could blame her?

Ever-shifting rules, regulations, and ripple effects of the pandemic brought demands on school staff and leadership to a peak, straining an already turbulent educational landscape. Monitoring COVID-19 absences, distributing laptops in bulk, adapting curriculum for uncharted virtual territory, and consoling frightened, grieving students and families suddenly became daily tasks for which school leaders were held accountable.

Those new responsibilities added to pre-existing pressures and crises that they were already navigating daily, such as teacher turnover, inequitable funding, politicization of learning material, mental health, school safety, standardized testing, and, of course, the overwhelming influence of social media, artificial intelligence, and technology. Altogether, these factors created a web of uncertainties and challenges so great for even the most effective, seasoned leader to sustain.

So, where does that leave school leaders like Carrie?

While she could not fix, on a day-to-day basis, the systemic problems that made her job so stressful, Carrie could invest in her well-being by regularly practicing emotion regulation techniques and modeling these behaviors for others, like practicing reframing and turning moments of harsh criticism to compassion. While she could not eliminate the stress, she could be more committed to getting more sleep, cutting down on sugar, and walking 10 minutes a day—activities that will positively affect mental and physical well-being. It is crucial that school leaders have the tools to realistically assess what they can and can’t do to create greater well-being and leader effectiveness.

And this is just what Carrie did—and all school leaders can do—using strategies provided in our new book, Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders. We offer tips for harnessing a healthier you and, in turn, healthier relationships. It’s this emotionally intelligent leadership that will help you to not just survive but thrive in the ever-demanding landscape of education.

Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders (Harvard Education PR, 2023, 304 pages)

Check in with your emotions regularly—and honor them. Before rushing into the hectic schedule of each day, pencil in time to sit and reflect on how you feel. Your emotions give you important information. They are not something to simply ignore or push away. Your emotions will inevitably influence your conversations, behaviors, and relationships whether you notice it or not (recall David’s long-held impression of Carrie). Prior to a meeting, event, or other obligation, prioritize a few minutes to honor and assess your own well-being. This could be through silent reflection, journaling, or even apps on your phone like How We Feel, a handheld journal that helps you name, track, and better understand your emotions.

Regulate your emotions. Checking in with your emotions is one crucial piece of the emotional intelligence puzzle; you have to be able to name it to tame it. Regulating, or managing, those emotions is another. While feeling joyful or proud may not require strategies to help you stay grounded, feeling angry or burned out certainly do—and you may experience all of these emotions on any given school day. Identify strategies that are sustainable and beneficial for managing your big emotions in challenging moments, such as mindful breathing, meditation, or pausing your schedule to take a walk outside before a demanding situation overwhelms you. Such practices don’t actually take up much time—just a few minutes—but the benefits are evergreen.

Establish clear boundaries and stick to them. We know how hard this one can be. In an environment that constantly asks you to say “yes,” we challenge you to say “no” more often. This can look like rescheduling a meeting (or canceling it if it “could’ve been an email”) or extending a deadline for your colleagues so everyone has some breathing room. Leaning on emotion regulation techniques above, identify circumstances that are most emotionally taxing for you, which tasks you can delegate to others (don’t be afraid to ask for help!), and where you can reallocate your energy for better use.

Listen with empathy and without judgment. School leaders cannot afford to be “too busy” to listen to each other and elicit feedback in school settings. Active listening builds trust. The moment we are too overbooked to engage in authentic conversation with colleagues, we can quickly lose our emotional regulation, our boundaries, and our purpose. It’s a slippery slope to devolving into unhealthy, transactional relationships. Even in the most strenuous circumstances, aim to be an emotion scientist—curious about your own and others’ emotions—and a learner, not just a responder in times of crisis.

Reflect often. It is critical that school leaders create safe spaces or practices dedicated to self-care through self-reflection. Some leaders pipe in music to create a meditative environment throughout school hallways, others close their doors to give themselves space when needed. Some take a five-minute walking meditation outside the school. We have seen more and more leaders embrace personal/professional coaching to create regular time to reflect on actions taken, decisions to be made, and emotional responses. Because leadership entails co-regulation, reflection leads to opportunities for strengthening your own emotion regulation muscles as well as co-regulating with others.

Nurture your relationships. The people you work with will enhance your mood or squash it. And you can enhance or squash theirs. Aim to be the enhancer by greeting people with a smile, asking them how they are feeling and taking time to listen to the answer, creating opportunities for everyone’s voice to be heard, giving others a shoutout when they achieve, and remembering to be a curious emotion scientist. Investing time and energy in your relationships will make all the difference in building trust and motivation needed for others to wholeheartedly join you in making your vision a reality.

Model for others. Emotions are social and contagious components of life. When you prioritize your own emotional well-being, boundaries, and interpersonal relationships, it shows and it rubs off on others. Just as annoyance or frustration from your morning meeting can spill into your afternoon check-in, so can your balance, appreciation, or gratitude. In using the techniques we’ve discussed, you simultaneously model for others what emotional intelligence looks like in practice to the benefit of your students, staff, and self.

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