How to Nurture Interpersonal Intelligence in Children

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences gives us insight into interpersonal intelligence and how it can be nurtured in children.

How to Nurture Interpersonal Intelligence in Children

How to Nurture Interpersonal Intelligence in Children

Have you ever considered yourself “book smart” or “street smart?” While that may be a common distinction people make, there are many ways in which you can demonstrate your intelligence. While you may be book smart, street smart, or both, have you ever considered yourself “people smart?”

As an educator, your work is related to other people. You have to interact, understand, and relate to them. You have to pick up on their emotions and concerns. You’re required to use a combination of skills to understand their needs. These skills combine to form interpersonal intelligence. While history and society might focus on the idea of a single intelligence, others would disagree. People can be intelligent in different ways, and the answer lies in the theory of multiple intelligences. 

In this article, we’ll discuss interpersonal intelligence—what it is, the theory behind it, and how you can help build it in young children.

Interpersonal intelligence: what is it?

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to sense and interpret people’s feelings, emotions, intentions, and temperament. This is then used to interact with others in a way that is appropriate for any situation. People with interpersonal intelligence often stand out in social situations as they enjoy discussions, debates, and group work.

children sitting in circle with teacher


Often compared to emotional intelligence, interpersonal intelligence presents itself in people as leadership, compassion, kindness, and objectivity. People with high interpersonal intelligence usually possess qualities that allow them to:

  • Communicate verbally: The ability to express oneself efficiently is at the center of interpersonal intelligence. Verbal communication skills are key in bringing people together, especially through discussion. It can look like asking relevant questions, paraphrasing to demonstrate active listening, redirecting questions and comments, and encouraging similar and different opinions. Someone with interpersonal intelligence knows what to say and how to say it. They understand that vocal variety—tone, pace, volume, articulation, and pronunciation—affects how people feel and react to their words.
  • Communicate nonverbally: The American Psychological Association describes nonverbal communication as “the act of conveying information without the use of words.” People with high interpersonal intelligence have a handle on their facial expressions, gestures, and body language to express themselves without words. Nonverbal communication impacts how we relate to others and how others view us.
  • Lead and organize groups: Many qualities are associated with leadership, and interpersonal intelligence sits at the foundation. Great leaders are known for their effective communication, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking. They can inspire people to join their groups or causes and empower others in their individual lives.
  • Mediate conflicts: Interpersonal intelligence allows you to differentiate between other people's feelings, emotions, and needs. Additionally, it allows you to remain objective. These abilities are key to conflict resolution. People with high interpersonal intelligence can use their skills to identify sources of conflict, diffuse the situation, and find a solution that satisfies everyone involved.

As an educator, you may realize that using verbal and nonverbal communication, leading groups, and mediating conflicts are a regular part of your daily activities. That is because people with high interpersonal intelligence tend to thrive in teaching roles. Other potential careers include politics, counseling, and public relations. However, while many see the extent of these skills manifest in their careers, their development typically starts during early childhood.

Babies begin developing interpersonal intelligence from birth, and it can be nurtured from day one. Young children interact with their parents and caregivers and are exposed to verbal and nonverbal communication. As they develop and interact with their peers, their interpersonal skills continue to grow. Parents and educators can focus on building interpersonal intelligence at any age; however, try looking at interpersonal intelligence as a muscle. The more you work on it, the stronger it becomes. Children can begin building their interpersonal intelligence as early as possible.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences

In the 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, psychologist Howard Gardner disputes the concept that there is only one intelligence. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences proposes that in addition to interpersonal intelligence, people are born with at least seven others:

  • Linguistic-verbal intelligence: This refers to the capacity and ability to use and understand words. This intelligence involves reading, writing, and speaking where people can manipulate syntax, phonetics, and the semantics of a language. People with linguistic-verbal intelligence are characterized by the ability to remember written and spoken information, the enjoyment of reading and writing, and an affinity for learning new languages. 
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: This is the ability to understand and identify logical or numerical patterns. Although rooted in numbers, logical-mathematical intelligence also includes non-numerical logical relationships. People with this intelligence can think conceptually about numbers, relationships, and patterns. They have excellent problem-solving skills, use critical thinking, and are often proficient in computing.
  • Visual-spatial intelligence: This refers to the ability to perceive, analyze, and understand visual information and store and recall them in the mind. It allows you to visualize, create, and manipulate yourself and other items in space. Common characteristics of people with visual-spatial intelligence are easily recognizing patterns, interpreting pictures, graphs, and charts, and having a vivid imagination.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: This intelligence is the ability to use one’s gross or fine motor skills to express emotions or create, learn, or solve problems. People who exhibit bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are often physically strong, flexible, balanced, and dexterous. They also have a keen knowledge of movement, expression, and body language. 
  • Musical intelligence: This refers to the ability to produce, discern, and transform sounds, rhythm, pitch, and melody. Musical intelligence is expressed through music—through composition, singing, or playing instruments. Accordingly, people with this type of intelligence enjoy singing and dancing, use rhymes and patterns for memorization, and can remember songs easily.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: This is the ability to sense and interpret your own feelings, emotions, intentions, and temperament. It’s a capacity for self-reflection where you have a handle on your self-knowledge, self-esteem, and self-motivation. This understanding allows you to control your behavior and impulses to make decisions and plans.
  • Naturalistic intelligence: This intelligence refers to the ability to identify, observe, categorize, understand, and manipulate elements of nature such as plants, animals, and the environment. People with high naturalistic intelligence are often interested in nature-related topics, enjoy outdoor activities, and can easily categorize and catalog information.

When looking at this list, some might argue that interpersonal intelligence isn’t as important as logical-mathematical intelligence or linguistic-verbal intelligence. However, interpersonal intelligence is a crucial skill to possess as it benefits everyone.

Interpersonal intelligence: the advantages

The skills related to interpersonal intelligence are irreplaceable. Not only do most jobs require working with others, but they also call for occasional, frequent, or constant communication. Interpersonal intelligence allows you to:

Be a better leader

You’ll find that many skills associated with interpersonal intelligence are the same that describe a good leader. Interpersonal skills allow you to be objective and empathic, which are essential for leaders to be fair and unbiased. Effective communication is another skill associated with interpersonal intelligence and leadership. The best leaders are skilled in communication as they introduce ideas and share information with others.

Feel more confident

Interpersonal intelligence can help you feel more confident. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance that comes from your appreciation of your abilities or qualities. People with interpersonal intelligence can communicate well, create positive relationships, and resolve conflicts. These traits can lead to confidence where you have no trouble speaking your mind or seeking others out for conversation.

Influence others

When you consider one’s ability to influence others, it’s remarkable. Influence is the ability to affect a person's character, development, or behavior. People often earn influence through their accomplishments, social status, or actions, each of which can be affected by interpersonal intelligence. If someone can recognize interpersonal skills like effective communication, objectivity, empathy, and leadership in another person, it’s more likely that they can be persuaded to work together toward a goal or take a desired action.

Express yourself

Expressing yourself isn’t always easy. There is often a fine line between articulating how you feel and the potential to be misunderstood. People with interpersonal intelligence can express their feelings or beliefs in a way that doesn’t insult or offend others. Not only does it help you express yourself, but it also helps you assert yourself. Sharing your ideas and opinions means allowing others to share their own, whether they agree or disagree. Interpersonal intelligence allows you to accept opposing views, respectfully assert your beliefs, and calmly resolve any issues.

Build meaningful relationships

Interpersonal intelligence has little to do with how you feel and more with how you make others feel. This intelligence type is associated with group work and discussions. People with high interpersonal intelligence often display positivity and honesty, and they can make others feel important. These are key factors in building meaningful relationships with those around you.

While the benefits of interpersonal intelligence are indisputable, you would find criticism against the theory as a whole. Critics argue that Gardner’s theory of eight intelligences is a list of talents, traits, and abilities. Whether people believe it to be a list of traits or intelligence, the concept has been used in many early childhood education and development settings for decades.

To experience the full breadth of interpersonal intelligence benefits, it’s important to start building these skills during early childhood. Social-emotional development is a pillar of early childhood education and affects children's interpersonal and emotional intelligence. The social-emotional skills and behaviors that young children need to help build their interpersonal intelligence include:

  • Sharing and working cooperatively (peer-related social skills)
  • Listening and following directions (teacher-related social skills)
  • Joining in and giving compliments (interpersonal behavior)
  • Following through and dealing with stress (self-related behavior)
  • Listening to speakers (communication skills)

Social-emotional learning and development enable young children to develop the skills they need to be interpersonally intelligent. An app like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature gives teachers an easy tool to record those social-emotional milestones and share them with families, simplifying your systems and centralizing all your documentation in one place. 

Interpersonal intelligence activities

young boys playing basketball on court


Children with interpersonal intelligence enjoy interacting with other people. As their intelligence develops, they can easily become empathetic, persuasive, and effective leaders. Interpersonal intelligence can strengthen over time through nurturing and practice. To help children develop these skills, activities associated with collaboration, direct interaction, and discussion can help them excel. 

Board games

Board games are a great way to help young children develop and build their interpersonal intelligence. They create opportunities for participation, taking turns, and observing and understanding other people’s reactions and feelings. Because many board games often require teams or group activity, they can boost communication skills and allow children to experience teamwork.

“What did I say?”

Active listening is the ability to focus on a speaker, understand their message, and respond thoughtfully. While this might seem like a tall order for young children, they’re capable of active listening. In your classroom, design a “What did I say?” activity. Create a scenario, read it like a story to your class, and then have your children explain it back to you. Remember, active listening is equal parts listening and responding. You should also prompt them to describe how they might respond to your scenario.

Community service and volunteer work

Volunteering has endless benefits. It can increase self-confidence and self-esteem and provide a sense of purpose. Participating in community service and volunteer work can also help you develop your communication skills and compassion. While many organizations have strict age restrictions for volunteering, creating community service activities for your children is possible.

You can have young children:

  • Pick out nonperishables to donate to a local food bank
  • Help with sorting recyclables
  • Write “thank you” cards for veterans

Pretend play

Role-playing or pretend play are important parts of early childhood education. Children are able to use their imaginations and let their creativity flourish as they act out different scenarios or play different, made-up roles. To encourage pretend play, you can have a dedicated space for dramatic play in your classroom and even provide props or costumes for them to use.

Playing pretend is another way to enhance children’s interpersonal intelligence. As children pretend to be different characters they get the opportunity to look at the world through another perspective and learn how to express their feelings and respond to other people’s emotions.

Conducting interviews

People with high interpersonal intelligence are often seen interacting with others. To further develop this trait in young children, create an activity where they can conduct interviews or surveys of their family or peers. Not only does this give them another opportunity for active listening, but it helps them practice empathy and gain new perspectives.

Class discussions

Interpersonal intelligence increases through communication. Plan time for classroom discussions where your children can present ideas, debate them, and defend their positions. For example, you can create a class discussion on colors. Ask your children if they prefer red or blue, and separate them accordingly. Have them talk through why they prefer one color and why. As they talk through their differences, it’s important to remind them that everyone’s opinion is important and should be heard.

Interpersonal intelligence makes you “people smart”

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to relate to other people and works hand in hand with social-emotional development that begins at an early age. People with this skill are characterized by their ability to lead, communicate verbally and nonverbally, resolve conflicts, and facilitate teamwork and collaboration. Help your children build their interpersonal intelligence with plenty of interactive activities that let them practice their collaboration, communication, and problem-solving skills.

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