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Author Cara Zelas Of ‘Big World of Little Dude’: Emotional Intelligence; What It Is, Why It Is So Essential, And How We Can Increase It

… The most exciting thing about Emotional Intelligence is that it can be taught and learned. This links back to implementing social and emotional programming in schools, which gives children the best foundation to build on. Research shows, Emotional Intelligence leads to academic achievement and a positive school climate.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cara Zelas.

Cara Zelas is an educator and author of the Big World of Little Dude book series which teaches children social and emotional skills. Including The Friendship Book and How-To Guide to making friends.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Sydney, Australia. I had a magical childhood filled with family, friends and an abundance of play. Growing up in Australia meant a lot of connection with nature and the outdoors. It definitely instilled a love of nature in my heart.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Little Dude, our dog. He is the inspiration behind launching Big World of Little Dude. It is through our work together as a therapy dog team with the Good Dog Foundation, in New York City, that had a huge impact on my idea and experience of being kind to others. How a small act of kindness can positively affect both the receiver and giver of kindness. Coupled with my background in education, I was teaching in a school in Manhattan, and I began bringing Little Dude into the classroom to teach the children about what he does and why being kind to others in our community is important. The book series and corresponding literacy-based curriculum grew from what I saw, was an unmet need for teaching early-childhood learners explicit social and emotional skills. The first six books and lessons, I covered the themes of: kindness, manners, respect, empathy, feelings and courage.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My husband and entrepreneur, Seth Ginsberg, who is the founder of Creaky Joints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation. Seth was my guide, he gave me the tools and building blocks of starting a business and most importantly, he pushed me out of my comfort zone, even when I resisted. His continual love and support, especially through the tough moments when I wanted to throw in the towel, helped me build my business to the brand it is today. A turning point moment was when we were invited to an intimate round table of founders. It was the first event that I had to publicly give my very first elevator pitch. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me, I was so nervous and unsure of myself. It didn’t help that I was the last one to speak, needless to say, I didn’t take a bite of dinner. However, with Seth by my side, I got the courage, pushed way past my comfort zone, and shared my vision. It was one of my very first lessons in the importance of networking, an elevator pitch and pushing through the boundaries that we sometimes limit ourselves to. We learn and grow through experiencing discomfort.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I have racked my brain for a mistake that is funny or interesting. Of course I have made MANY mistakes. Just not sure how to ever answer this question. Little Dude once pooped in the lobby of Veterans Affair in Midtown — and I didnt have a bag to collect it so had to get creative, quickly. It reminded me that I have to be organized and prepared… something like that???

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Research, research, research! Find out as much information you can about starting a business and learning about the market you want to enter. Make sure you are passionate about what you are creating, as when the going gets tough, you are going to want to hold onto the core reason why you began down the path of building a business.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Seth Godin created a podcast called the Startup School, it is an excellent introduction to creating and marketing a business. I got the pleasure of seeing him speak at a small event in New York City, and it was an opportunity to meet someone who I really learned a lot from. I would highly recommend listening to his podcasts or reading one of his many books, he really breaks down being an entrepreneur and marketing in an easy to digest way.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This resonates with me as it is about taking risks, being bold, taking the steps to make it come to fruition and turning your dreams into a reality.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I created the Kindness Learning Company out of a desire to infuse social and emotional themes into early childhood education and school curricula — in innovative and child-centered ways. When I arrived in the U.S. nearly a decade ago, I spent a lot of time teaching and assisting teachers in the classroom, and it was there that I had a stark reminder about the importance of themes such as kindness, empathy, courage and manners. When learning about the core curriculum and other standardized teaching platforms, I noticed a gap and these social and emotional themes largely missing. It was out of this realization that I formed the Kindness Learning Company and from there, developed our first book series, “The Big World of Little Dude”. From there, we began publishing additional books (about friendship and mindfulness), complimenting sing-along-songs and an array of plush dolls to support the books.

Today, we have evolved to support parents and communities who are teaching their children at home — either by choice or by coronavirus circumstance, equipping families with the tools and resources needed to use this time to instill healthy social and emotional children; that’s the essence of Little Dude’s “At-Home Lessons”. To accompany the lessons, we created “School-in-a-Box” which is all the materials needed for the 120 “At-Home Lessons”.

As part of our central message of kindness, we have a buy-one-give-one program, where “School-in-a-Box” is then donated to children in New York City. We have partnered so far, with ACS and New Yorkers for Children non-profit organizations. We hope that this can help children and families who are at home due to school closures.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

My studies are in education, which give me the academic foundation to understand how and why we learn. I have chosen a specific area of education, social and emotional learning (SEL), to focus on and which is at the essence of my business. I have done a lot of work and research on understanding how SEL fits in with school curriculum and I have been a huge advocate for including this in early-child-hood classrooms. At the core of SEL is understanding our emotions. I have written a book series and curriculum in this field plus I have copious amounts of hours on the ground, working with children to help them develop socially and emotionally.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

Emotional Intelligence is understanding and recognizing your emotions; and how they impact you and those around you. It also involves perspective taking, comprehending empathy and having a real understanding of others emotions too. It is about building self-awareness and learning emotional self-regulation as well as gaining the social skills to connect and understand others.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence is intelligence specifically relating to emotions, how an individual can classify, evaluate, regulate and communicate emotions — people skills. Intelligence refers to processing, applying, filtering and retaining information, logical reasoning, and abstract and spatial thinking — book smart. It is a different skill set, both which can be inherent and learned.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

The most exciting thing about Emotional Intelligence is that it can be taught and learned. This links back to implementing social and emotional programming in schools, which gives children the best foundation to build on. Research shows, Emotional Intelligence leads to academic achievement and a positive school climate.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.

Going into hospitals, to pediatric Intensive Care Units and cancer infusion centers as a therapy dog team, with Little Dude, gave me many moments to test my Emotional Intelligence. Meeting people who were unwell and finding the balance of reading the room quickly, showing empathy towards who I am visiting (this may be family members as well) and being open to facilitating a conversation that centers around kindness, positivity and gentle distraction.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Having high Emotional Intelligence can:

  • Keep you calm under pressure
  • Encourage positive conflict resolution
  • Help you take critical feedback from others and use it constructively to grow
  • Guide you to be a team player
  • Activate your listening skills
  • Promote leadership and relationship skills

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

At the heart of relationships, is emotions. If you understand your own emotions, triggers and reactions; and have insight into how others in your world may be feeling, leads to positive relationships. Key take-aways:

  • Be an active listener
  • Always look at a situation from each others perspective
  • Be aware of your own emotions and how they affect others
  • Practice mindfulness and breathing techniques to help self-regulate

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

  • Create strategies to help you address triggers that heighten your emotions, for example, going for a walk, calling a friend, writing it down etc.
  • Finding your self-confidence and self-esteem through taking risks, pushing through your comfort zone, and blocking out judgment.
  • Be okay with making mistakes, take it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Label your emotions when you experience them.
  2. Do simple breathing exercises to promote emotional self-regulation.
  3. Be an active listener, especially if someone is harboring views that are different from yours. Ask questions to gain an understanding why they may think a certain way. Refrain from judgement.
  4. Write it down. Sometimes when we are experiencing a big emotion, the feeling gets trapped and swirls around our head and builds up to grow into something bigger then it may be in reality. Verbalising or writing how you feel, is a release valve. You could record something on your phone or write yourself an email.
  5. Take responsibility for your words and actions.

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

When I began Big World of Little Dude, when I said I was focusing on social and emotional learning (SEL) I got a lot of questions as to what that is. Fast forward to the present, and SEL is now a big buzzword in educational settings like schools and universities.

Schools should be implementing an SEL program from kindergarten. SEL skills can be taught. We teach children letters, numbers, colors (IQ) we should also be including SEL skills (EQ!) The earlier schools implements SEL programs the better off children foundational knowledge would be. Imagine if children knew explicitly about their emotions, how their emotions effect others and the idea of empathy, this could be a solution to bullying.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Be kind! Everyone can change their behaviours, with a simple act of kindness to someone in their world or community. Kindness has a ripple effect, positive outcomes for both the giver and receiver and we all have the power to be kind.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

Daisy Turnball. She is the director of Wellbeing at a school in Sydney, Australia. She just wrote a book that has really resonated with me, 50 Risks To Take With Your Kids. I would love to have a conversation over lunch with her, to delve into parenting and teaching children about being independent and building resilience.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out the website: www.worldoflittledude.com

Follow us on Instagram @worldoflittledude

Connect with me on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/carazelas/

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thank you for sharing our story!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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