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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Emotional Intelligence Is the Missing Piece

Social and emotional learning can help students successfully resolve conflict, communicate clearly, solve problems, and much more.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

Emotional Intelligence: An Overview

Credit: Edutopia

Whether it's in the boardroom or the classroom, individuals need the skills to communicate, work in teams, and let go of the personal and family issues that get in the way of working and learning. Such skills add up to what is known as emotional intelligence, and they are even more important as educators realize that these skills are critical to academic achievement.

Emotionally intelligent individuals stand out. Their ability to empathize, persevere, control impulses, communicate clearly, make thoughtful decisions, solve problems, and work with others earns them friends and success. They tend to lead happier lives, with more satisfying relationships. At work, they are more productive, and they spur productivity in others. At school, they do better on standardized tests and help create a safe, comfortable classroom atmosphere that makes it easier to learn.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman popularized the term "emotional intelligence" in his landmark 1995 best-selling book of the same name. What emotional intelligence is, says Goleman, "is the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships." Or, as Maurice Elias, Rutgers University psychology professor, puts it, "It's the set of abilities that helps us get along in life with other people in all kinds of life situations." He calls it the "missing piece" in American education.


Students in Sarah Button’s fifth-grade class at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn learn how to defuse potentially volatile incidents.

Credit: Edutopia

Self-Awareness and Empathy

Jonathan Cohen, president of the Center for Social and Emotional Education in New York, argues that attributes like self-awareness and empathy play a huge role in every aspect of life. "We all know that how we feel about ourselves and others can profoundly affect our ability to concentrate, to remember, to think, and to express ourselves," he says. Kids without emotional intelligence "don't follow directions, continually go off-task, can't pay attention, and have difficulty working cooperatively.

Social and emotional learning, the increasingly common term for emotional intelligence instruction, can be a lesson on the hurtfulness of put-downs followed by discussions on ways to communicate "put-ups." It can be a regular morning meeting, in which students share such personal feelings as the pain of their pet dying or the joy of a family outing. It can be an analysis of a conflict in great literature and a discussion about different paths the characters might have taken. It can be a common plan to take a moment to think, rather than react automatically, and often aggressively, to distress. It can be a districtwide commitment to community service. It can be a software program that lets students get a clearer idea of their reactions to risky situations.


At Ben Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, social and emotional instruction is a top priority.

Credit: Edutopia

Miraculous Transformations

Many educators say they are gratified by the results of such instruction in their schools because of its effect on both the school environment and academics. Fifth-grade teacher Grace Wiesner calls the transformation in her Waldport, Oregon, classroom "miraculous." "Disruptions due to acting out, arguing, or talking back have been significantly reduced," she says. Tina Valentine, a fourth-grade teacher at Kensington Avenue School in Springfield, Massachusetts, agrees. "I find I'm not spending as much time with behavioral management issues, so I actually have more time to spend with academics." A number of studies also have found a correlation between social skills and academic achievement.

Instruction in emotional intelligence is not a quick fix or a one-time lesson. The best programs, says Elias, "take no less than three years" to get to a place where teachers are comfortable and students are showing the benefits. Cohen adds that while a growing number of school programs include elements of instruction aimed at a child's emotional needs, too many of those programs are fragmented, short-term, and not well-integrated into the regular curriculum or school structure. "Just as we don't expect kids to learn a language in a year, we don't expect kids to learn social and emotional skills in one year," he says.


Skills More Than Values

Parents need not fear that emotional intelligence translates to a set of values that may be affiliated with religion. "We're not really teaching values. We're actually teaching skills," says Linda Lantieri, cofounder of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, one of the longest-running conflict resolution and social and emotional learning programs. "They're almost like tools in a toolbox. I remember one parent saying to me, 'You know, in my place of worship, I teach my kid to be honest. But you give the child the skills to be that way.'" The character education movement, which promotes universal values like respect, honesty, justice, and compassion, is also closely aligned to social and emotional learning.

Social and emotional learning programs work best when parents and teachers are partners, and that means schools need to train both parents and teachers in ways to promote behavior that improves communication, empathy, self-awareness, decision-making, and problem-solving. Parents, educators, policymakers, and business people all have a role to play in supporting the social and emotional learning of schoolchildren.

"We're talking about a whole new vision of education that says that educating the heart is as important as educating the mind," says Lantieri. Rutgers' Elias puts it another way. He says that parents don't just want SAT-smart kids. They want kids who are also responsible, non-violent, and caring: "We want the whole package."

Comments (81)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lorenne Towne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not being able to get a teaching position in my area, I have been having to do a lot of substitute teaching. I can say that I have been able to have experience with a lot of different districts. After reading this article, it is interesting to see how students, teachers and admistration interact among each other and with their studies. On the same token, it's pretty disturbing to see what school districts lack in this important concept. I think that it is very important to work with students from their first year in school all the way to their last year in school with emotional intelligence, because it is easy to see that many children are not getting the skills at home. Once they reach high school it is OH so obvious that many lack the abilty to empathize, persevere, control impulses, communicate clearly, make thoughtful decisions, solve problems and work with others. If we cannot instill these important things to our children of today (and with the way our nation is headed)...what will our future be like tomorrow?

Dawn Scheidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For over 20 years I have taught at a title 1 school with over 90% of my students receive free or reduced lunch. Sometimes in the flurry of testing, pacing guides, and posting objectives, students' state of mind can be overlooked. On countless occasions I have had students complain of stomach aches or seem very distracted, and found that they hadn't eaten since the night before, or that they got very little sleep because of things going on in the middle of the night at their apartment complex. I am reminded to make sure students have an opportunity to share the important things in their life, so they are more ready to take in what I hope to teach them.

Stephanie- Walden Univ. student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at the high school level and some of this information and these techniques are very difficult to incorporate into a 50-minute class period. Teenagers are so straight forward and if I were to attempt a lesson at talking about our feelings they would just tell me how corny I am.

However! I have implemented a way to promote character building in a silly, you could even call it corny, way that the kids can laugh at and it appears to be pretty effective. If a student says something mean to another student I usually say, "Okay kids, let's go back to kindergarten. Billy just put down Susie so now Billy has to say 3 nice things about Susie." The students laugh, but Billy really does say 3 nice things about Susie and then we move on with the lesson. It has gotten to the point where if someone says something mean that the students will actually call each other out on their put-downs and tell the student to say 3 nice things.

Hilda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a school that is considered at risk. The poverty level is high and our kids come to school with lots of emotional issues. Kids are constantly telling me that they are hungry or seem very sleepy. There are countless kids across grade levels that just seem very angry. I find myself acting as students' counselor and pyschotherapist more often than not. I think an emotional intelligence program would be beneficial to have at my school and I agree with you tha tit should be a schoowide program to be the most effective. This year I am teaching a new curriculum on social skills instead of science because I think gets need to know how to get along in school with each other, and as part a classroom community before they can begin to learn. I'm hoping for the best.

Jennifer at Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a low income area in Cleveland, Ohio. I teach students in grades k-3 with emotional disturbances. I see firsthand what this article is focusing on. My students come to school with so many emotional issues, that we need to work them out first in order to get through the day. This article hit home for me, and I believe every student in my school would benefit from a social emotional program. I have worked so hard with my students over the past 3 years, and I have seen great accomplishments in their behavior. We know that people with poor social skills, regardless of education, lack in the area of relationships and have difficulties in the work place. Why aren't we focusing more on social emotional education in schools?

Sherry Burke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My organization, Committee for Children, has a newly revised Social and Emotional Learning Program for middle school called Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention. This research-based program is an engaging, multi-media program that easily integrates into any subject area and contains a whole-school component that allows all staff to reinforce key concepts. You can see more at: http://www.cfchildren.org/programs/ssp/ms/.

carolyn stambaugh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read the comment about Second Step and I can tell you, if it is used correctly by all teachers in all curricular areas, you will have less time from instruction, less office referrals and a more learning. The Second Step program is pro-active and a great way to teach the empathy, problem solving, anger management and soft skills all children and adults need to operate in our world.

Dana Liccardo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed the article and have found it is true in my experience if you do not address the emotional needs of a students you will never teach them anything. I also found that social skills is very different for different groups of students and one program does not fit all. At my school we have two social skills programs that address the needs of low functioning and high functioning autistic students. The programs deal with socially acceptable behaviors, how to make friends, personal space and the likes. What I see missing is programs that teach students how to deal with home life issues, anger issues and self management. I am very interested in Daniel Goleman's book. I am looking for a program to use in my Special Day class grades 3-5. Has anyone read his book and tried his program? How is it received by the students? Does anyone have any other programs that they liked?

Lori LaBombard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found the video under the title Emotional Intelligence: The Missing Piece to be very interesting. As an educator, I often feel at times that my students are pushed too soon to focus on their academics and are not given enough opportunities to fully have their emotional needs met. This clip helped support my belief in how important it is to meed all of our students needs.

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