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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

Paige Henderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that this is definitely a higher order of thinking and will take time to implement. I also can't help thinking that most of what this article is talking about are things I teach my children at home. It's impossible for teachers to take a child that has never been told they were special or important, and in the time frame of a school year, take the place of what is missing in their home life. There is so much emphasis on the school teaching things that are traditionally taught at home and at church. No one wants to talk about religion, but basically you are replacing the words spoken in a church and putting a "scientific" twist to them.

Eaman Ahmed's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was intrested in this article because it helped me understand children and their behaviors in schools. I am a daycare teacher. We work on alot of these different emotional skills with our children. I strongly agree that teachers need to teach emotional skills in there schools. I also believe that it will be a long term commitment and an ongoing process so that our children will be prepared for the real world. It will also take both the teacher and the parents tp make it happen.

Barbara Vallerio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am going to but Daniel Goleman's book today. I realize that I am teaching my third grade students these skills on an hourly basis. Our school has themes each year. The themes revolve around character traits such as respect,manners, honesty and compassion. I would love to have 15 min in my day to have time to pull my class together to discuss feelings about various topics.
Many students lack social skills because so many spend time in front of a screen. They lack they lack the ability
to interact with one another.

Barbara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Where do fit this in the school day that is already full?

Merilyn Rollins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that emotional intellegence needs to be taught through out the school. I use to teach fourth grade. Once a week the school psycologist came into the fourth grade classroom and taught a twenty minute lesson on social skills. They were well thought out and prepared lessons. The children role played the skill taught that week. He was also assigned to another school in which he did not teach the weekly lessons. At the end of the school year he put together his data. The pycologist was very discouraged to learn there was no difference in applied social skills between the two schools fourth grades. I believed, like the social skill taught, if formal coping skills were consistently taught in the primary grades and build upon with each grade then the success rate would be better. The school is a community every student should feel a part. If children are not emotional stable they are not going to be as successful when they take their place in the world no matter what acidemic achievement they have made. I believe there is getting to be more and more stress put upon the children today to achieve than ever before. They need to learn to deal with the stress.

Lorenne Towne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just wanted to let you know that I thought that it is a really good idea as a substitute to share with the students something that is making you sad or affraid to help them understand how to express their feelings and to help make their environment safe while their teacher is not there.

MaDonna Birdsell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the article "Emotional Intelligence: The Missing Piece" makes a lot of sense. I teach fifth grade in a Title I school where 71% of the kids come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Often, they come to school upset, and it is very hard for them to get past whatever has upset them. It is like they have a learning blockage for the rest of the day (or at least the morning) until they can past whatever upset them.
I think that an emotional intelligence program sounds like a good idea. I would just need to figure out where to fit it into my day. It also seems like it would have to be a schoolwide program in order for it to be effective.

MaDonna Birdsell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the author. It is about teaching children to deal with their feelings, with conflicts in school, and also how to develop successful relationships. Some children do not learn this at home because their homelives are so stressful and messed up. I agree that it would take some time to incorporate this into the school day, but I think it would ultimately help children learn better. They would be able to put their problems aside more easily and learn better.

Amy-Walden U Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Barbara! I"m not sure what you teach. I know with teaching 8th graders and switching classes every 50 minutes, this is not something I can just plan for. It seems like it could be it's own content area. For me, I find that I do this in my interactions with students. One thing I try to do is model this type of behavior for my students and it becomes part of my instruction. I realize some people feel that we are being asked to do things that should happen in church or the home. But the hard truth is that for some students we may be the only adults that have a postivie impact on them. Even just reminding them that they are a gift to the world could radically change their behavior and view of themselves. Best of luck and I hope your year is going well.

Amy, Walden U Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's interesting. I have been relfecting on my teaching and my self-efficacy as a teacher. I know there are external factors that impact me as a teacher. It is no surprise the same is true for students and the impact those factors have on their learning. One of my roles as a teacher is as an advocate for my students. I may be the only adult in a given day to let them know they are valuable. I may also be the only one who models respect, conflict resolution, problem solving strategies, compassion, integrity,etc... I teach middle school which means my classes switch every 50 minutes. That is a small window of time...but over time, it will add up. Our school does not have a program in place, but it seems like this would be great to implement school wide. Does anyone have any good suggestions for an effective program that would fit into a middle school model?

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