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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

Robin- Walden student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I srongly agree that teachers need to teach emotional skills. I believe it is lack of emotional skills that caused a lot of the problems in the classroom. I am reading a book for my graduate class called On Being A Teacher The Human Dimension. It discusses how important it is to teach the children how to communicate and how to build relationships. I also agree it has to be a long term commitment. We can't teach emotional skills for a year and then stop. It has to be an ongoing process. The children would be much more prepared for the real world if schools stressed emotional intelligence.

Jennifer Verbanac's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Laura,
The bus ride to school tends to be very stressful in our area and the kids are upset by the time they get to school. I too have decided to have morning meetings in my 5th grade classroom. One thing I am going to do is make emotion cards and use a think/pair/share activity. First, each student will get a card and think about the emotion, then pair up and make a face to express the emotion while their partner guesses the emotion. Finally, the students will reflect on the experience in their journals. The objective is to have the students practice identifying different emotions within themselves and others. This won't be used everyday because of time limitations but at least once a week.

What do you think- any suggestions for improvement?

Mark- Walden Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article turns a light on for me in figuring out why kids don't pay attention, are poor test takers and are easily distracted at the high school level. When you throw in a dozen other factors into the emotional and intellectual development of an adolescent it explains why kids succeed and excell in all areas of their lives. I'm also reading the text,On Being a Teacher, THe Human Dimension. building relationships and communication skills are something that needs to be stressed in the everday classroom setting but it's imperative we as adults model this in a consistent manner.

Kelly-Walden U's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article struck a cord in me. I agree that in todays world of educating our children we have neglected many aspects of human development. Our children spend endless hours as we as teachers are forced to "pour" information into them so they can pass tests. When they are home, they spend endless hours in front of video games. Then at some point they are expected to walk into the world as whole adults and handle all that is expected of them.
I am a semi-new (somewhat novice) special education teacher for children who exhibit mild/moderate disabilities. I struggle every year with how to best teach my students. Are they receiving enough information to attempt a grade level achievement test and pass so our AYP is not threatened? What "grade level" material do I teach them and how much do I modify so that they are receiving the appropriate opportunities? How do I make sure that I also incorporate the necessary life skills to ensure that these people can successfully function in the adult world. Now after reading this article I also need to make sure my students gain emotion intelligence as a necessary life skill.

Amy Shreve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was very interested in this article because it helped me to better understand students and their behaviors within the classroom . I work with emotionally disturbed students at our elementary school and I see all of these things in each student. They have a hard time working cooperatively, they do not pay attention well, and they do not like to follow directions. As teachers, we spend a tremendous amount of time working on these skills with these students. I believe it is very important, though, to continuously work on these skills throughout the entire school and not just with certain students. Emotional intelligence is important and needs to have a larger focus within schools.

Meaghan Fee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These articles are so true. I teach kindergarten in an urban school district that has a very diverse population. My students who come from families where at least one parent is home with the child when school has ended tend to be more emotionally stable. Learning how to react to stressful situations is something that is strongly influenced by what is modeled to the child by an adult. Children whose experience a stronger attachment to a parent who models how to handle their emotions in a successful way, have a great advantage for being emotionally at ease in order to learn. When adults are over-worked and feel stressed out, it can show. When a parent wonders how they are going to be able to get the money to put food on the table, this causes stress as well as less 1-on-one time with their child. A child's emotional intelligence starts at home and can be extended to school. Weaving in lessons and using opportunities that arise for discussing feelings and body language as well as tone of voice and ways of responding to a person can be ongoing in the classroom. Emotional intelligence is completely necessary for interacting with others and being successful. Learning and emotion can not be separated.

Jerry, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The work I do in the field of Physical Education incorporates cognitive, psychomotor, and affective abilities of students. Many times a student is graded by the teacher or judged by the students on how well they are able to work with others on a team or in groups. I imagine a curriculum being taught with emotional intelligence would provide an ownership to what a student would learn. A child that can connect with other students no matter whether they are "A" to "C" students in the academic classroom.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If someone asked me if my school does a good job promoting "character education" I would have said yes. It was not until I read this article that I realized that what we are doing is not effective. We focus on a different skill each week. Every morning the skill is discussed and on Friday, a teacher chooses a student who exemplifies this skill. We are defining the skills that are important today but we are not teaching them to properly use these skills.

Jennifer Blankenship, Hartland MI's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a special education teacher at the high school level and I unfortunately see a lack of social and emotional skills in many of my students. I agree that somewhere along the line this type of education was lost in the public school system, although I also believe that the home lacks social and emotional nurturing. Lets face it, students spend much of their time at school or in daycare. It is a great feat for some families to have a meal together, let alone spend time talking about communicating, making decisions, working out problems, etc. We need to find a way to fill this void, because meaningful education cannot happen without social and emotional stability.

Laura's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I very much agree with many of the points made in this article regarding emotional intelligence. When I look at my school and how they promote character building, we don't do nearly enough. However, I believe that as an educator it is my responsibility to incorporate character building, teaching how to hand emotional situations, and instilling these various traits in our students. My school does not dictate how or what we should be teaching regarding emotional intelligences, nor do they even suggest it. Therefore, it is up to the classroom teacher to incorporate it themselves. While there are more demands placed on academics, state standards, and standardized testing it is important to find the time to teach the children the emotional coping skills they need to help them succeed not only in the classroom but in life as well.

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