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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

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that this is our 5th year with PBS. We have monthly PBS meetings that parents are encouraged and welcome to attend. At the "open" meetings we talk about what PBS should look like and how things are going within our school. We also have "closed" meetings were only staff is allowed where we actually discuss building data regarding office refers, the "top tier" students, and other specifics. Parents are provided a detailed description of the program at the beginning of each year. We also implemented a mentoring program where students are mixed up (grade level wise) and are assigned a teacher. We meet with our mentor groups twice a month and reinforce the PBS traits. Each time we meet and discuss a trait, we send home a parent involvement activity. The students stay with the same mentor teacher from kindergarten to fifth grade, as students graduate they are replaced with kindergarteners. New teachers attend PBS training but I am not sure if the training is available to parents. The training is not something that is put on by my district, it is actually specific PBS training. Here is a website that discusses the PBS program.


I really feel that this program works BECAUSE it is building wide. All teachers, staff, and volunteers within the building support the program. The language is used often so that students are used to it and it is taught from day one in kindergarten. Honestly any program that gets full support from staff members would make a difference for students...it is getting the support that is the hard part. We saw results from this so leery staff members had no choice but to 'buy' into it.

RA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your position that one year programs are not effective. We need to address the social emotional skills of students from the first day they enter school. While some educators argue that we should not have to spend classroom time on social issues (since it is a parents responsibility), ignoring the problem is certainly not helping, and actually snowballing out of control!

We definitely need to pull together as a teaching nation and figure out the best course of action to implement from pre-k on. The only way this will happen is if we all voice our concerns within our districts and provide documentation that will back up our position.

veronica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a pre-k teacher and I understand my position in the development of social emotional development in my pre-k students. My classroom is the foundation for their development throughout school. I make it apart of our daily routine to incorporate how we treat each other and being aware of one anothers'feelings. I make it a point to acknowlege each individual child daily. I realize it helps to build self esteem in them. If they feel good about themselves they will develop the courage to conquer any obstacle or task that is in their life. Today's children, even pre-k children, seem to be more stressed, depressed and angry than ever. It is a must that we as educators address their emotional state.

S.Midzak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is amazing that in a standards driven society the everyday aspects of life such as communication, and teamwork are overlooked. I am currently taking a graduate course that emphasizes the importance of these skills as it pertains to the training future teachers. I was struck by this article because if these skills are crucial for student success then in return wouldn't they be crucial for educators to also possess these skills. The article states that students having a strong sense of emotional intelligence have a greater ability to communicate clearly with others and problem solve. As a result students do better on standardized tests and create a safe and more comfortable classroom. Unfortunately at the high school level I run into teachers who don't posses the emotional intelligence skills discussed in this article. Hopefully if these skills are being stressed at the early stages of education and continue throughout the educational process, future teachers will have the same skills we will be requiring of our future students. Until then I feel it is important to also stress the importance of emotional intelligence when training future educators as well as our students.

Tina Sieverding's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standing in front of a classroom today not only means you have to be competent in the information you are teacing, but you have to be able to be a compassionate human being who can put the needs of others before your own. I find as a teacher today, I am nurturing, consoling and caring for my students on a daily basis, because they don't get it at home and are not being taught appropriate social skills. Some of my students don't have an outlet for their emotions on a regular basis. I try and relay the message to my students that they can come to me and express themselves and it's OK. I understand many households have working parents who unfortunately don't have as much time to spend with their children due to late or busy work schedules. The children still need emotional support and as a teacher we are a consistant part of that child's life. Our students learn to trust us and at times feel the need to lean on us when they need a little emotional support. I feel it's my duty as a good person to help a student feel better. I believe compassion and giving emotional support to my students has made a difference when it comes to succeeding. Helping a student feel better sets them up to have a good day and therefore helps motivate them to do better at their schoolwork. I understand as an educator my job is to teach academics and put up good scores, but in order to begin that process you have to meet the basic human needs. Caring, compassion, trust and just simply being their when a student needs you, I believe, starts the learning process.

MichelleB.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video and blog stresses a very important part of learning that is unfortunately missing in day to day curriculum in many schools. I witness students that are so angry and don't know how to deal with social situations with other students. I have heard students say that they don't know how to control their emotions whether its anger, excitement, or sadness. Having these types of classes would be very beneficial. Like the article says it could be in the form of a class meeting. After reading this blog and watching the video, as an educator I will definitely make it a point to incorporate these life lessons into my teaching.

Kelly S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I believe the area of emotional intelligence is important, when I brought it up at a meeting with administrators they quickly reminded me that this type of intelligence is not tested on a state level. I tried to explain that when students feel safe in the classroom, they will take more chances and push themselves beyond what they would normally achieve. They then reminded me to "stick with the course of study" that we recently revised.

Does anybody have specific statistics that show the academic value of emotional intelligence other than Daniel Goleman's book? I would appreciate any tangible proof I can use to support what I believe will benefit my students.

Thank you!

Kelly in Ohio
middle school teacher

Rae McMaster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree with you more! I look carefully at my kids as they first enter the classroom in the AM. It is easy to see that many of them come in with various stresses and emotional baggages with which they have not learned to cope. At first, because I am a recently credentialed teacher, working as a sub until I get my own classroom, I simply followed the teacher's sub-plan and more or less put up with the constant disruptions, acting out, and other disciplinary problems I was destined to have in that day. It didn't take long to make a connection between childrens' personal/emotional issues and the behavior I was seeing in the classroom.

It isn't always something emotionally bad, either. Sometimes kids come in very wound up about an impending trip or a new puppy, something happy that also needs an outlet or expression. I realized that no teaching or learning will occur until emotional items are dealt with. I began having an AM meeting to talk about anything "important" that was on their minds. I prefaced it [if I had never been with that class before] with direct instruction on meeting etiquette, respectful listening, and "everyone gets a turn", how to respond to another's pain, etc. These AM meetings are always well worth the time they take because they prevent much time lost in a day as a result of bottled-up emotions. They don't fix everything, of course, it's not that simple, but then I only have one day with the kids usually.

It's not easy for a sub to quickly create an environment where kids feel safe enough to share something emotionally charged. What I do, is I introduce myself and tell a little about me "so I won't be a total stranger anymore" and then I tell them I will tell something that is making me sad or afraid [whatever] if they promise not to laugh at me. This sets a tone for them to practice sharing, empathizing with me and subsequently with one another. Children do need to learn how to express sad or fearful feelings, how to listen, to empathize, and to understand that they are not alone in the disappointments and fears they face as they negotiate a place in the world. They also need to learn how to express extreme joys without bragging or making someone else feel left out.

Ruth Thomas-Squance's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is wonderful to see emotional intelligence education finally getting the attention it so deserves as an essential skill for success of students in education and ultimately occupations as well as a cornerstone for emotionally balanced personal lives.
Equilibrium Dynamics is a non-profit organization based in San Francisco created to help people learn just this kind of thing! We have developed an emotional empowerment curriculum based on teaching a 6 - step framework of fundamental principles and basic strategies much like the "tools in a toolbox" analogy referred to in the 'Missing Piece' article. Our nonprofit status allows us to provide workshops regardless of ability to pay.

We are dedicated to teaching adults and children how to build a life in which feelings empower, rather than sabotage their relationships, activities and careers. In the evaluations of our workshops held in collaboration with schools and colleges, students, parents and teachers overwhelmingly give their experience a high rating, and answer "Yes" to whether to not what they learned will help them carry out their responsibilities.
More info can be found at www.equid.org

Laura Golota's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you totally about how many students come to school and are very occupied by everything that is going on outside of school. A lot of kids also do not have the confidence to speak out or participate in many activities at school. After reading from "On being a teacher" and discussing with some classmates of mine, I plan to start having morning meetings every day to try to get kids emotionally prepared for the day. This will give kids a chance to let out the feelings that are distracting them and give them a chance to build relationships with students that they may not know well. My goal this year is to build an emotionally safe and sound community in my classroom. Hopefully building this respectful atmosphere will help limit the behavior problems that tend to arise.

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