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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 Staff

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

Mia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe what the article is saying is that we need to teach children how to manage their own behaviors, enlightening them with what is right and wrong. It seems taht what is "right" has changed from when I was a child. We should not be "controlling the emotions and behaviors" of children, but teaching THEM how to do it themselves. Character education in the schools is an excellent way for students to be aware of how they should be acting and reacting. One resource I use gives a daily story about a situation an elementary-aged child might face (bullying, etc.) The class then discusses what options there are to solve the problem or handle the situation. Too often children are not aware that there is more than one way to solve a problem. A firm set of rules and routines set in the beginning of the year, accompanied by scenarios, giving students a chance to give suggestions as to what they might do if put in that situation, is a healthy start to less classroom disruptions and more learning taking place.

Terry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Angela, I know how you feel. There are some groups of children that seem to have more problems getting along and working together, than others. I am currently taking a graduate course. One of the books that I am reading has good information about helping students become effective communicators. The book is called "On Being A Teacher The Human Dimension" (Kottler J.,Zelm S., Kottler E., 2005, Corwin Press). They suggest that students learn to work in cooperative groups to develp skills in communication and team work. They also suggest that students do activities such as "Think, Pair, Share" In this activity the teacher asks a question, then students share responses with a partner,and if time permits with the class. I highly recommend reading this book. As a veteran teacher, I find a lot of good information in the book.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The P.E. for Life program that you describe sounds very similar to the Sparks program that we use at some of our schools.

The kids really need emotional, social, and total self experiences. The outdoor P.E. experience allows students to incorporate: teamwork, listening and following directions, positive actions, and more. This allows students the chance to get exercise and be social with their peers. This can only equate to better self esteem which will result in higher standardized test scores.

Some of the schools in our district have been designated as Reading First. While the Reading First concept has many positive points to it, being able to utilize parts of it would be best. Left on its own, Reading First seems very rigid and inflexible.

There should not be a conflict between emotional and academic...they should go hand in hand.

BJW's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to find out more about "Raising Healthy Children" and are you aware of a simliar program for Adults.

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with what you are saying regarding teaching students to manage their own behavior. I also agree with the thought that what is 'right' in todays world has changed. In my school we teach a building wide program called PBS-Positive Behavioral System. The program is about teaching positive behavior before problems arise. The symbol for the program is hand with an important word on each finger the words are our 'be' statements..be kind, be safe, be cooperative, be respectful, be peaceful and if students demonstrate all of these they are responsible which is the wording on the palm. We use this language in our daily lives so that students are used to hearing it. At the beginning of the year and then periodically throughout the year students watch videos we have created that demonstrate these behaviors. Staff members carry hands depicting the words with them and if they catch students demonstrating a word the student earns a hand. In the classrooms students compile all of their hands and every 100 hands earns them a class reward. Their is a PBS wall in the front lobby of our building that tracks the number of hands each class has earned. We have turned the 6 words into a school pledge that we say each more. When behavioral problems arise we use this language to talk to students about their behavior. One of the reasons I think this program works so well in my building is that it is building wide. There is a lot more to the program like tracking your top tier behavioral problems and collecting and review behavioral data but the positive school wide aspect is very valuable, especially to students who come into school not knowing appropriate behavior.

Suzy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Ashley,
Our school several years back bought into a the program "The Six Pillars", which sounds very much like you described. However, I feel that we did not have 100% buy in from the teachers, nor did we seek parental involvement/training. I believe that our district was looking for a quick fix and did not understand that any program implemented takes time to see results. How long has your school been practicing PBS? Did you have any parent training?

Jodi from Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a wonderful article. I find that we as teachers not only need to educate learners with information, but in today's world we are also responsible for helping them develop socially. I implement a couple of the ideas mentioned in this article and have had great results with them. I introduce the students to universal values at the beginning of the year. I also have an area where the students are allowed to write "put-ups" to anyone in the class. These are read once a week out loud to the class. Once read the receiver of the "put-up" must say thank you. The students absolutely love this time and are often asking when we will be reading them aloud next. This helps them focus on building others up and not putting them down. I have had great success so far with building a community within my class by demanding they treat each other properly and use polite manners. Visiting teachers comment on how my class is like a "little community". I believe that if a learner has a positive self image and environment they will excel. Something I had not considered was the involvement of parents being trained. This is something that I would like to investigate further. I can see the positive effect on having such a program in the community.

Dianne, Colorado Springs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment on the teaching of social skills. I also like how you referred to the "teaching nation." It is tremendously frustrating, as a teacher, to have to teach basic social skills. I would say that parents do not fight me in my attempts to teach and reinforce these skills. There are the few who fight you, defending their child's right to completely, and freely express themselves. These are the hardest children to handle. I consider it my personal goal in life to reach these children. I want to teach them how to navigate in the social relm, so that they will be successful adults. The attitude of "I can do or say anything I want, at any time, without regard for manners, respect, or consequences" is the attitude that deceives and renders the individual unable to interact with the adult community. I believe it starts with making and maintaining a sincere connection with the child. The time they spend with you will be the teacher they need.

Linda, NJ's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Angela,
I wanted to share with you what we practice at our school. As part of our school's policy on Conflict Resolution, we have a Peace Table. If there is a conflict between students, we gather and as a teacher guided discussion, they discuss what happend, how they feel, and what choices they could have made differently. This is my first year at this school and it works very well. The other thing I've implemented in my class is a compliment jar. The students write something nice about someone else in the class and we read them. It builds community among the class, they learn to work together as a team, and care about one another as a family.
Do you have a reward program for the "good ones"? The other teacher I work with has a Good Apples Chart in her room, when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, they get an apple sticker, for every ten, they get a reward (sticker, pencil, decorative eraser, etc). I give Star Slips, same idea, but I collect all the ones for the week and I ramdomly pick one, that student gets to pick a prize. The others get their slips back and they keep them, when they have collecte dfive Star Slips, they can turn it in for a Free Homework Pass.
These are just some of the things I've discovered that have worked well.

Best of Luck!

Rosemary West's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading Specialist: Parkside Elementary/CUSD 20 in Lawrenceville, Illinois 62439
Yes, academics take a "back seat" when youngsers have behavioral-emotional issues which influence self esteem and personal safety. No much learning goes on in such classrooms. Thank you for important suggestions on best practices and what works. Parkside Elementary also does a "Peace Table" for participants in the Extended Day after-school in my district. I allow each child who attends, to invite a friend to the meeting. It seems to set the tone for positive interaction with no one seen as "the problem." I also get to invite a guest--usually our school social worker & the principal always chairs our "Peace Table." No detentions are involved, and each student gets as much time as they need to talk, discuss ideas, and brainstorm solutions for the future. We emphasize that everyone has problems that we must deal with, and then go on to deal with the school day. When they leave, every child is given a small momento that identifies the interaction as one which will make them stonger and supportative of others. We cannot teach youngsters when their worlds are clouded with emotional issues, yet as professionals we do everyday. I just try and make my interaction with all kids purposeful and a fair, good example of teamwork. We deserve to have well educated children.

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