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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

Beth Carls's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a social venture entrepreneur, coming out of the business world over 7 years ago and deciding to spend my retirement time creating online products that give students a way to share their voice, I have never understood why we seem to make the concept of social-emotional learning so difficult.

How is it that we cannot see that our children are affected emotionally by the things in their social environment just as we are? When we have disagreements with family members or coworkers, those things can upset our day. Why should we think our children are any different?

Why is it that our school systems take so long to accept that there are wonderful programs that help calm down a child's emotions, help them be better able to absorb the lessons we're trying to teach them, that will make them connect with their school and want to learn? We hear over and over again from students that this is the first time they've been able to share their side of the story without being interrupted. They feel valued and validated once we give them a chance to tell us what's going on in their lives.

We receive over 5 times as much information from students through our online tools than in an initial face-to-face conversation. Children are taking responsibility,learning to be respectful and wanting to make amends for their misbehaviors.

We spend so much money on academics that will not be as effective if our childrens' affective domains are in disarray.

Our student dropout and teacher dropout statistics are alarming in the U.S. We cannot fix this problem with the same thinking that got us here.

There are alot of us out here who want to help and could help alot more than we already are ... if you'll just accept that not all the best ideas come from within the system.

Chris McArtor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Skillful teachers use great trade books for teaching reading and empathy. A good book, like "Freedom Summer" by Deborah Wiles can spark discussion for building oral language, vocabulary and comprehension skills while also helping students learn empathy and take others' perspectives.Dr. Catherine Snow and Dr. Robert Selman are authors of a reading program that helps teachers accomplish this.

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Music education is an excellent vehicle in incorporating emotional intelligence skills. I have written some articles on music and emotional intelligence. Please download at www.musiceducationworld.com.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article and the implementation of a school wide emotional intelligence programis excactly what my school needs. We've been struggling with increased negative behaviors and it makes sense to me that we, as educators, need to teach basic social skills especially if there is no modeling of accepted behaviors at home.

My concern is that my district wants more immediate fixes rather than taking the time to implement a plan that will better serve our students.

Veronica Fanelli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Messina,
Our school has implemented a Character Education program for many years now. After reading the article on Emotional Intelligence, I am interested in supplementing our program with Emotional Intelligence activities. I read your response about your school's program called "Raising Healthy Children". Would you be able to share some resources and activities with me? Thank you.

Veronica Fanelli

Angela Moss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This year I began teaching 2nd grade and I am stunned at the behavior of the students. I asked the counselor earlier this year if she could come in and have a discussion about behavior (treating each other with kindness, using kind words, following directions,etc.). I firmly believe if we do not control the emotions and behaviors of our students, all the testing, hands-on activities, and any other learning we incorporate are going to be useless. Too much instruction time is being spent dealing with behavior issues. This is not fair to the students that are attentive, respectful, and come to school ready to learn each day.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I certainly agree with your statement, "If adults lack emotional intelligence and do not model appropriate behavior, it makes it doubly hard to develop them in our children." Children usually practice what they see and view it as acceptable. Our children are like a seed. A seed nurtured with love and care usually blossoms into a beautiful plant or flower. A seed planted and is not taken care of usually have a difficult time growing, if it grows much at all.

Nick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As the article states, one of the biggest problems that I see in American education is the reliance on one year programs that are expected to make things all better. This is also made more difficult when programs are chosen to help quickly improve test scores.

In my particular experience we had the opportunity to start a program called "P.E. for Life" that has been proven to increase student's social skills. It also helps to increase their personal health through daily activities and education. Test scores and behavior of students tend to improve in the schools that this program is implemented in. At the same time we started the "Reading First" program at our school. It requires students to stay in their rooms for 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading activities. The program has very good ideas for the idea of increasing reading skills but not much else. Also it requires a lot of effort from students and teachers. In the wake of "Reading First" the "P.E. for Life" program has fallen by the wayside.

The problem that I have with this is that most of these kids need to be taught social skills on a regular basis. Most are not taught at home or are taught incorrectly. It's not a new thing but it is a thing that needs to be changed. We as educators are there to teach in general. We are not there just to teach our field but to teach in general. If a student does not know how to do something as basic as talk to someone in a sociable manner then we have to teach them. This is a huge prospect but also the reason that we need to work as an entire teaching nation to make it happen.

Rod Achter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From what I've read in this article they really have my attention. I'm for anthing that may reduce the conflicts during classes and behavior problems during the day. I agree that both the teachers and the parents have to be equal partners and participants in the education process for their child. I don't even mind if it takes two to three years to implement the process into a school it would be well worth the time!

Ovidiu Bocsa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Excellent idea to take part in such a forum of extremely interesting topics of grea interest for education.In our country *Romania ,they were made some attempts to experiment REBT,curiculum based on multiple intelligences and emotive reaction as well the use of cognitive psichology.Maybe these opportunities to communicate with specialists in the field is a new chance to make something neglected in education:teaching the virtues of the old tradition through modern means,to learn a practical wisdom ("sophrosine" is the term used by Plato or Aristotle),to learn and practise the good,morality,emphaty in order to construe natural habits and not to do mistakes of the sad chapers of the world history.We have to take care of ourselves as well as of the neighbour in order to go sane (Gosane,the character from The world of non-A)through significant experience.We nourish not only with bread,but also with meaning.The relevance of beautiful as play,art and festival (see G.Gadamer)should be a part of our understanding and teaching.
Best regards and wishes,Ovidiu Bocsa
Scoala "I.P.Reteganul"-Reteag,BN,Romania

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