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.
Edutopia Team
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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.

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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Thomas B. Albright's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Close to psychiatry. We must be careful.

I observed, in California, the start and firmly entrenched two-worker family.
This condition was caused by three national, faulty programs.
One was a call for greater Education.

A teacher stated, "The little darlings know what is best for themselves." - 6 year olds.

The state (nation) now controls our education. They have control of the minds.
The teaching of Emotion, to recognize that all are present, can control the heart/feelings.

Please: - What is our future if the state controls both the mind and the heart?

Matthew B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"What is our future if the state controls the mind and heart?"

The state doesn't control anything. It provides an opportunity (through education) to learn skills. Are you saying that to avoid mind control we should not educate anyone?

Let's let go of the paranoid conspiracy theories and ask the really important questions such as:

What skills will our children really need in the future?


How can we best impart those skills?

Adam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is certainly an interesting article. I was surprised to find the role of character education pervasive in the graduate business program I attended a few years ago. Granted, it was more from a management perspective, but it was an enlightening course nonetheless, and it's interesting to hear these types of stories and results at a young age.

jane's picture
life coach/teacher

I live in Melbourne Australia, and I agree we all need to cons(which has nothing to do with religion!). SQ is about finding our purpose in life and much more. Why are we so scared of this vital component? The answer I believe is because most people lack emotional intelligence. I work as a teacher and a trainer in this area and I have been personally involved in a lot of self- help programs, and I believe Landmark Education is one of the best on the planet for children, teenagers and adults of all ages. Their material is extraordinary and achieves extraordinary transformational results. Non - traditonal education and thinking is the key!! This is a great site.

Laura Mirsky's picture
Laura Mirsky
Ass't Dir, Comm & Tech, International Institute for Restorative Practices

Restorative Practices is a practical way to implement emotional intelligence. Schools worldwide are implementing restorative practices, a proactive approach to positive school-wide behavior support based on communication and responsibility. When systematically implemented, restorative practices build positive school communities and learning climates while dramatically reducing behavior referrals, detentions and suspensions. See or

Janet Fortune's picture

This is just another manifestation of a destructive trend in education. The trend is the dissection of children and adolescents into tiny pieces - "multiple intelligences," social health, emotional health, emotional intelligence, ADD, LD, ADHD, etc - each of which can only be understood by consulting published experts and can only be taught by using packaged teaching programs.
I consider teaching appropriate behaviors, self-reflection, empathy, self-correction, etc to be part of raising children, part of the teaching day. How else could children possibly learn to be adults? Let us spend less time buying packaged programs and reading such things as "emotional intelligence" and more time studying how animals teach juveniles to be successful adults.

Nancy Mulheirn's picture

I work in a Youth Service Center in a high school in Louisville, KY. Most of the students who come to the Center are in need of TLC. We started a Peer Mediation team nine years ago. The Peer Mediators are trained students who serve to help diffuse anger problems, solve problems between students and also serve as mentors. This program is very important to our school and students. Sometimes the troubled kids have no one else to turn to except school personnel and other students. We are trying to really help at our school.

Candi Bauernfiend's picture

[quote]I work in one middle school in the city of Louisville where I think the students could benefit greatly from the Emotional Intelligence approach. In spite of being a Youth Services Center in our school that tries to help, particularly with anger managemnet, I believe this approach should be implemented in every school in the country. I agree that there is a correlation between academic achievement and emotional balance. How can someone learn in an atmosphere like the one I see often in my school?[/quote]

Deb H's picture

Our community has a large number of families struggling for different reasons. Those who can afford to send their children out of town for their education do because of the social and emotional environment in the schools. Our schools definitely need to be addressing the emotional intelligence of students and providing them with tools to resolve conflict in an appropriate way. It's not just the child that's misbehaving who needs educating it's the whole community. Like Sue W I am searching for a solution for our community.

julie williams's picture
julie williams
7th grade LA teacher from Colorado Springs, Colorado

I found this article very thought provoking. I honestly don't think much about emotional intelligence. However, I know from my own experience that when I'm doubting, afraid, etc I can't concentrate on the task at hand very well. Of course the same would be true for students. I think my school could delve more into this area in our homeroom classes.

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