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Why emotional intelligence matters and how to teach it

Why emotional intelligence matters and how to teach it

5 min read
  • Stress management & well-being
  • The science of learning

In our work with schools, it’s now commonplace for us to hear those in education talking about helping students (and staff) develop their emotional intelligence. But what do we mean exactly? Why and how should teachers support its development in their students?

Emotional intelligence can be said to cover five main areas: self-awareness, emotional control, self-motivation, empathy and relationship skills. It is, of course, important for good communication with others – and is therefore a gateway to better learning, friendships, academic success and employment. Skills such as these developed in our formative years at school often provide the foundation for future habits later on in life.

The term emotional intelligence was popularised in the mid 90s by journalist Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The book’s claims that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ is a source of debate among psychologists, but it does look as if emotional intelligence could be a factor in academic achievement.

An iconic study tracked high-IQ students from childhood to late adulthood and found that those who achieved notable adult career success showed greater “will power, perseverance and desire to excel”. Meanwhile, evidence from the seminal marshmallow test – which gave children the option to have more treats if they could wait before eating them – suggested delayed gratification and self-control are important, with these characteristics being linked to better school grades, earnings and job satisfaction.

Regardless of debates over whether emotional intelligence can be measured, we believe it’s worthwhile for schools to explore some of its main facets. Here’s how.

Active listening

The skill of active listening is a key part of helping create genuine two-way communication – and it is about far more than just paying attention. It involves genuinely following dialogue and responding to others using your own body language, then being able to demonstrate that you have understood by verbally summarising back key messages that have been received. For tips to develop this skill in students, have a look at our blog “8 ways to be a better listener“.

In the classroom, this can affect how students take on feedback from teachers. A recent review found that 38% of feedback interventions do more harm than good. This may be in part because people often make common mistakes when receiving feedback – misinterpreting it as being a personal judgement on who they are, for example, and thinking about when the speaker will finish talking so they can reply instead of listening fully to what is being said.

A vocabulary for feelings

Researcher Lisa Barrett states that interpersonal skills can be enhanced by helping students increase their emotion vocabulary. Encouraging students to understand the difference between “sad”, “disappointed” and “upset” acts as springboard to develop appropriate strategies for each. In short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence.

A simple way to introduce this to students is to play the alphabet game: as a class, you see how many different emotions you can come up with for each letter of the alphabet. Afterwards, discuss the differences between each, what might prompt the emotions, and how students could individually respond. If looking for inspiration on this, we recommend this poster as a possible starting point.

Developing self-awareness

When we have low self-awareness, we’re at risk of not realising how we come across to others, and letting an over inflated self-image skew our behaviour and social interactions.

A well-known study once saw researchers ask students how they thought they did in a test, and then compared their perceptions with their actual results. They found that most students overestimated their ability, with this most likely to be the case in students who had done poorly. This is known as The Dunning-Kruger effect and is one of the most common thinking biases in education.

They also found that strategies to help students improve their self-awareness include teaching them metacognitive strategies. One way of doing this is to encourage them to ask self-reflective questions such as “What could I have done differently?” Or use a communication self-evaluation questionnaire, which can help students begin to understand their interpersonal skills.

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Showing empathy as being “with” others

Empathy is the ability to take the perspective of another person while being non-judgemental, recognising the emotions they are feeling, and being able to convey their perspective back to them. Evidence suggests that reading is a great way to develop this skill. Researcher Brené Brown’s animated short video is also a great conversation starter to use with students.

Teachers: your guide to learning strategies that really work

Reflecting back the other person’s perspective helps to make the other person feel understood, which in turn increases the likelihood of collaboration and support. Children generally develop empathy through observing how others show it – including watching teachers and students empathise with each other. Using phrases such as “I understand/realise/can see” can help to show students how understanding of other perspective can be expressed.

Managing emotions and self-regulation

The Sutton Trust states that helping students improve their self-regulation – the ability to manage thoughts and feelings – is one of the most effective and efficient ways to support students. This is especially so in secondary schools, with the gap between impulse control and sensation seeking being at its widest in early teenage years.

What do self-regulation techniques look like? There are approaches that are used by athletes which can be applied to the classroom – the principles remain the same. These include seeing events as an opportunity rather than a threat and helpful self-talk , for example. Reinforce to students that emotional management skills are not fixed but can be developed. This takes a considerable amount of effort and patience from both the student and the teacher, as it is often a gradual process over a large period of time.

Written with Professor Ben Oakley, a senior lecturer at The Open University. This article was first published on the Guardian website on 03.11.17. 

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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Professor Ben Oakley

Professor Ben Oakley

Professor Ben Oakley is a senior lecturer at the Open University, where he established the Sport and Fitness qualifications. He is a former national Windsurfing coach and attended two Olympic Games. His research has focused on sport policy, coach development and athletic development, leading him to writing a range of courses for Sport England, FIFA, UNICEF, and more. Ben has been an OU academic consultant for BBC and Channel 4 sport related programmes, written for the BBC Sport website and has been interviewed on Radio 4 Today.

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