The Importance of Cultivating Emotional Intelligence in Schools

Spring 2021

By Anna T. McDonald

The system of education is stressed. Teachers, students, and parents are all struggling right now. With the global pandemic, we’re all dealing with intense emotions and increasing levels of anxiety and depression. These feelings aren’t actually all bad; emotions can be quite helpful if we know how to handle them. However, left unchecked, they can be debilitating and destructive to our lives. Cue emotional intelligence (EI). As an educational therapist, I provide direct instruction and support to high school students with learning disabilities. I’ve been an academic dean, English teacher, resource teacher, and reading specialist. No matter the role, be it administrator or teacher, I’ve learned that EI is critical to building rapport with students and fostering positive relationships among teams.1

EI is an individual’s capacity to recognize, manage, and express emotions and the ability to perceive, understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. EI enables us to confront our everyday problems with patience, insight, and imagination. EQ, or emotional quotient (the amount or level of emotional intelligence a person has), helps us navigate our interpersonal relationships judiciously and practice empathy. Having a high EQ enables us to handle the challenges we might encounter. In times of crisis, having this type of intelligence allows us to think rationally and temper our emotions with patience and understanding. We think before we act, practice good decision-making, and foster positive interpersonal relationships.

This school year we ventured into uncharted territory. Whether completely remote or hybrid, the 2020–2021 school year began like no other. Everyone in the world is going through a traumatic experience. We’re all grieving in some way.2 EI is tied explicitly to our ability to be trauma-sensitive. If we want to provide our students with safe spaces and learning experiences, we must approach our pedagogy with intentionality about EI.

Let’s explore EI in education: why it matters in our work with students and how to teach it. In schools, it’s commonplace to talk about helping students develop empathy, resilience, and grit. This is the stuff of many commencement speeches and affirmation posters in our classrooms. Teachers encourage, motivate, and inspire learners. We impart knowledge through exploration of content, reading and reflection, experimentation and inquiry; we act as facilitators and guides for our students.

In school, we provide opportunities to practice the “soft skills” or "hidden curriculum"3 (implicit academic, social and cultural messages, or unwritten rules and unspoken expectations that students learn in school) to help students succeed both academically and socially. The very act of teaching is relational. Thus, teaching students these valuable competencies of self-awareness, active listening, patience (for self and others), and emotional control makes them more adept communicators but also allows for better learning, fosters authentic friendship, promotes academic success, and, in many cases, sets the stage for gainful employment and future independence.

For decades, research has directly linked people with high EI and success.4 There’s a growing body of research that says a person’s EQ is far more important than their IQ. Scientists, psychologists, and educators all over the world are all abuzz on this topic. While we continue to find ways to add rigor and honors, EI is far more elusive for schools. Still, here is the important thing to know: Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence is not static. It can be learned and strengthened, and it is never too late to do so!

The term EI was popularized in the mid-90s by psychologist and scientific journalist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. For Goleman, IQ contributes to 20% of our success, while the remaining 80% is attributed to EQ, including factors such as self-motivation, resilience, impulse control, and empathy.5 This means that while cognitive skills like verbal comprehension, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and processing speed are important, they can only help a person go so far. Study after study has proven that high EI is correlated with academic achievement and is a predictor of future success in relationships, health, wealth, and the quality of life.

In the business world, EI has been linked to profitability and performance. Organizations all over the world are looking at EQ data to help them recruit, hire, promote, and build capacity in their employees.6 Likewise, research indicates that children with high EQ not only earn better grades but also stay in school longer, practice healthy decision-making (i.e., are less likely to drink or do drugs), tend to graduate at higher levels of education, and fare better in the workplace. Teachers also report that high EQ students make better leaders and learners.7

Education experts also agree. At Bright Morning, Elena Aguilar writes:
  1. People with higher EQ and resilience are more likely to be happier and more physically healthy—which means they don’t miss as many days of work, are easier to be around, are more creative and generative, and are more likely to take risks.
  2. People with higher EQ and resilience perform at higher levels.
  3. Low emotional resilience correlates to higher absenteeism and teacher and leader turnover.
  4. Amongst staffs where there is a preponderance of low emotional intelligence/low resilience, change efforts are less likely to be successful and sustainable.8

Measuring Emotional Intelligence

Teachers may find EI work challenging. Subject specialists are most comfortable in the cognitive domain. We’re content experts in our discipline. Cognitive abilities can be measured using traditional methods; a summative assessment can measure IQ and cognitive performance. Measuring EQ is a far more complicated process. Emotional literacy (the ability to recognize and name the various emotions we see in ourselves and others), perspective-taking, intrinsic motivation, and how we navigate and manage emotions are more difficult to quantify and pin down, but if you know where to look, there are numerous EI tests available online. EQ assessments range from short and game-like to more formal and comprehensive testing.

TED Talks, webinars, and trainings in EI have also become popular again. Organizations, such as the nonprofit Six Seconds: the Emotional Intelligence Network, exist to raise EI awareness and advocacy. Through a longitudinal research project known as the State of the Heart, Six Seconds tracks EI levels among 200,000+ people in 160+ countries around the world. Recently, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence launched a series of webinars called “Using Emotional Intelligence to Combat COVID-19 Anxiety.” Harvard offers four free tools to assess EI.9 In schools, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs may be implemented as early as preschool or kindergarten.10 School counselors, psychologists, and learning support teachers at any level may suggest or administer an EQ test for a child who is struggling socially. From these assessments, valuable data may be gleaned to determine which EI skills to work on and develop. While challenges with EQ assessments remain, EQ data are worth our attention, especially in schools today.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence

We are social creatures. What students say and do in the classroom influences our perceptions of them and makes an impact. Think of a time when a student had a fiery outburst in class. Perhaps it was so bad that the student was sent to the dean. But whatever explosive thing was said or done, those who witnessed that episode may be wondering, “Why did that happen? What was going on underneath? Should I have said something? Should I reach out to this student later?” Strong feelings—especially those related to stress and anxiety—can interfere with clear thinking. Practicing and strengthening EQ can help. Teachers can provide the emotional framework necessary to help students feel more secure about themselves and the world. EI is not optional or supplemental but rather an integral facet of education.

When thinking about SEL, consider these three critical components of EI:
  • Self-awareness and emotional literacy 
    • Vocabulary for feelings 
    • Check attitudes and bias
  • Social awareness and interpersonal skills
    • Perspective-taking
    • Active listening
  • Motivation and action
    • Problem-solving
    • Good decision-making
Learning happens when there is a strong social-emotional foundation. To build this up, we start with ourselves. It’s important to recognize and understand how we show up. When we have low self-awareness, our self-image may be skewed or overinflated, impacting our behavior and social interactions. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) highlights the following competencies as the components of self-awareness:
  • Be able to identify emotions.
  • Have an accurate self-perception.
  • Recognize strengths.
  • Possess self-confidence.
  • Demonstrate self-efficacy.11
Research affirms that interpersonal skills are enhanced when students build their emotional literacy. When students understand the differences between being “upset,” “critical,” or “angry,” they can develop appropriate strategies to deal with each emotion. Just as increasing our vocabulary boosts learning, improving our emotional literacy helps us develop self-awareness, enables us to keep our biases in check, and promotes a healthy attitude and a positive perspective.

The Emotion Wheel, adapted from the work of American psychologist Robert Plutchik, helps describe the over 30,000 distinct feelings a human can experience.12 In the classroom, this can be introduced by playing the alphabet game. For each letter of the alphabet, students come up with as many different feelings words as possible. Once the list is compiled, have an “emotions audit,” and discuss the similarities, differences, nuances, and situations that might spark these feelings.

The next step in building emotional acumen is working outwards and responding to the feelings of others. This happens through active listening and perspective-taking. Active listening skills foster authentic two-way communication. This is far more than just paying close attention, though that’s important. Active listening involves self-awareness and being responsive to others by using your body language to demonstrate that you have taken in and fully understood what the other person is saying, in addition to verbalizing or summarizing the key messages.

In classrooms, active listening can affect collaboration and impact how feedback is given or received. Students may get high-quality feedback from teachers, yet fail to act on it, make progress, or improve. Feedback can be misinterpreted as a personal judgment or an attack on who they are. Think about a class discussion or presentation that went awry. Were students actively listening? Where was the disconnect? And, more important, what can you do to help students when this happens? Active listening promotes mindful thinking, encourages conversation, and builds relationships. In the best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” By teaching and modeling active listening skills, a seminar can be more effective, a dialogue richer, and students more engaged.13

As children progress through the grades, the learning and development moves from practicing age-appropriate social skills to becoming socially aware and responsible (doing community service, providing outreach, or volunteering for those on the margins). At my school and all Sacred Heart Schools in the network, we have an educational philosophy known as the Goals & Criteria. We use this strategic framework to ground our teaching. Now, my favorite goal couldn’t be more relevant: A Social Awareness That Impels to Action.

Picture the smart students who make poor choices, who are generous and kind but have difficulty making friends; the sensitive kids who can be hurtful toward others; or the students with great potential who struggle to harness their abilities and direct them in a positive manner. These students can benefit from SEL. Teaching adolescents to identify, name, and manage their emotions provides them with the foundation for problem-solving, healthy communication, and good decision-making.

With time and patience, we can all learn to tap into our inner resources and practice self-regulation. “Cultivating the Pause” is a great way to practice healthy interpersonal communication. With good active listening, we can use intentional wait time before responding. EI can help us establish healthy and positive goals and implement effective behaviors to achieve those goals. We can resolve interpersonal conflicts in a constructive way. All of this might seem like common sense, but it’s imperative to prioritize SEL and to be intentional about implementation.

Ideally, EI should be taught early, reinforcing the idea that it is not fixed but can be developed and strengthened over time. And while the classroom is a good springboard, it cannot be the only place where EQ is developed. Parents can serve as the primary models of EI, shaping the cultural shift necessary to promote EI in all facets of life. Now is the time to lean on one another, share our best practices, and lift the conversation on EI for the common good.



Anna T. McDonald

Dr. Anna T. McDonald ([email protected]) is the Educational Therapist at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, CA.