Can’t stop the feeling

Emotional intelligence is often dismissed as cod science or a fad, but there is, in fact, a robust evidence base behind it, finds Kat Arney, who discovers that researchers think schools is where its impact could be most productive – so, should you love it or should you love it not?
27th October 2017, 12:00am
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Can’t stop the feeling

Some educators feel that their only job is to teach academic content, that they really do not have to worry about anything that is touchy-feely, like emotional intelligence,” complains Dena Simmons. “That type of thinking is unfortunate.”

Simmons is director of education at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence. As such, you may decide that she has a vested interest in pushing the importance of the emotional side of school life and thus the idea can be easily dismissed.

Certainly, many teachers have long been suspicious of emotional intelligence (EI). In 1995, psychology writer Daniel Goleman published a book provocatively titled Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. In it, he argued that the “softer skills” of reading, understanding and controlling one’s own emotions and those of others played a bigger part in career success than grades or brains when it comes to succeeding at work.

It sparked a seemingly endless stream of copycat books, management training courses and hand-waving cod-psychology theorising that led some teachers to put EI in a box marked “fad”, along with other nice-sounding but unproven ideas, such as learning styles and brain gym.

But, actually, Simmons is just one voice in a growing academic choir of support for EI and its place in education: it’s an area that is developing a robust research base that is going to be increasingly hard to ignore - particularly in schools.

The problem, though, is that while the academics are sure EI has a place in education, no one is quite sure what should be taught, when and how. So what exactly do teachers need to know?

1. It’s not about being ‘nice’

The first problem with EI is trying to define it. Some people believe EI is just about being empathic and “nice”, or that it’s solely a fluffy, feminine attribute that men struggle to unlock - both misrepresentations that Goleman has railed against.

The most widely agreed version defines it as the ability to accurately perceive emotions in yourself and others, to use emotions to facilitate thinking, to understand different emotions, and to manage or control them. But there have been broader and narrower definitions of EI over the years.

This issue of definition and scope causes problems for researchers trying to investigate how an individual’s level of EI influences their chances in life, with many scientists ending up arguing at cross-purposes.

It’s also tricky to measure. Highly specific tests give precise readings, analogous to an IQ test, but they can be variable - the same person might get very different scores from day to day. Less strict assessments can end up being reflections of wider personality traits rather than specifically measuring EI.

However, as techniques have become more refined, a scientific consensus is starting to emerge. Broadly, the evidence suggests that an individual’s level of EI is a reasonable predictor of career success, satisfaction in personal relationships and other life outcomes, over and above other factors such as intellectual ability.

What’s less clear is its impact on learning and cognition: there doesn’t seem to be a very strong link between EI and academic achievement. However, researchers studying primary school children have found that those with higher levels of EI do tend to have better social skills.

This is no quick fix for attainment, then, but it is certainly something that should be of interest to teachers: if education is as much about creating successful, socially integrated adults as it is more learned individuals, EI is worthy of a teacher’s time. In addition, researchers suspect it could be crucial for everything from behaviour management to managing stress.

With that in mind, how should the process of addressing EI in the classroom work? First you need to understand what EI looks like in practice. “There’s a misunderstanding that EI means you’re just driven by your emotions, but that’s not the case,” explains Jochen Menges, a lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Cambridge and professor of leadership at the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. “On the contrary, it’s about acting on your goals and your values - but to be able to do so, you need to be able to understand and handle your feelings.”

Richard Firth-Godbehere, a researcher in the science and history of emotions at Queen Mary University of London, puts it more simply: “Some people are really good at saying to themselves ‘I’m angry now, but if I shout at that person they won’t give me a cake’, whereas other people aren’t so good at controlling themselves and don’t get the cake,” he explains. “And that, in a nutshell, is EI - can you understand and empathise with other people’s emotions and understand, reflect and appraise your own?”

Summarised like this, the concept seems much less mystical and fluffy than it might first appear. It’s common sense that a teacher who recognises when a child is sad might have a better relationship with them, enabling them to learn more effectively. Similarly, a colleague who doesn’t fly off the handle when they’re angry will be more likely to be promoted to a leadership role.

“It’s not just about the warm, fuzzy stuff,” says Firth-Godbehere. “For example, to be emotionally intelligent is to see anger in someone and know how to deal with it, rather than just shutting them off or shouting back at them. It’s something that people who work in hostage situations are very good at, because you have to be able to deal with anger, deflate it and use language, words and gestures to help the hostage taker calm down.

“The same is true of an unruly kid in the classroom - if someone is kicking off, if you are more emotionally intelligent you will be able to deal with that child more effectively, rather than just getting angry and screaming back at them.”

Simmons says it is also about managing your own negative emotions, too.

“Teaching is one of the most-stressful professions,” she says. “If teachers do not take the time to foster emotion management strategies for the daily stressors of the job, it can lead to burnout, and burnout is one the top reasons teachers leave the profession.”


2. EI is about nature and nurture

So if EI is important, and useful, can you be taught to be better at it?

Some people just seem to be able to deal with whatever the school day throws at them. Others struggle to build relationships in the classroom and staffroom, resulting in unhappiness and stress.

This has led to the common misconception that EI is a fixed measure similar to IQ. The good news is that this doesn’t seem to be true. “There likely is a component of EI that you inherit from your parents, just as there is a hereditary element in cognitive intelligence,” says Menges. “[But while] we invest years and years in school honing and sharpening our cognitive intelligence, trying to get people better at English and maths and so on, we do not systematically hone EI in the same way.”

It is an ability that can be improved, trained and sharpened, Menges says. “There are studies showing that EI training can make a significant difference in how people deal with relationships and how stressed they are.”

The big question for teachers is how. One of the best developed approaches in education is the RULER programme (recognizing, understanding, labelling, expressing and regulating emotions), developed by Simmons and her colleagues at Yale ( It’s a multi-year training programme aimed at equipping teachers to spread the concepts, language and skills of EI across school to their colleagues, students and even parents.

In the first phase of training, teachers discover the basics of EI, as well as four key “anchors” that help to embed the programme’s concepts into school life: writing an emotional “charter” for the school; learning how to identify moods; reflecting on emotions in specific situations before reacting; and developing tools to deal with bullying and conflict.

The next step embeds the language of EI into the curriculum, equipping teachers and students with spoken and written tools to understand and express their emotions.

It’s all designed to embed emotional concepts deep into the fabric of school life rather than being a trendy add-on that fades away once a new fad comes along.

So far, RULER has been rolled out in eight school districts in the US, as well as a couple of schools in Australia, with reported benefits ranging from improved grades to a drop in bullying and mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

As well as benefits for students, the Yale team also noticed improvements in the quality of life for staff. Teachers using the programme reported better relationships with students and school administration, less burnout and felt more positive about their work - something that could be a lifeline for strung-out staff in an increasingly pressurised world.

More replication of the studies into RULER are needed but it is a promising start.

3. Connect and collaborate

RULER is far from the only EI programme. In the UK, one school - Wellington College, an independent secondary school in Berkshire - has approached EI in a different way.

The deputy head of staff performance and development, Katy Granville-Chapman, is currently doing a PhD at the University of Oxford looking at how school leaders can help teachers to flourish. EI looms large in her work.

“It’s evolutionarily important for humans to be able to connect and collaborate for our survival as a species,” she says. “The parts of our brain to do with social connection, empathy and listening have been shown to be highly plastic, and you can make a massive difference to how they function.”

All new teachers at the school must undergo 12 hours of coaching where they learn to listen openly and attentively to others. Research suggests that intense, focused listening leads to the release of the so-called “bonding hormone” oxytocin.

“People tend to enjoy it,” she says. “A lot of oxytocin gets released when you fully pay attention to someone else and you feel like someone’s paying attention in a supportive and non-judgemental way; we’ve had good outcomes with the coaching programme.”

It’s so successful that most staff continue with another 12 hours of coaching training. Many also opt to join the EI leadership training programme that Granville-Chapman runs, covering everything from the neuroscience of emotions to exercises in kindness. The course also highlights how emotions are affected by values - something that she feels is less well-known than other aspects of EI.

“If you value honesty and someone is dishonest, it will trigger a strong negative emotional response in you,” she says. “Similarly, if you value kindness and you receive generosity from others, you’ll get a good feeling. So we start with values - working out your own needs and values and learning how to find out what your team’s values and needs are, too.

“Once everyone is working in line with their values, we get much better engagement and wellbeing,” she explains. “So that would be the first part of any EI module and the first piece in any leadership vision and strategy.”

For teachers in schools in less financially luxurious situations, Menges suggests a DIY approach for anyone keen to boost their EI.

“One way is just to buy yourself a couple of good books about it!” he laughs (see reading list, below).

“Reflect on those and on how you have responded emotionally to events that happen at your school. Think about how that emotion has helped you or whether it has hindered you in pursuit of whatever goal you are trying to achieve.

“You can also look to others who you perceive as emotionally intelligent and try to learn how they deal with emotional situations.”

4. Scepticism is still rife

But while some schools are grabbing the concept of EI in an oxytocin-filled embrace and investing in it, many more are not - at least not officially or consciously (there is, no doubt, plenty of informal EI intervention about, of varying quality). Scepticism is still rife.

Is that going to change? Simmons remains hopeful. “Over the past two decades, social and emotional learning has garnered popularity and attention among educators, policymakers and parents, and I believe that it will continue to be considered as a crucial part of teaching.”

Menges agrees that ignoring the emotional component of teaching is unhelpful. In fact, it would show a distinct lack of EI.

“We are surrounded by people who have emotions and we bring our emotions to work every single day. The question is, do we do something positive with them? We can ignore them, or we can deal with them in an effective way, but they are not going to go away.

“When we accept that fact, then we can use these feelings in ways that will help us collectively to be a better school rather than just having them float around.”

Dr Kat Arney is a science author, broadcaster and co-presenter of the BBC Radio 5 Live Science show

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