Skip to main content

Emotional intelligence

Touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo or a revolution in our schools? Common sense or neuroscience? On the simplest level, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and talk about your emotions and those of other people. Emotional intelligence practitioners believe it can boost health and happiness, tackle challenging behaviour and improve academic performance. Critics suggest it's a fad. So, is emotional intelligence anything more than another American buzzword? The Department for Education and Skills thinks so. In 2003 it launched a pound;5 million pilot programme, the Social, Emotional and Behavioural Skills strategy (Sebs), the latest in a growing number of initiatives that encourage schools to study emotions as well as equations, and to explore feelings alongside facts.

What is emotional intelligence?

The term was first coined in the United States in 1995 by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who defined it as the ability to perceive, access, generate and reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth. The idea took off almost immediately when the American author and psychologist Daniel Goleman published his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ (1995), which soon earned a cult following. By the late 1990s, many psychotherapists were using EI techniques and there was a mushrooming of corporate training aimed at getting employees in touch with their emotions.

The first LEA initiative in the UK was launched by Southampton in 1997, looking first at anger management, then at social skills and self-esteem, and working with everyone from governors to lunchtime supervisors. Soon, schools nationwide were integrating aspects of emotional intelligence into the curriculum and, last year, the DfES launched the Sebs strategy pilot in 250 primary schools in 25 LEAs, with the aim of expanding it nationwide in autumn next year. A further 45 LEAs have since volunteered to become associates to the pilot, suggesting emotional intelligence is well and truly making a mark.

Haven't I heard this somewhere before?

Possibly. The terminology can be confusing. Southampton LEA, for example, prefers "emotional literacy", and there are other banners, including "emotional health and wellbeing" and "emotional and social competence". The Government's National Healthy Schools Standard (NHSS) has been including a lot of work on emotional health in its healthy schools projects, and the recently launched Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools also includes elements on emotional intelligence. Several voluntary sector initiatives have also been promoting emotional literacy; the Family Links Nurturing programme, for example, has been running in UK primary schools since 1994, exploring the emotional needs behind children's behaviour. And EI projects are not just confined to schools: many draw on multi-disciplinary teams that include social services, health professionals and community workers, as well as educationists.

The variation in terms often signals a slight difference in approach: the DfES project aims to reduce truancy and exclusion rates by emphasising, for instance, respect for others, collaboration and personal responsibility; the healthy schools angle tends to be about improving social inclusion by raising achievement among hard-to-reach groups; and educational psychologists often prefer to focus on literacy and numeracy standards.

Specialists have realised that the variety of names and approaches can be a problem, and recent projects have been aimed at increasing integration.

The fab five

Whatever the name, the basic idea is the same: to encourage people's awareness of their feelings and ability to manage them. Professor Goleman identified five key areas of emotional intelligence. He defined "self-awareness" as the capacity to recognise your feelings as they happen; "emotional control" as the ability to manage your emotional reactions, control your impulses and recover from life's upsets; "self-motivation" as the ability to use the emotions to pursue a goal, staying hopeful even in the face of setbacks; and "empathy" as emotional sensitivity to other people's feelings; the fifth area was "handling relationships", which encompasses social skills such as leadership, teamwork, and confidence in dealing with other people. The DfES strategy is based on a similar five skills: self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy, motivation, and communication.

For practitioners, the important aspect is not so much the definitions as making emotional intelligence an equal partner with skills such as literacy and numeracy. "It should not be in addition to learning. It's central to learning," says James Park, director of Antidote, an organisation set up in 1997 to campaign for wider understanding and practice of emotional literacy.

The science bit

Most EI projects are a combination of common sense and cutting-edge neuroscience. Research has centred on the role of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain just behind the forehead, which develops most rapidly between the ages of three and eight. This acts as a kind of "sensible parent", mediating our emotional impulses. These tend to come from the amygdala, an alarm tripwire that directs some of our most powerful and primitive feelings, such as fear, straight to all the major centres of the brain. The amygdala often cuts in before the neocortex - the site of more rational reactions - has had a chance to register what's going on. The job of the prefrontal cortex is to manage some of these instinctive emotions, dampening some of the signals generated by the amygdala and weighing up appropriate reactions.

Several LEAs in Wales, including Flintshire, Conwy, Denbighshire and Rhondda, use "Paths", (promoting alternative thinking strategies), a scheme developed in the United States by Mark Greenberg, director of the prevention research centre at Penn State University in Philadelphia, and an expert on the prefrontal cortex. "The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, thinking ahead, delaying gratification, and being able to manage your emotions," says Mr Greenberg. "We believe this frontal ability is the underlying master-skill humans have evolved to bring together emotion, reason and cognition to be successful."

Why is EI important?

Advocates of EI claim that people who are emotionally literate are more successful in their personal lives and their careers than those who are not. They believe EI affects health, education, behaviour and relationships; in short, it is the key to a successful lifestyle. The School of Emotional Literacy, a Gloucestershire training provider that offers postgraduate courses in the subject, suggests that growing up in an emotionally literate atmosphere means children will tolerate frustration better, be less likely to self-harm, be less lonely, less impulsive, more focused and healthier than others, and they will achieve more academically.

The school's principal, Elizabeth Morris, believes emotional intelligence initiatives help tackle the big educational issues in a positive way. "Often, we look at the deficits and try to plug the gaps," she says. "But this addresses everything from standards and behaviour to attendance and social inclusion. It offers a proactive, preventive, long-term and positive approach to mental health for the whole school community. It's very upbeat."

But does it work?

Certainly, the evidence seems impressive. In 2002, the DfES commissioned Southampton University's health education unit to look at all the literature about EI as well as the work of several LEAs that were already committed to EI projects. Overall, the researchers found that schools developing programmes which fostered the emotional health of staff and pupils showed marked improvements in behaviour and learning, social cohesion, staff morale and confidence, and academic results.

"A direct link between promoting emotional literacy and raising standards is unproven," says Peter Sharp, head of children's services at public sector consultants Mouchel Packman and pioneer of Southampton LEA's emotional literacy programme. "But people certainly see a link, and so see that emotional literacy offers a sustainable, humane way of improving standards rather than a hard-nosed, stick-and-carrot approach."

At Shacklewell primary school in the London borough of Hackney, for example, almost half of pupils are eligible for free school meals and around 65 per cent come from homes where English is not the first language.

As part of its research into emotional intelligence projects, deputy head Prue Barnes and colleague Justine Sampher won a DfES sabbatical to the US and, on their return, began to implement EI initiatives across the curriculum. Now part of the Sebs pilot, the school has seen attendance figures and Sats results improve, and, in partnership with children's welfare charity the NSPCC, has launched a series of emotional intelligence classes for parents and carers which have the highest local take-up of any adult classes. "But the biggest measure of success is that the children are in school and feel positively about being here," says Ms Barnes. "They can see that we take emotional health as seriously as physical wellbeing."

But what about IQ?

Intellectual intelligence does not necessarily make someone emotionally intelligent. Since publication in 1983 of the influential book Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner of Harvard School of Education, which identified the concept of "multiple intelligences", much research has focused on the multifaceted nature of intelligence. Emotional intelligence is just one of these other intelligences that are now considered important in understanding ability and potential.

Many cognitive skills taught in schools and used to measure IQ - problem-solving, for example - are separate from skills that deal with emotions. The stereotype of the genius who shows incredible intellectual abilities but is unable to relate socially is rare but does exist. The key to success seems to be finding a balance between rational intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence; research by Professor Goleman and others has shown that those who are the most successful in life have high emotional intelligence and IQ. But whereas IQ can be pinned down with pen and paper exercises or online quizzes, EI is much more difficult to "test". What tends to happen is that psychologists test for a single component of emotional intelligence: so, for example, they can look at someone's "empathy" skills by asking them to watch a video of facial expressions and describe what they think the person on film is feeling.

It's all in the mix

Although it is rare for someone of high rational intelligence to have low emotional intelligence, improving EI can often boost intellectual success.

Because intellectual and emotional problems are more easily solved when we feel good about ourselves, and because self-motivated students tend to do better in exams, those with high EI often show evidence of intellectual success. They are also more likely to stay in education longer because they have strong networks of friends and can cope with the stresses of events such as exams. "Feel good, learn good," was Peter Sharp's catchy mantra for the Southampton initiative.

On the downside, low emotional intelligence can limit intellectual performance. Just as many of us find we can't think straight when we're upset, so long-term distress can damage intellectual abilities and the capacity to learn. "Out-of-control emotions," says Professor Goleman, "can make smart people stupid." Depression, for example, can interfere with memory and concentration, while pupils who feel rejected are more likely to become aggressive and so are more likely to miss out on schooling. Research presented in 2002 by Roy Baumeister of the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio found that feelings of rejection cut IQ scores by 25 per cent and analytical reasoning abilities by 30 per cent.

I'm convinced - so what about my school?

There seems to be no hard and fast rule about the best way of integrating EI into schools, but most projects start by improving the quality of all relationships: from manager to teacher, teacher to pupil, and pupil to pupil.

Peter Sharp suggests that while many initiatives begin by tackling the organisation, the best projects start with individuals committed to developing their own emotional literacy and gradually move on to working with colleagues and classes. "Government strategy is usually targeted at children, but too little is being done for the adults in school. Too often it's just tips for working with a class, or a quick skills-building session, but children will pick up on it if a teacher can't walk the walk.

Each individual needs to be confident and comfortable with what they're doing before introducing big organisational change."

Practitioners emphasise the importance of making the whole school community feel valued and supported, and giving everyone the chance to explore, understand and talk about their feelings. This may be with peer mediation and support schemes such as buddy systems (where older pupils act as listeners, friends and helpers to their peers), staff or pupil circle time (creating an open environment for discussion), a vibrant school council, or through visual and performing arts. More usually, it is through a holistic combination of projects and techniques, looking at everything from lunch hours to parents' evenings. The important thing is to avoid scaring people with an over-zealous introduction of "therapy-style" sharing sessions.

"There should be no pressure to talk about things," says James Park of Antidote. "It's about enabling people to understand what's happening emotionally, even if it's not articulated. And this takes time. You can't expect magical change overnight." He points out that while a smaller primary school may begin to see the benefits of change after around three years, it may take a large secondary school more than five years of sustained effort.

Some emotional support

Appropriately, the journey towards a more emotionally intelligent school should not be taken alone. Staff need help to develop the tools to work with emotional intelligence techniques and to feel supported if things go wrong. "There's a danger that people try something such as circle time, then discard it because it doesn't seem to work properly," says Mr Park.

"But it's a long, subtle process of development and staff need adequate training to make sure that what they're doing is as powerful as it can be."

And because teachers are not therapists or counsellors, it is also important that the work in emotional literacy is supported by specialist, intensive work with troubled children.

Practitioners emphasise the value of an outside perspective so that what is already being done at the school can be consolidated and refined before new activities are introduced. Antidote and the School for Emotional Literacy, for example, each offer an EI audit. Many LEAs also have officers with experience of emotional intelligence initiatives, often working closely with colleagues from other disciplines such as social services. But perhaps the best way forward is with the Sebs scheme, which should develop a national vocabulary around emotional intelligence and offer a cost-effective way of getting involved. "It will give all our primary children a national entitlement to emotional literacy," says Elizabeth Morris. "Emotional literacy will become more and more understood."

* Main test; Steven Hastings. Photographs: PhotonicaAlamy. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins. Next week: Looking after your voice

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you