Emotional Intelligence

In the 1990s, Daniel Goleman created a storm with his theory that there is such a thing as an 'emotional intelligence':

'We have gone too far in emphasizing the value and import of the purely rational - of what IQ measures - in human life. Intelligence can come to nothing when the emotions hold sway.(i)

This exciting idea of there being an actual emotional intelligence immediately resonated with many parents and educators. Books immediately appeared in bookstores, offering advice about how to raise your child's EQ (emotional quotient) alongside his IQ. In many schools, this created a shift from focusing on academic achievement to embracing the social and emotional development of the whole child.

Research has shown, time and time again, that children who have developed good social skills and self-regulation tend to be more successful in relationships with their peers and have better strategies for learning. For example, researcher Dr. SA Denham, from GeorgeMasonUniversity, found that even very early in the preschool years, children's levels of emotional competence were an indicator of how well they would cope in kindergarten and would have long-term implications.(ii) Daniel Goleman took this one step further: he concluded that not only will emotional competence be an indicator of social success, but it is of greater importance for all manner of future successes than any other measure of intelligence, including IQ.

Goleman breaks emotional intelligence down into five parts:

  • self-awareness
  • management of emotions
  • self-motivation
  • handling relationships
  • empathy

If a child is self-aware, she can manage her own moods and attitudes, and will respond positively to feedback. If she manages her emotions well, she will be in the best mental state for learning. If she is self-motivated, she will be eager to extend her learning. If she is good at handling relationships, she will learn effectively in groups. If she has empathy, she will relate well to peers and adults. With these qualities, her path will be smoother. Without them, she will always be a disadvantage and learning will be a struggle.

Obviously, a child's level of emotional competency will depend on her age. A toddler experiences anger, but a ten-year-old should be able to control her frustration and refrain from bashing her friend over the head with a toy! What we teach and what we expect from each child depends to a large extent upon his or her age. If we wish to encourage emotional competence, we have to see challenges as teachable moments. The atmosphere in the setting or in the family needs to be one of acceptance and openness, where we talk explicitly about emotions. Some children find it difficult to identify their feelings, so just by giving emotions a label, we can help children to manage their own behavior. Making simple statements like, "Man, I'm so frustrated!" when the computer crashes for third time, can help children to understand that these feelings are normal, especially when they then see you take a deep breath and start problem-solving. "OK, so, we can't look this up on the internet because the computer crashed, so, what can we do? Anyone have any ideas?"

Of course, the first place for learning emotional competence is the home:

'Family life is our first school for emotional learning; in this intimate cauldron we learn how to feel about ourselves and how others will react to our feelings; how to think about these feelings and what choices we have in reacting; how to read and express hopes and fears.'

Daniel Goleman

How parents talk to children gives them cues about how to be successful themselves. Studies of young children suggest that there are three methods that parents naturally use to support the development of social competence. These are modeling, coaching, and contingency. Researchers such as Dr. Tracy Spinrad and her colleagues from ArizonaStateUniversity have found that the manner in which parents express emotions, discuss emotions and react to their child's emotions strongly influences how socially and emotionally competent the child later becomes. (iii) The researchers found that children who were better at 'effortfully' modulating their behavior and attention were far more resilient two years later. There was also a connection between being resilient and being popular and accepted by peers.

Teachers need to keep emotional competence in mind as they plan lessons and activities. It is important, for example, to consider the fact that activities might be challenging for some children and make sure that groupings take into account different skill levels and personalities. When talking to children prior to undertaking a task, adults can point out aspects that could be frustrating, such as, "Tying these pieces of string might be difficult. Before we start, let's think about what you can do it if goes wrong." Pointing out that frustration is part of learning for everyone can be helpful, such as, "When I tried this technique at the weekend, it went wrong four or five times! Eventually I discovered that I had the fabric too wet." And, contrary to what many people believe, it is important that children see adults being honest about feelings and about seeking help, such as, "I got so frustrated, for a while I wanted to quit! In the end, I called Ms. Jarrett and she helped me figure it out." By sharing their stories about challenges, adults actively demonstrate how to overcome obstacles so that children realize that learning is a lifelong journey.

Children are not born with group work skills - they need to be taught. Some children need more help than others. Parents can encourage cooperation and team work at home and with friends, where they can observe and support their child's development of social skills in a safe environment. Teachers can pay careful attention to how they structure group activities and specifically teach the skills of cooperation. Children need to be able to practice these skills in a safe, non-judgemental environment where mistakes are treated like opportunities to learn. Social competence can only be developed by having social experiences.

To become truly emotionally literate, children need to be given responsibilities and practice in decision-making, with explicit discussion about expectations and reasons for rules and routines. Even very simple organizational decisions such as how to organize lunchtime or the art materials in a classroom will impact how children learn to relate to one another. It is wise for adults to be mindful about what subtle messages they are giving children. For example, if preschoolers are encouraged to work together to mop up a flood of milk from an accident at the snack table, they are internalizing a message that they are competent and resourceful. If they are sit and watch while an adult cleans up, they learn the opposite.

With the pressure on schools to raise test scores and meet increasing targets of attainment, the importance of supporting the development of emotional literacy is still often overlooked. Yet research repeatedly shows that if the adults foster emotional literacy, the children ultimately achieve more, starting from the preschool years. In fact, the impact of the early years experiences have been shown to have extreme consequences for children - far greater than simply 'school readiness' or being seen as 'sociable and resilient' at age seven.

In the 1960s, David Weikart, founder of High/Scope, started comparing two groups of children, one group who attended the high quality preschool program that offered a child-centred curriculum, and a second group who did not attend any preschool at all. (iv) Researchers have continued to follow these groups, right up to the most recent data collection in 2005. It is startling that even at the age of forty, the individuals who attended the quality program had a higher graduation rate, higher earnings, and a lower incidence of emotional disorders and criminal behavior than the other group. Clearly the child-centred curriculum had an extremely significant influence on the children's moral, social and emotional growth.

Everything that a child experiences impacts his developing emotional intelligence, from the way he interacts with his parents, to the rules of his classroom, the opportunities he has for experiencing cooperative group work, and the manner in which his teachers speak about life and its challenges. In the 1990s, Daniel Goleman opened up a whole new way of thinking, and as more and more pressure is put upon children to perform to higher and higher academic standards, educators need to continue to focus on EQ. By doing so, they can provide a buffer for children who are dealing with the enormous stresses and demands of modern life. It is an enormous responsibility that should not be taken lightly.


(i) Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995

(ii) Child Dev., Jan-Feb; 74(1):238-56 at pubmed.gov

(iii) Emotion: 2006 August, 6(3):498-510

(iv) HighScope Perry Preschool Study, at www.highscope.org