A study conducted by Pam Qualter and her colleagues at the University of Lancashire explores the role of emotional intelligence in supporting students as they move to secondary school

The study was carried out in response to a growing body of research that highlights the potential negative effects of transition from primary to secondary school, and a desire to know more about what happens in the local context.

Negative impact

The authors highlight research carried out over many years that has shown how the transfer to secondary school is often accompanied by a negative effect on students’ self-concept and on their perception of their academic performance in core curriculum areas. The negative effect that transition has on students’ subjective perceptions is accompanied by a drop in their academic performance as measured by grade point averages. Alongside impaired performance, students have been observed to experience a degree of anxiety and/or depression. If the student does not have good coping skills, or receive additional support, the adverse affects of transition can lead to a negative self-concept. This in turn begins to undermine the student’s academic motivation. Reduced motivation, in turn, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to subsequent further declines in performance and, perhaps, to eventual disengagement from school. On the other hand, those students who have greater personal and cognitive resources, may be spurred to work hard by an initial drop in grades.

Social roles

Transition to secondary school also brings new social roles for the young person. It is suggested that bullying and aggression, which often accompanies the early months of secondary school, may be one way in which young adolescents manage peer and dominance relationships as they make the transition to new social groups and new social roles. The authors also cite research that points towards the efficacy of different forms of intervention. For example, if adolescents are helped to develop appropriate coping strategies, they may be better equipped to deal with the academic and social changes that accompany the transition process.

Emotional intelligence

The authors suggest that the notion of coping strategies fits well with the concept of emotional intelligence. It is possible that those adolescents high on emotional intelligence are those who cope well with transition. Therefore, it may be the case that appropriate coping strategies can be developed through emotional intelligence training and development programmes at school. This will in turn ameliorate the negative effects of transition.

The study was carried out over two years in a Lancashire secondary school. It aimed to explore whether students with a high score for emotional intelligence as they enter Year 7 cope better with the transition to secondary school than their peers who scored lower in emotional intelligence. In addition to the influence of emotional intelligence scores, the study explored whether the introduction of a programme designed to support the development of emotional intelligence skills, and delivered in the first year of secondary school, leads to:

  • increased levels of emotional intelligence
  • greater skills for coping with the changes brought about by transition from primary to secondary school measured by their grade point average, school attendance and behaviour
  • the students’ perception of their own self-worth.

Study design Two cohorts of students were used in the study. Both were Year 7. The first year group completed a range of baseline assessment questionnaires and were observed for evidence of coping skills. They did not receive any taught programme for emotional intelligence, however, and acted as a control group. The following year’s cohort completed the same set of baseline assessments, were similarly observed for coping skills and also received an emotional intelligence programme from September to June in their first year of secondary school. Two groups were involved in supporting the new Year 7 students as they transferred from primary to secondary school – the school staff who delivered the emotional intelligence programme and Year 10 students who acted as peer mentors. The staff attended an awareness-raising event in the summer term prior to the arrival of the Year 7 cohort. Both support groups received training on emotional intelligence and the use of teaching and support materials.

Emotional intelligence support materials were provided by the research team, including a book for each Year 7 pupil – Keep Cool @ Secondary School – and ‘Cool cards’ for use by peer mentors. For example, the materials had sections on:

  • friendships/relationships
  • bullying
  • caring for others
  • personal and family problems
  • self-esteem.

In addition there was a ‘what if…’ section, which addressed a whole range of worries and emotions. Peer mentors played the ‘Cool card’ games with their mentees once a week. These formed the basis of discussions about feelings, such as ‘What could you do if school makes you feel sad or frightened?’ Tutors also supported the programme by following a related scheme of work through tutorial lessons.

Measuring the changes

A range of measures was used to evaluate the students’ ability to cope in secondary school, including:

  • grade point average across all subjects
  • the number of unauthorised absences and ‘late arrivals’ during the year.

These measures of how well a student could be seen to be coping, were placed alongside Bar-On’s measure of emotional intelligence and Harter’s self-perception scale for children (measuring six aspects of self-worth – appearance, athletic, behaviour, social, scholastic and global self-esteem).

Ability to cope

The cohort was divided into three groups for the purpose of analysis – those with high, medium and low levels of emotional intelligence. When the results from the three groups was subjected to statistical analysis, there were results that showed higher levels of emotional intelligence facilitate a student’s ability to cope with transition. Overall, five of the six measures of coping employed in the study endorsed the view that higher (in this case high or average) emotional intelligence skills support young adolescents in coping with the transition from primary to high school.

Some of the most interesting findings were that:

  • both high and average emotional intelligence groups generated significantly fewer teacher concerns about effort, home study and behaviour than their peers with lower levels of emotional intelligence
  • both high and average emotional intelligence groups achieved significantly better grades than the group with lower emotional intelligence levels
  • the averages for the number of late registrations showed a progressive increase across high to average to low emotional intelligence groups.

Teaching emotional intelligence The second aspect of the study aimed to examine whether an emotional intelligence intervention programme delivered in the first year of secondary school would raise the emotional intelligence levels of pupils. Once again, the data was analysed in terms of high, average and low emotional intelligence levels of students at the beginning of Year 7. Students in the control group showed a drop in emotional intelligence from the beginning to the end of Year 7, no matter whether they were in the high, medium or low emotional intelligence groups at the beginning of the year. This finding supports the view that transition is often associated with negative outcomes. The students in the cohort that received an emotional intelligence development programme showed a significant increase in emotional intelligence scores for those in the lowest emotional intelligence group at the beginning of the year. Students in the medium or high emotional intelligence groups showed a reduction in their emotional intelligence scores by the end of the year. The drop in scores was particularly notable in the high emotional intelligence group. This drop in emotional intelligence levels was unexpected and suggested that the intervention programme introduced into the school was not effective for those with already high levels of emotional intelligence. When the data from Harter’s measure of self-worth were analysed, however, they provided support for the effectiveness of the intervention across all three emotional intelligence groups. Whereas several of the sub-scales showed no difference between the control group and the cohort of young people who had received an emotional intelligence development programme, there were significant shifts in two of the sub-scales. The students in the group that received the emotional intelligence programme reported greater improvements in scholastic and social self-worth than those in the control group.

Final thoughts

While the intervention programme had only limited effectiveness in raising levels of emotional intelligence and self-worth, it did have an impact on the students who were most likely to be susceptible to the negative effects of transition (the low emotional intelligence group). One could argue that the students who already had high or medium emotional intelligence had already been given the coping skills needed for resilience in the face of life changes. Only those whose life experience had not equipped them with high levels of resilience needed to boost their emotional intelligence in order to cope with the demands of moving to secondary school.

Similarly, the students who received the emotional intelligence development programme displayed greater coping skills in their first year of secondary school as shown by:

  • less teacher referrals
  • a better track record of doing homework
  • a better attendance record
  • higher grade point average scores
  • fewer incidents of lateness.

It does seem, therefore, that better coping skills are related to the development of emotional intelligence. We could speculate that, if the emotional intelligence development programme had occurred earlier in their school career, students would build higher emotional intelligence scores and potentially have a higher perception of their self-worth by the time they reached Year 7. These students may well then be better equipped to cope with the demands of transition.

Qualter, P, Whiteley, HE, Hutchinson, JM, and Pope, DJ, (2007) ‘Supporting the Development of Emotional Intelligence Competencies to Ease the Transition from Primary to High School’ was published in Educational Psychology in Practice, 23, 79-95.