What role does emotional intelligence play in children’s learning, and how can teachers use it to improve pupil’s behaviour?

Emotional intelligence can be defined as ‘a person’s ability to perceive, assess and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.’ Teachers need to understand the concept because it can have a profound impact upon the way they teach, the lessons they deliver, the relationships they develop with their pupils and the results that pupils ultimately achieve.

In its 2001 white paper on secondary schools, the government pronounced its goal of ‘strengthening the emotional intelligence of pupils’ because it recognised that doing so would significantly improve pupils’ behaviour and raise levels of achievement. Moreover, at the root of the DCSF and Ofsted’s desire to ‘personalise’ learning is the notion of emotional intelligence. The idea of ‘personalised’ learning is based on the theories of Howard Gardner, the American psychologist, who believed that we all have ‘multiple’ intelligences. He enumerated nine intelligences in total but stressed that two of these intelligences, the intrapersonal (the relationship one has with oneself) and interpersonal (the relationships one has with other people), are the most important, and predictive of the greatest success one has in life. Later, Daniel Goleman developed these ideas in his book Emotional Intelligence (1995). In particular, both Gardner and Goleman stressed that teachers were receiving a false impression of a pupil’s overall intelligence if they simply relied on intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, which only tested a narrow selection of intelligences such as their mathematical, logical and verbal reasoning skills. Goleman (1995) also noted that a high IQ was not predictive of later success in life whereas a person’s ability to socialise, to inspire others and to be self-motivated was. He went on to highlight the fact that schools that were aware of these larger issues tended not only to produce happier, more rounded individuals, but also to attain better academic results.

These findings are vitally important for teachers to bear in mind when structuring their lessons and delivering the curriculum: they suggest that tasks that encourage ‘emotional intelligence’ will also reap academic and social rewards.

Emotional intelligence programmes in the UK
While many successful emotional intelligence programmes have been running for a decade in the United States of America, where the idea first originated, schools in the United Kingdom have only just started adopting some of the emotional intelligence philosophy. Preliminary research findings are already very encouraging. Several primary schools have reported a drop in ‘serious incidents’ and exclusions since receiving ‘emotional intelligence toolkits’. Fifty schools across six counties are now teaching emotion-related subjects at the behest of the government, while hundreds of others are using ‘emotional intelligence’ programmes on a more ad hoc basis. Of 10 Southend schools in the project, eight reported reduced truancy, nine reported fewer fixed-term exclusions and at least seven reported improvements in learning in English and mathematics. In Plymouth, three schools reported a ‘drop in serious behaviour incidents’ and in repeat fixed-term exclusions.

Suzanne Corrywright of VisionWorks, a teacher training organisation that specialises in training teachers to use emotional intelligence in the classroom, believes that these programmes not only help curtail antisocial behaviour but they can also assist with improving results. ‘Daniel Goleman always spoke of how he hoped his work would be used in schools,’ she says. ‘Ironically, it was picked up by American business schools who, seeing that the ability to relate with others was the most significant key to success, used his principles to make an emotional quotient test, which is a more reliable predictor of success than IQ tests. Only now, many years after the book was written, are his ideas being picked up by schools for dealing with issues such as bullying and antisocial behaviour.’

How understanding emotional intelligence can help teachers in the classroom
Daniel Goleman divides emotional intelligence into four main areas:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationship management.

Understanding these different components will assist in helping teachers to shape the teaching materials that they feel are appropriate for their pupils. First and most important is encouraging a pupil to be aware of their emotions when they are finding a piece of work difficult. This is particularly pertinent with pupils with special educational needs: certain types of work may stir up negative feelings in them, which need to be addressed by the teacher in a systematic fashion. For example, a pupil with dyslexia may well feel angry and frustrated when asked to do a spelling test or when they attempt to spell certain words. The first step towards solving this would be for the teacher to encourage the pupil to label their feelings by firstly ‘mirroring’ the pupil’s language when they respond in a frustrated fashion. A pupil might say, ‘I hate doing this!’ The teacher should not respond immediately but then repeat the phrase, following up with the question, ‘What makes you hate it?’ encouraging the pupil to label their feelings so that with time the pupil does not respond so aggressively, but learns to label their feelings precisely: ie says something approximating, ‘I feel angry when I see this or that word or have to do this or that task’.

Making a pupil aware of their feelings is not an easy task: it will require patience, persistence and tact. Merely asking a pupil to say what they are feeling may not suffice. Part and parcel of it is enabling a pupil to ‘manage’ his or her own emotions. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • They can write diaries that describe what they are feeling about the tasks they are doing and the people they are encountering (see above).
  • They can draw pictures that articulate their emotions in a pictorial sense.
  • They can even make masks and other models – a strategy that we will examine a little later.

Integral to the management of emotions is the way in which a pupil responds to those people around him, his ‘social awareness’. Many teachers have found that by far the best way for pupils to improve their understanding of other people’s feelings is to write a form of a diary that lists their feelings towards people that they encounter and enumerates what the pupil thinks other people are feeling. The aim is not for pupils to ‘write correctly’ – it’s not an English exercise – or to write in detail; such a diary can be set out in a simple chart like the one above. I have written out one pupil’s chart below, which he completed with his SEN teacher.

Analytical pupil diary

Name of person/task My feelings Their feelings
Mr Smith Makes me feel angry when he asks me to get on with my work Feels worried that I am not getting on with my work
John He frightens me when he shouts He’s frightened I don’t liek him
Talking to Carly about story ideas Felt happy. Had good ideas  
Playing piano Liked playing song  
Reading maps Felt excited about it  
History homework Makes me feel very anxious, worried about getting a detention, don’t understand it Doesn’t care!

Research has shown that giving pupils the tools to write an analytical diary like the one above helps children to feel significantly happier and has the side-effect of improving their overall attainment in all subjects. Note how a good EI diary will stress the positive as well as the negative. This is perhaps the hardest part of the diary; a SEN teacher should endeavour though to help the student remember specific tasks and people who make their students happy. Goleman’s research shows that it is people who are able to congratulate themselves and who are aware of when they are happy who achieve the best results. He highlights a concept called ‘flow’: when people are feeling relaxed and happy they are much more likely to concentrate seamlessly upon a subject, to allow their mind to ‘flow’ in and around a subject. A good SEN teacher will make their pupils aware of the times when they are happiest and suggest ways in which they can use this knowledge to enhance their learning.

Central to emotional intelligence is the notion of ‘relationship management’. This is when pupils are given the tools that enable them to interact meaningfully and productively with a wide range of people and tasks. A diary can greatly assist with this.

There are, however, a number of other strategies teachers can use. One illustration of a successful emotional intelligence programme is given above.

The year group learning manager liked the programme because it implicitly recognised that the individual teacher was not to blame for poorly behaved pupils. It understood that improving the way pupils behave must be a whole-school effort. Pupils must be given a language with which to analyse their emotions before they can alter the way they respond to those emotions.

Ten tips to improve pupils’ behaviour and attainment
1. Give pupils a language to describe their emotions; get them used to talking about their feelings. Encourage them to write a diary (see above).
2. Pay attention to pupils who are behaving well. Try and ignore misbehaviour. Make sure you reward good behaviour, not bad.
3. Be specific with your praise. Say precisely what you like about a pupil’s work or attitude. People always feel better when they know precisely what it is that they have done well. That way they can repeat that behaviour more easily.
4. Get your pupils to think very carefully about where they are sitting before the lesson. Ask them to choose to sit next to someone they don’t normally sit next to, and to decide in advance who this will be.
5. If a class is too noisy and not listening to you, split them up into smaller groups, ‘handpicked’ by you, and give everyone in the group a position of responsibility. A central tenet of emotional intelligence is that people should have feelings of power and control.
6. Give your instructions in a calm fashion. Try to avoid shouting and appearing angry. Show that you have control over your own emotions.
7. Pre-empt trouble by taking a long-term view. Emotional intelligence is about seeing the long-term perspective rather than the short term. By planning your lessons well in advance, providing a variety of different exercises that pupils can engage with, you are implicitly showing your pupils that the long-term view is the one that is best. The Elton Report found that poor behaviour in 80% of lessons was due to poor planning on behalf of the teacher.
8. Walk away from confrontations. The emotionally intelligent teacher always buys him- or herself time to think about how best to deal with a situation.
9. Question poor behaviour, but don’t make blanket judgements about pupils. Make pupils think about their behaviour, not be defensive about it. Ask them how they are feeling about the lesson and why they are feeling that way.
10. Institute an emotional literacy programme during your tutor times. Encourage the whole school to participate.

How teachers and teaching assistants working together can support their pupils
First, check out yourself. You and your teaching assistants need to make sure that you are behaving in an emotionally intelligent fashion. You should write down your own diary of the situations you feel most happy with when working with pupils, and the situations that you find most difficult. For example, many ‘upfront’ teachers find the beginnings of lessons the most stressful when they are trying to introduce a topic to the class, while teaching assistants can feel uncomfortable when a teacher is talking at the class for a long time because they don’t quite know what they should be doing. Anatomise the different situations you both have encountered and see if you can solve any problems from the outset.

Second, carry out an audit. Both teachers and teaching assistants should reflect upon the class as individuals and see if there are any pupils who specifically need assistance with developing their emotional intelligence. Remember to analyse these pupils using the criteria already talked about: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. There are standardised tests that pupils can take to assess for these, but in truth carrying out some close observation for a couple of lessons regarding these areas should enable you to ascertain your chosen pupils’ abilities in these regards.

Third, prepare your lessons and make your materials. Your EI lessons could be ‘one-offs’ or they could be part of a systematic programme of study. You may well consider buying into an existing programme to save you time (see below for more on this). However, there is no doubt that specially tailored lessons will be the most effective: you know your pupils far better than anyone else. It will be important not to isolate individuals you feel may need help but think of ways of subtly improving their behaviour. Try to involve as many people as you can. Exercises such as the emotional intelligence diary, the buddy system or making masks can be enjoyed by the whole class and have beneficial effects beyond developing a pupil’s emotional intelligence, so you may feel it is appropriate for the whole class or a large group to do these. 

Fourth, implement! One teacher should be assigned to observing the programme in action while the other could be given the main teaching role.

Finally, reflect upon the effectiveness of the exercises you have given by carrying out pupil surveys and canvassing pupils’ and teachers’ views on the tasks. Ask them to suggest any improvements.

Case study: A successful emotional intelligence programme

‘Sheena’ in Year 7 was having a rough time. Her parents were divorced, but still at war with each other; her work was deteriorating and she was bullying other children. However, like all Year 7 pupils at her school, Sheena took part every week in 20-minute tutor sessions aimed at improving the pupils’ emotional intelligence. She was assigned a buddy, which she was initially very resentful about. The buddy system is central to the emotional literacy sessions. Pupils take a name randomly out of the tutor bowl and have to work with that pupil for half the term. The idea is that pupils learn to work with someone outside their friendship group. Sheena wouldn’t talk to her buddy to begin with, but during one lesson, she was invited to make a mask of the symbolic ‘face’ that she presents to the outside world.

‘She made this amazing mask, which was coloured black and red and encased in barbed wire,’ says Sheena’s year group learning manager. ‘Some of the other pupils didn’t understand the concept of the mask and so Sheena went around the class explaining it to them. She told them about how the barbed wire was how she looked to the outside world: that she was prickly to ward them off.’

Towards the end of Year 7, this same manager happened to take a message to Sheena’s class. She found the pupils, without their tutor, sitting in a circle, listening to each other in silence, as they arranged an old persons’ tea party entirely of their own free will. ‘The programme has meant that pupils know everyone in the tutor group, and are much less inclined to argue with each other,’ says the year group learning manager. ‘There is much more of a spirit of cooperation.’

The resources required, and the time needed The great thing about using EI techniques to inform your teaching is that it can require very few resources. It may mean that you use no extra resources at all, but you use your knowledge of its underlying philosophy to inform your planning and your approach in the classroom.

However, if you want to institute a formalised programme that encourages your pupils to be more emotionally intelligent, you will need to consider training the relevant staff and possibly making your own materials, or buying in materials.

Helping pupils develop their emotional intelligence is not a short-term teaching programme that can be taught in the space of a few weeks. To work properly it will require a whole-school effort and may take a few years to fully implement. The first step is for staff to be made aware of its philosophy and to consider, for themselves, which is the best way forward.

How involving parents and carers can help

The government is particularly keen for parents and carers to be involved in developing their own and their children’s emotional intelligence. Perhaps more than anyone, it is a parent’s ability to nurture his or her own child’s EI that will be the most important factor. It may be that you wish to offer a class or classes that highlight the principles of EI to the parents and carers at your school. Again, as we have seen with children, it will be important not to isolate the parents you think are in most need of help, but to hold general classes for all parents. Many parents are very grateful for any help they can get on improving their own children’s behaviour, so it may well be that holding classes on this subject will be most effective. Some primary schools now hold induction classes for their parents: discussing EI issues at this point would be particularly pertinent.

For further information

Francis Gilbert is the author of I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here and Yob Nation. He is head of English in a comprehensive in outer London