What is Emotional Intelligence and Why Should We Teach it?

What is emotional intelligence and why should we teach it?

Traditionally, the role of education has been to improve young people’s academic ability – if they reached the end of their school days literate and numerate then we could consider their schooling a success.  More recently, we’ve come to understand that it’s not only IQ but also EQ – or emotional intelligence – that plays a key role in our ability to succeed in life.

Harvard theorist Howard Gardner describes emotional intelligence as “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.”  Emotional intelligence can be broken down into five major components.  When we look at each in turn it becomes easy to understand why EQ plays such a key role success.


Being self-aware means recognising our own strengths and abilities as well as understanding our emotions and how they impact on other people.  Developing a high level of self-awareness results in increased self-esteem and self-confidence as well as an ability to evaluate and moderate our emotions in an appropriate way for the situation in hand.

Example: A self-aware 8-year-old may understand that drawing is not their greatest strength but will not dwell on this, instead jumping at the opportunity to recite a story they’ve written for the class, knowing that their creative writing skills are very strong. 


Self-regulation describes the ability to manage our emotions and is particularly helpful when we’re attempting to manage negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or low mood.  By gaining insight into our own emotions, fully understanding them and developing techniques to regulate them we can vastly decrease our chances of becoming prey to mood or anxiety disorders and we can ensure that we respond appropriately in social situations. 

Example: A 16-year-old who has learnt to regulate his emotions will recognise his anxiety as exam season approaches and will alleviate his negative emotions using techniques such as:

  • Focusing on the positives of the situation – exams will be over in a few weeks and he has a holiday planned
  • Considering how his previous actions will impact on his chances of success – he has worked hard at school this year and followed a revision timetable
  • Physically helping his body to calm by taking a long walk or listening to calming music 

This self-regulation drastically reduces the likelihood of unhealthy mechanisms such as drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm.


Motivation is a key driver for success – and we can all learn to be more motivated.  By learning to recognise negative thoughts we can overcome them by couching them in more positive terms and consider ways to overcome obstacles and setbacks.  We can also develop a drive to achieve and develop an optimistic attitude by learning to think my positively.

Example: A 10-year-old who is struggling to learn serve a tennis ball will recognise the negative thoughts related to the current activity and remind themselves that this was how they felt when they first learned to do breast-stroke and that by practising their swimming they got the hang of it.  They’ll remember the high they felt when they first swam a length doing breaststroke and use that memory to motivate them to continue trying to serve the tennis ball.


Learning to understand how others feel is a very important life-skill.  It makes us more able to respond appropriately to situations and enables us to control the signals we are sending to others through our actions.  A highly empathetic person is both highly employable in later life and also generally very well liked as they are easy company who are unlikely to be the source of emotional tension.

Example: A 12-year-old who is highly empathetic will quickly understand that their teacher is deeply disappointed rather than simply angry about the class’s behaviour. She will work with her peers to turn the situation around, working hard on that lesson’s project to try and make the teacher proud.

Social Skills

Our ability to communicate effectively with others is a skill that can really set us apart. For example, we’ve all come across doctors with poor bedside manner for example – someone who clearly has a very high IQ and has studied to a very high level but whose emotional intelligence is poor, leaving them unable to empathise with or effectively communicate with their patient.  They may leave us feeling scared, overwhelmed or uncomfortable.  Compare this to a more positive experience where a doctor works hard to phrase things win a way we understand and involve us in the decision making process. This demonstrates excellent social skills and leaves us feeling far more positive.

The development of strong social skills is also the keystone to our ability to work effectively in a team and to collaborate and cooperate with others. 

Example: An 11-year-old with good social skills will not only be able to do well in an individual maths project, they will also be able to work as a team with classmates to carry out a larger project – and will also be able to effectively communicate the merits of the project to the teacher and the class afterwards at well.

Emotional intelligence is vital to our success

 When we consider the assets that make up emotional intelligence, it’s easy to see that these skills enable young people to better embrace and enjoy their education and also help them to develop into people who are more likely to be contented and successful in life. 

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