Have we Forgotten the Importance of Emotional Intelligence?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 27 January 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Emotional Intelligence; Wellbeing; Leadership

With Prime Minister Rishi Sunak advising us that all pupils should study mathematics to prepare themselves better for success in our modern world, is there a danger that we will come to understand intelligence and ability in terms of exam grades only? In preparing our young people for an increasingly challenging world, is it time that we expand our definition of what a competent, successful student should be like and look at a broader spectrum of pupil ability to include emotional intelligence as well as academic subjects?

Iram Siraj Visiting Professor of Education, University of Wollongong NSW Australia proposes that:

“Future learners will need an excellent start in early learning if they are to cope with mid to late 21st century challenges. It is vital that early education curricula emphasise the process and the outcomes of both soft and hard skills to create the most competent learners and citizens.”

Teaching kids 21st century skills early will help prepare them for their future (theconversation.com)

Empathy, for example, is not often highlighted as one of those vital soft skills. The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently resigned after a much-praised term of office, was paid tribute to by the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese;

“She has demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities.” When asked about her priorities in the job, she replied that she tried to be kind.

Reuters reporting on Ardern’s emotional resignation announcement quoted her as saying, "I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused.”

Along with empathy, she also demonstrated self-belief and strength of purpose during her time in office. People responded very positively to this during the pandemic when they saw images of Ardern at home with her partner and baby, talking through her own frustrations with the harsh lockdown restrictions, even though it was her own directive that enforced them. She also has demonstrated great personal understanding of her own mental health in realising and accepting the need to make a change in life priorities.

Jacinda Ardern’s graceful departure is the personification of modern democratic ideals | Van Badham | The Guardian

Her story underlines why it is important to focus on enhancing pupil empathy and caring behaviour and also to teach our pupils to look after their mental health as well as striving for academic excellence. This view of a possible future direction chimes with the archbishops or York and Canterbury, who are currently asking for us to be a more caring society in their recent report on social care. It is surely also true that the epidemic of self- harm among our young people is partly due to our inability to deal appropriately with emotions and negative feelings and develop the resilience to deal with adversity and setbacks.

Writing on Strategies for Increasing Emotional Intelligence in May 2021 in the Very Well Family US website, Sheri Gordon describes strategies to help pupils learn these valuable skills and advises on how to include this social and emotional learning into classroom practice. She recommends this as she argues that students who are more resilient are likely to be more successful in their academic subjects.  All of this gives them a strong sense of who they are, and so when resilient pupils experience failure they are less likely to suffer as many mental health consequences as those who are not resilient or sure of themselves. As demonstrated by Jacinda Ardern when she faced the serious challenges of a mass shooting at a mosque and imposing lockdowns, perseverance is also a key component of social and emotional learning and essential for pupils if they are to accomplish things in life. While some students will naturally strive to improve themselves, there are others who will need coaching in this area. A key message is to remind students that to experience success they must invest effort. While this kind of material has long been included in the pastoral curriculum here, there is a strong argument that rather than just be taught as a discrete subject, it should be blended into everyday classroom practice.

Strategies for Teaching Children Emotional Intelligence (verywellfamily.com)

Without the life skills to manage emotions, academic success is not enough on its own to allow a person to become an effective participant in workplace settings. Emotional intelligence enables students to have positive interactions with others, to anticipate their feelings and to experience appropriate levels of empathy and thus, for example, work more successfully in teams with colleagues. It follows also that, later in life, people with these competences better earn the trust of their superiors, make their colleagues feel valued and gain higher credibility. 

Pupils who know how to regulate their feelings can also manage their behaviour better. Children aren’t born with an understanding of their emotions and they don’t inherently know how to express their feelings in socially appropriate ways, so a child who doesn’t know how to manage angry feelings may show aggression towards others in school. Similarly, a child who doesn’t know what to do when they feel sad may become withdrawn.

Looking critically at our own generation, we can be guilty as adults of trying to avoid situations that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is a good example of a common weakness that could have been addressed through education. Pupils are often shy in social situations and they can shrink from joining in with group activities because of lack of confidence in their ability to tolerate the discomfort associated with trying new things. Opportunities therefore need to be found to help pupils learn to deal with these types of issues and better regulate their emotions, achieve better overall and have good mental health.

There is merit in Rishi Sunak’s suggestion about the importance of maths, but Jacinda Ardern’s example of authentic, empathetic leadership also shows that there can be so much more to success than just that.

This article is correct at 27/01/2023

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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