Colman Noctor: Our education system needs to value emotional intelligence  

The focus on performance encourages children to create value systems around ‘what I can do’ instead of ‘who I am’
Colman Noctor: Our education system needs to value emotional intelligence  

Picture: iStock 

The message ‘It’s OK to not be OK’ is important for children to hear, but we must also include a disclaimer that it is ‘OK to be OK’ too. The ideal is for young people to develop resilience, so they can negotiate most of life’s challenges, but also an openness about asking for help if it is required.

Striking this balance is often a challenge. How do I help my child to be assertive without being arrogant, or how can I help my child to be compassionate without being a pushover?

In my view, resilience is about authenticity, self-belief, and accuracy. However, there are limited opportunities to explore these qualities when the social, personal and health education (SPHE) curriculum is isolated from the school culture.  There is little value in stating ‘we all have different qualities that are equally important’,  and then going on to do a spelling test where those who do well are commended, and those who struggle are dismissed. 

It's important to point out that the wellbeing aspects of the curriculum can be labour intensive and challenging, especially with no psychological training. 

When adults want to communicate a message to children, we need to repeat it and exaggerate it to make sure it sticks. But they also have to see it, if we want them to be it. So, despite inclusive classroom exercises, these espoused values need to be visible in the day to day running of things. 

Express your feelings 

In recent years there's been a shift towards encouraging children to share their feelings. We’ve told them it’s OK to cry and not to bottle things up. In fact, one cartoon campaign even suggested that holding feelings in could cause your head to explode.

This promotion of emotional expression is a move in the right direction and certainly is an improvement on the pervasive silence and suppression. However, emotional expression is perhaps not enough in itself. What is also needed is an increased emotional understanding or emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is not purely the ability to articulate how something makes you feel, rather it is the capacity to be aware, to control, and to express one's emotions empathetically. This is not simply expressing how you feel, you must also consider the impact of your actions on others, an important aspect of developing empathy and priorities in interpersonal relationships.

Intrapersonal communication involves the internal monologues that we have with ourselves, whereas interpersonal communication involves our interactive communication with others. If we are to introduce the concept of wellbeing into our families, schools, and communities, we need to include social responsibility which is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. 

This social responsibility needs to be part of the lived experience too, and not just a removed topic covered in the classroom. Children need to be aware that they have rights, but they also need to be aware that alongside these rights come responsibilities. The right to be the leader of a game at lunchtime comes with the responsibility of ensuring that everyone is included. The right to have a treat food on a Friday comes with the responsibility of putting the wrappers in the bin and keeping the classroom tidy. These everyday subtle value systems carry far more influence on children’s learning than we give them credit for.

Emotional intelligence is not simply understanding ourselves but also understanding our relationships with other people. If we make emotional intelligence too individualistic, we run the risk that the emotional skills are self-focused and lack consideration of others, a key social skill and ingredient for resilience.

Developing core skills

A child’s ability to navigate the social world is essential to their development, and even more so for children who may require additional support, explanation and understanding.

Given the loss of social and emotional development opportunities over the past 18 months, there has never been a greater need to help children develop core intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.

While we may claim to have strategies in our schools that aim to value effort over outcome we might also have an academic league table culture or a TY awards night that only recognises the brightest and the sportiest young people. At such events, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and the child is left confused by the mixed messaging

We must not inadvertently convey that what we say and what we do are different and that is OK. This will only serve to encourage more virtue signalling and superficiality, which is of little benefit to anyone.

Contemporary school culture is often focused on the performative aspects of the student, which value external variables rather than internal ones. External variables include medals, grades, prizes and accolades. The internal variables concern less visible qualities such as work effort, loyalty, kindness and courage. 

External variables can increase children’s confidence, whereas internal variables nourish their self-worth and self-value, which is far more sustaining when it comes to emotional intelligence.

In trying to teach younger children to be mindful and cognisant of others we need to encourage them to value the qualities of kindness, inclusivity, and resilience. But this recognition needs to be visible and tangible. The current focus on performance might mean that children are being encouraged to create value systems around ‘what I can do’ instead of ‘who I am’.

Encouraging emotional expression but neglecting to develop emotional intelligence can be problematic. Emotional expression teaches the person to be able to say, ‘This is how I feel, and these are my feelings’, but neglects to develop an awareness of how their actions impact others. 

High emotional expression and low emotional intelligence can be seen in social media communications, where people can use these platforms to vent their feelings, but these expressions can be over-zealous, shallow, poorly thought out or overtly hostile, all indicators of low emotional intelligence.

We need to develop children’s awareness of themselves in conjunction with their learning about others. We can begin by creating different sets of values that reward emotional intelligence, which may be more effective in creating change than tokenistic curriculum topics or strict rules.

The most constructive way to promote emotional intelligence is to make it visible at home and at school is through consistent role modelling by the adults in the room.

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