The case for emotional literacy

Dominica Ireland

Emotional Intelligence is not an entirely new concept. It has existed right from the 1930s when Edward Thorndike (American psychologist) described the concept of social intelligence. In the field of education, emotions have been found to affect students’ cognitive learning as well as teachers’ instructional behaviour (Pekrun et al., 2007). Consequently, emotional intelligence has been discussed as one of the important intelligences and competencies to promote and regulate personal intellectual growth and social relational growth (Mayer & Salovery, 1997). While the definitions and constructs of emotional intelligence are varied, emotional intelligence is defined as a set of abilities which involves operating emotional information that represent emotional signals (Mayer et al., 2004).

Given that emotion, cognition, and behaviour are highly interdependent (Cornelius, 1996; Planalp & Fitness, 1999), it is imperative that schools focus on and understand both the emotional and cognitive aspect of learning. This will lead to the holistic development of the child, preparing him not just for academic success, but for success in life.

The five components of EI proposed by Daniel Goleman are: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. These components are important 21st century skills and are crucial to prepare students for the future.

According to Goleman’s model, self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand personal moods, emotional drives, and their impact on others. Self-confidence, realistic self-assessment, and a self-deprecating sense of humour are some of the hallmarks of self-awareness. It depends on one’s ability to monitor one’s own emotional state and to correctly identify and name one’s emotions. Schools can nurture this aspect of EI through reflection (reflective journals), 360 degree feedback, SWOT analysis, and goal setting.

Self-regulation is the ability to control and redirect disruptive moods and impulses, the tendency to suspend judgment, to think before one acts. Hallmarks of self-regulation include trustworthiness, ease with uncertainty, and being open-minded towards change. These can be achieved through student-led action initiatives, conflict resolution committees, reflection and intervention by specialists like counsellors and special educators.

Internal motivation is a desire to work for reasons that are internal, those which go beyond external rewards and recognition an inner vision of what is essential in life, a joy in doing something, curiosity in learning, and a flow that comes with being immersed in an activity. An inclination to pursue goals with dynamism and perseverance, being independent and self-driven. Hallmarks of internal motivation include a strong drive to achieve, optimism even in times of failure, and commitment. Schools can provide students with opportunities to pursue a hobby, set and review goals, through community service initiatives and so on.

intelligence-emotion Empathy is the ability to understand the emotional temperament of others, a skill in treating others according to their emotional state/reactions. The hallmarks of empathy comprise proficiency in building and nurturing talent, cross-cultural sensitivity, implies care and concern, or a wish to moderate undesirable emotions or experiences in others. Schools can provide opportunities for students to share artefacts that represent their culture; celebrate diversity through different fests and cultural programs; appreciate students who show respect for others’ cultures, feelings, and are open-minded to others’ perspectives.

Jean Decety (American and French neuroscientist known for his research on emotion and empathy), University of Chicago mentions three kinds of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy – this form of empathy allows one to sense how someone else thinks about the world. Lack of cognitive empathy can lead to missing information that could inform how best one can present ideas.
  • Emotional empathy – this means that one reflects and resonates how the other feels. An inability to read the emotions of others can lead to distressing the people around us.
  • Empathic concern – is an ability to sense the needs of others and express care towards those needs. Lack of care and concern can lead to a decrease in motivation.

Social skills refer to expertise in handling relationships and building systems and networks, an ability to build rapport, and to find common ground. Hallmarks of social skills include leading change effectively, the art of persuasion, building and leading teams for high-performance. Collaboration is key in most, if not all, fields. Knowing oneself is as important as knowing others. Schools can be nurturing grounds for students to develop these skills and competencies. This can be made possible by encouraging cooperative learning and providing opportunities for students to build group decision-making skills.

With the belief that leaders are not born, but made, schools of today have the responsibility of creating leaders for the future, to nurture those skills and competencies. In his article ‘What Makes a Leader’, Daniel Goleman concludes with these remarks – ‘It is fortunate, then, that emotional intelligence can be learned. The process is not easy. It takes time and, most of all, commitment. But the benefits that come from having a well-developed emotional intelligence, both for the individual and for the organization, make it worth the effort.’ (Goleman, 1998)

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs have been developed based on the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) by Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990 (Salovey & Mayer, 1990) and propagated with great commercial success by Daniel Goleman in 1995 (Goleman, 1995). Under the label of SEL programs, we find those which offer training in basic skills directly related to EI such as emotional perception, emotional understanding, emotional regulation, as well as broader, higher level aspects linked to personality, such as self-esteem, perseverance, assertiveness and optimism (for a review, see Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). These programs must be tailor-made to suit the requirements of different schools and should be incorporated into the curriculum so these implicit skills can be explicitly taught.

Many aspects of these SEL programs form a part of the curriculum framework of international schools across the country. It is important that it becomes a part of the Indian education system too, as these skills are no longer ‘nice to have’ but are a ‘need to have.’ Schools have the responsibility to equip students to face the uncertainties of the future.


The author has been teaching at a leading International School in Bangalore for eight years. She is a passionate teacher who strongly believes that commitment is a key element of successful teaching. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management at a reputed institution in Bangalore. She can be reached at

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