Developing emotional intelligence in the classroom

Adele Sewell

How can teachers help develop their students' emotional intelligence?

What is emotional intelligence?

As practitioners, emotional intelligence is something that we often overlook as just another additional thing to think about in our daily dealings with students. However, once considered it can have a massive impact on our interactions in the learning environment and on the social behavior of our students, how we organize learning, and how we communicate with our students.

There are clear links between increased engagement and academic achievement. (Dotterer and Lowe, 2011) (Reyes, Brackett, Rivers, White, and Salovey 2012). According to Hamre & Pianta, (2007), a classroom characterized by high interactions with teachers who are sensitive to students’ needs and also understand the student’s emotional quotient; shows Humanistic trends of being warm, caring, nurturing, and congenial in which achievement is highest.

Teachers in such classrooms are therefore aware of their student’s emotional skills and academic needs and regularly reflect on and in action (Schon 1992) to support the best learning environment possible hence making them effective leaders with proper leadership skills. This is in contrast to classrooms with a negative emotional climate in which teachers and students share little emotional connection and regularly disregard, disrespect, taunt, humiliate, threaten, or even physically lash out at one another, which has low engagement and achievement.

In these classrooms, the effective leader i.e., teachers, very often do not design or apply lessons with students’ perspectives or cognitive intelligence in mind, nor do these teachers divert from a lesson plan when students’ boredom, discomfort, or confusion arises. It could therefore be concluded that teachers have the significant power to control the social behavior, emotions, academic performance, task performance and achievement of their students through being emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use emotions to communicate with and relate to others effectively and constructively. Some psychologists suggest that emotional intelligence is a transferrable skill and hence it is considered more important than IQ for success in life. Emotional intelligence is the ability to learn about yourself and apply that wisdom to the world around you.

In addition, its impact is not just on the teacher and student relationship but also on relationship management inside the classroom, well-being, and peer interactions. It is also worth noting that positive student-teacher relationships are associated with increased behavioral engagement and in some cases cognitive intelligence over time compared to negative student-teacher relationships in less academic engagement and therefore, well-being (English et al 2016).

The impact of Covid on well-being and emotional intelligence

If we consider the impact of the Covid pandemic, evidence suggests that children's and young people’s mental well-being has been significantly impacted. For example, between April and September 2021, there was an 81% increase in referrals for children and young people's mental and physical health services compared with the same period in 2019.

A relationship can also be found between well-being and pupils’ experiences of disruptive social behaviour whilst at school, with students showing poorer happiness and anxiousness because of peers’ classroom behaviour. (GOV 2021)

Between March and June 2020, a period when schools were closed to most pupils, symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were found to have significantly increased in children and young people aged between 7.5 and 12 years old compared to immediately before the pandemic. The effects of lockdown and a decline in well-being can be seen in data collected across 2020 and 2021, showing students could concentrate very (25%) or quite (59%) well in lessons in their classroom (84% very/quite well), whilst 16% said they could not concentrate very or well at all. Further, 39% of pupils were very worried about catching up on their learning.

As a practitioner being able to use emotionally intelligent strategies with students by talking about experiences, developing confidence, and supporting them to develop mindfulness strategies has and can support a positive classroom experience.By September 2020, relative to the March to June 2020 lockdown, reported behavioural, attention, and emotional difficulties in children had returned to, and stabilized at, a lower level. (Gov 2021).

As a result of the pandemic, emotional intelligence, therefore, has never been more important as a tool in the practitioners’ toolbox. As understanding a pupil’s feelings and emotions and being empathetic can increase engagement and well-being.

Emotional intelligence and the brain

As practitioners, it is useful to understand the components of the brain that are linked to emotional intelligence, including, among others, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and frontal cortex, and amygdala.

The diagram below shows areas of the limbic system which is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to social behaviours we need for survival: and fight or flight responses. Often in neurodiverse students, the amygdala is associated with the body's fear and stress responses, taking over the body's responses to a variety of situations, which to others may not be threatening. For the practitioner to be aware of neurodiverse needs within their student group can then able these students to be supported through a range of strategies, including coaching, mentoring, and transactional analysis.

Emotional intelligence and the limbic system
Emotional intelligence and the limbic system

While the amygdala is often associated with the body’s fear and stress responses, it also plays a pivotal role in memory, often tagging that memory so it is remembered. This partially explains why the similar response to threatening situations perpetuate themselves. Therefore, neuro-diverse learners will have a remembered response from their past to situations which they repeat.

The amygdala is often thought of as being a survival-oriented brain area. Things that have strong emotions associated with them, good and bad, are likely to be the things that allow a species to not only stay alive but also thrive in its environment. Through emotional intelligence, practitioners can support students to have positive memories about a learning experience by using such tools as the 'it’s alright to fail' technique, scaffolding, and conveying the message 'we don't just have one attempt at a task performance'.


Goleman D (2011) identified that as practitioners we should be supporting our students to understand their emotions and thereby identify the appropriateness of their actions. Examples can be drawn from neurodiversity whereby the student often use flight or fight as a means of expressing their frustrations and anxieties. Such displays of emotions can have a massive impact on the whole class environment as the individual potentially interrupts the whole learning situation.

Tied in with this notion is one of a Growth Mindset (Dweck 2011) and the need to give our students a safe environment in which to fail. This humanistic approach to learning echoes Black and Williams’s (2006) research, in that ensuing students can fail and that acting on feedback will promote learning.

Salovey P and JoMayer (1990) defined emotional intelligence that can be used in positive psychology as a “subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own emotions and others' emotions, and how it affects one's task performance to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's own thinking and actions” (Bechtoldt et al, 2011).

From social intelligence to emotional intelligence

Whether you are a teacher or just learning to add on your leadership skill, emotional perception is important to everyone. Thorndike (Sharma 2008) researched dimensions of emotional intelligence as a form of “social intelligence”. He classified intelligence into three dimensions: abstract intelligence refers to managing and understanding ideas; mechanical intelligence includes managing and understanding concrete objects, and social intelligence refers to managing and understanding people.

According to Thorndike, social intelligence is the ability to perceive one’s own and others’ behaviours and motives to successfully make use of that information in social situations. Kaufman (2001) spoke of the influence of both intellective and non-intellective factors on one’s intelligence and the impact that both types of factors have on a person’s ability to act intelligently (Bar-On, 2006; Cherniss, 2000). Gardner (1983) expanded the knowledge of interpersonal skills and intrapersonal skills by introducing his theory of multiple intelligences.

Cantor and Kihlstrom (1987) define social intelligence as possessing knowledge of social skills and having the ability-based measures to get along well with others. John Mayer and Salovey P (1993) refer to social intelligence as adapting to social situations and using social skills to act accordingly. According to Salovey P and Mayer (1990), a more accurate assessment and talking about expressing emotions is emotional intelligence which uses social awareness and social intelligence.

Models of Emotional Intelligence

It is useful to consider diverse types of emotional intelligence and how they can be applied to practice.

Faltas (2017) argues that there are three major models/ types of intelligence:

  1. Daniel Goleman’s self-rated performance model
  2. Bar-On’s competencies model
  3. Mayer, Peter Salovey, and Caruso’s ability model

These three models have been developed from research, analysis, and scientific studies. Some of these models, like the Bar-on model can be used as emotional intelligence tests.

Daniel Goleman’s self-rated performance model of emotional intelligence includes five realms that focus on how we react to and in different social situations.

  1. Know your emotions.
  2. Manage your emotions.
  3. Motivate yourself.
  4. Recognize and understand other people’s emotions.
  5. Manage relationships (others’ emotions)

These can be broken down into four quadrants as shown by the diagram below which can be used as a guide to support the practitioner:

In research, Gill, Ramsey, and Leberman (2015) used self-awareness competency to explore and develop a causal loop diagram.

Emotional intelligence loop
Emotional intelligence loop


Source: Gill et al., 2015

This diagram above explores a unique way of thinking in that there is a relationship between different learning themes. If we apply this model to practice, practitioners should discuss with their students their thoughts and feelings and explore respect for each other.

Mayer and colleagues (2004) developed the ability model as a tool for talking about how emotions and interactions.

They suggest that the abilities and skills of Emotional intelligence can be divided into four areas – the ability to:

  • Perceive emotion This involves emotional perception, including being able to identify emotions in the facial and postural expressions of others. It reflects non-verbal perception and emotional expression to communicate via the face and voice (Mayer et al., 2004)
  • Use emotion to facilitate thought and includes the ability to use emotions to aid thinking
  • Understand emotions and the capacity to understand emotion, including being able to analyze emotions and awareness of the trends in emotion over time, as well as an appreciation of the outcomes from emotions. It also includes the capacity to label and discriminate between feelings.
  • Manage emotion, emotional self-management includes an individual’s factor of personality with goals, self-knowledge, and social awareness shaping how emotions are managed (Mayer et al., 2004).

Bar-On model looks at five core factors of emotional intelligence by focusing on our reaction to change:

  1. Intrapersonal - relates to self-awareness and self-expression, governing our ability to be aware of our emotions and ourselves in general, to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and to express our feelings and ourselves non-destructively. It consists of sub factors including self-regard, emotional self-awareness, assertiveness, independence, and self-actualization.
  2. Interpersonal - relates to our ability to be aware of others’ feelings, concerns, and needs, and to be able to establish and maintain cooperative, constructive, and mutually satisfying relationships. It consists of sub factors including empathy, social responsibility, and interpersonal relationships.
  3. Stress Management - relates to emotional management and controlling our ability to deal with emotions so that they work for us and not against us. It consists of sub factors including stress, tolerance, and impulse control.
  4. Adaptability - relates primarily to change management i.e., how we cope with and adapt to personal and interpersonal change as well as change in our immediate environment. It consists of sub-factors, including reality testing, flexibility, and problem-solving.
  5. General Mood - relates to our level of self-achievement motivation. It consists of sub factors, including optimism and happiness.

Why is emotional intelligence important for teachers?

First, emotional intelligence helps students cope with emotions in the academic environment. Students can feel anxious about exams, feel disappointed with poor results, feel frustrated when they try hard but cannot achieve what they want, or feel bored if they don't find the subject matter interesting. Being able to regulate these emotions so they do not interfere with learning helps students achieve success in the learning environment. The following chart can be used with students to explore feelings, well-being, and mindfulness.

Second, emotional intelligence can help students maintain their relationships with teachers, students, and family. Personal relationship management means they can call on friends and teachers to help them when they struggle, can learn from others in group work, or can call on others for emotional support hence creating the skills of an effective leader. Using pair-share strategies, snowballing techniques, thinking environments, and general active learning technical skills are all ways relationships can be explored

Third, some humanities subjects (like literature or history) lend themselves to some level of emotional and social knowledge. It is, therefore, useful to use themes from these subjects to explore and channel emotions.

Supporting emotional intelligence
Supporting emotional intelligence

Strategies to promote emotional awareness and emotional intelligence

  • Be a positive role model in your words and actions: calm yourself down when you are upset, and use a problem-solving process to help you make decisions, ...
  • Respond to real-life situations by showing measured reactions to students' behaviours
  • Read to students and use literature:

  • Share biographies and autobiographies to highlight character virtues and use of positive psychology and positive SECD skills,
  • Examine current role models and those from history,
  • Work with students to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the internet, and
  • Explore the work of scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, first responders, public officials, and those working in other fields, the problems they were trying to solve, and the decisions they made along the way.

Encourage writing as a means of expression by:

  • Teaching students a variety of emotional words to use in their writing, as this helps in emotional awareness and the regulation of emotion 
  • Encouraging students to think about choices and consequences and effects on self and others,
  • Identifying students’ goals and aspirations and how these connect to their everyday behaviours, and
  • Have students use a journal of personality with or without feedback to record interests, needs, ambitions, feelings, attitudes, and emotions.

Have conversations about the character by:

  • Relating personal and family stories,
  • Sharing and listening to students’ experiences,
  • Highlighting examples of kindness and caring students in and around the school,
  • Discussing real-life and fictional dilemmas and the choices and values they require,
  • Reflecting on what achievement motivates people and why they act the way they do, and
  • Commenting on and improving the critical thinking skills of students, including time management, goal setting, questioning, brainstorming, problem-solving, and ethical decision-making.

Embedding emotional intelligence into school life

The intelligence of emotional intelligence is something we should use in the classroom through simple strategies that support thinking, and internal inquiry and promote understanding of self and how we interact with others. These are some frameworks available that look at ways we can approach emotional intelligence, but it is about opening communication channels within the learning environment to explore thoughts and feelings.




Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18(Suppl), 13–25.

Bechtoldt, M. N., Rohrmann, S., De Pater, I. E., & Beersma, B. (2011). The primacy of perceiving: Emotion recognition buffers negative effects of emotional labor. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(5), 1087–1094

Black and Williams(2006)Inside the Black box: Rising standards through classroom assessment.GT assessment Ltd

Cherniss, C. (2000). Social and emotional competence in the workplace. In R. Bar-On & J. D. A. Parker (Eds.), The handbook of emotional intelligence: Theory, development, assessment, and application at home, school, and in the workplace (pp. 433–458). Jossey-Bass.

Dotterer, A.M., Lowe, K. (2000)Classroom Context, School Engagement, and Academic Achievement in Early Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1649–1660 .

Dweck (2011) Mindset how you can fulfill your potential. Robinson Publishing

English T, Lee IA, John OP, Gross JJ.(2016) Emotion regulation strategy selection in daily life: The role of social context and goals. Motiv Emot. 2017 Apr;41(2):230-242.

Faltas I (2017) Three Models of Emotional Intelligence

Gardner (1983)Frames of Mind. Basic Books

Gill, L. J., Ramsey, P. L., & Leberman, S. I. (2015). A systems approach to developing emotional intelligence using the self-awareness engine of growth model. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 28(6), 575–594.

Goleman (2011) Emotional intelligence why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing

Gov (2021) State of the Nation 2021:children and young peoples well being

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2007). Learning opportunities in preschool and early elementary classrooms. In R. C. Pianta, M. J. Cox, & K. L. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability (pp. 49–83). Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, J. C. (2001). Emotional intelligence as an aspect of general intelligence: What would David Wechsler say? Emotion, 1(3), 258–264

Kihlstrom, J. F., & Cantor, N. (2000). Social intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 359–379). Cambridge University Press.

Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012, ).
Classroom Emotional Climate, Student Engagement, and Academic Achievement. Journal of
Educational Psychology.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Journal of International Medical Research, 9(3), 145–151.

Schon D (1992) The Reflective Practitioner. Routledge

Sharma, R. R. (2008). Emotional Intelligence from 17th Century to 21st Century: Perspectives and Directions for Future Research. Vision, 12(1), 59–66.