Beyond the "Three Rs"

Beyond the "Three Rs"
16 July 2012

A return to “traditional teaching” – with its emphasis on maths, English and frequent testing – is the invariable promise of politicians pledging to improve academic standards.

But can academic standards be improved instead by strengthening children’s social and emotional well-being? New research by a team from Cambridge Assessment, UK, suggests that it can.

The study looked at whether emotional intelligence is related to academic performance in secondary schools. Emotional intelligence was defined in terms of well-being and the ability to motivate oneself, control impulses and persist despite difficulties. It also included the ability to manage stress, empathise and get along with other people.

The research team, led by Carmen Vidal Rodeiro, studied 874 15-16 year-old boys and girls from 24 state and independent secondary schools. They measured pupils’ emotional intelligence using a 30-minute questionnaire, which the pupils completed themselves. Academic performance was measured by GCSEs, the standard external examination results taken by 16 year-olds in Britain.

“Highly successful” students – the top 20 per cent on mean GCSE grades – scored higher than “moderately” and “less” successful pupils – the bottom 20 per cent – on emotional intelligence. Moreover, the difference between highly and less successful students varied for different elements of emotional intelligence.

The biggest differences were in self-motivation and self-control, with smaller differences for "emotion perception" – the ability to recognize emotions and express feelings to others – and skills in relationships.

According to the authors, the pattern is clear: “Abilities to develop and sustain relationships with others or to recognise emotions and express feelings to others, although they could be rewarding personal relationships, do not seem to be related to achievement at school to the same degree as being able to control one’s own feelings and internal emotional states (emotional regulation or low impulsivity) or having a strong sense of achievement (self-motivation).”

This pattern was reinforced in more sophisticated statistical analyses to assess the relationship between emotional intelligence and academic attainment. In these analyses the researchers controlled for general academic ability by using test scores the pupils had achieved a few years previously.

The results showed that emotional intelligence overall, as well as most of its constituent elements, had a significant and positive relationship with academic attainment at GCSE when general ability was controlled for. Again, conclude the authors, the relationship was strongest for self-motivation and self-control and weakest for factors relating to sociability: “It would seem that being determined and persevering, having control over urges and desires, in addition to fending off impulses, and being able to regulate external pressures and stress helps students to achieve more. [But] being good at social interaction, having good listening skills, and communicating clearly and confidently with others do not have an impact on overall students’ performance at school.”

Although the differences in attainment explained by emotional intelligence are not huge, they are real. For example, a student with average ability based on earlier tests and a total emotional intelligence score of six would score over half a grade higher overall than a student with an emotional intelligence score of three.

There was also some evidence of emotional intelligence being more important for performance in some subjects – drama, for example – than in others such as physics and maths.

The authors are careful to note limitations in the study. Pupils volunteered to participate in the study, so it is possible that the more able or confident pupils completed the questionnaire and the design means it cannot be concluded that better emotional intelligence actually causes better academic performance.

But if the link is found to be causal, then the implications are far-reaching, according to the authors: “Performance of school children could be improved by devising successful strategies for even modest improvements in some aspects of their emotional intelligence. This may be more effective that concentrating solely on teaching and curriculum initiatives.”



Vidal Rodeiro, C. L., Emery, J. L. & Bell, J. F. (2011). Emotional intelligence and academic attainment of British secondary school children: a cross-sectional survey. Educational Studies, available online 7 December 2011.


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