Students Who Can Understand & Manage Their Emotions Do Better in School

A new study from the American Psychological Association found higher emotional intelligence was associated with higher grades and better achievement test scores.

Recent trends in parenting, such as using time-in or time-off to discipline versus time-out, have highlighted the importance of teaching children to identify and regulate their emotions. Now, new research from the American Psychological Association (APA), published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, has linked emotional intelligence to academic achievement—specifically improved grades and standardized test scores. Given that the area of emotional intelligence has only been formally studied since the 1990s, the study is being touted as the first comprehensive meta-analysis to link it to success in school.

Here's what you need to know.

What the Study Found

Carolyn MacCann, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney and lead author of the study, and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 160 studies, representing more than 42,000 students from 27 countries (more than 76% English-speaking), published between 1998 and 2019. Students were anywhere from elementary school to college age.

Researchers found that students who had higher emotional intelligence tended to get higher grades and better achievement test scores than those with lower emotional intelligence. Even when controlling for intelligence and personality factors, the link remained. Another surprise to the researchers: This conclusion held true regardless of a student's age.

Why is this the case? In a release from the APA, MacCann, explained, "Students with higher emotional intelligence may be better able to manage negative emotions, such as anxiety, boredom, and disappointment, that can negatively affect academic performance. Also, these students may be better able to manage the social world around them, forming better relationships with teachers, peers, and family, all of which are important to academic success."

MacCann also pointed out that skills linked to emotional intelligence—like understanding human motivation and emotion—may overlap with skills that are central to comprehension in subjects like history and language. So, emotionally intelligent students have a leg up in those areas.

How Lacking Emotional Intelligence Negatively Affects Students

In the APA release, MacCann offered an example of how this might play out during a typical school day. She described a hypothetical student named Kelly who is good at math and science but struggles with emotional intelligence.

"She has difficulty seeing when others are irritated, worried or sad. She does not know how people’s emotions may cause future behavior. She does not know what to do to regulate her own feelings," said MacCann. In turn, Kelly doesn't recognize when her friend Lucia is having a bad day, and Lucia gets mad at Kelly for her insensitivity, refusing to help her in their English lit class. Kelly is challenged in this subject because it requires her to analyze and understand the motivations and emotions of characters in books and plays.

“Kelly feels ashamed that she can’t do the work in English literature that other students seem to find easy," MacCann said. "She is also upset that Lucia is mad at her. She can’t seem to shake these feelings, and she is not able to concentrate on her math problems in the next class. Because of her low emotion management ability, Kelly cannot bounce back from her negative emotions and finds herself struggling even in subjects she is good at.”

What Researchers Concluded

MacCann explained that although academic success has previously been linked to high intelligence and a conscientious personality, emotional intelligence might be a third box students could check in order to succeed. "It’s not enough to be smart and hardworking," she noted in the APA release. "Students must also be able to understand and manage their emotions to succeed at school."

That said, she warned against widespread testing of students to identify and target those whose emotional intelligence is considered low, as it could lead to stigmatization. She recommended that interventions involve additional teacher training and programs that would integrate emotional skill development into the existing curriculum. "Research suggests that training works better when run by teachers rather than external specialists,” MacCann said. "Increasing skills for everyone—not just those with low emotional intelligence—would benefit everyone."

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