Why You Need Emotional Intelligence to Succeed at School

Understanding and managing emotions gives students the edge.

Posted Jun 13, 2020

Parents, teachers, and students all want to know what personal qualities will help students perform well in their studies. While teaching quality, resources, and other environmental factors help students achieve their best, students’ personal qualities can give them an edge over others.

Past research has found two personal qualities that are important for student success. The first quality is intelligence. Being smart enough to master algebra and coding is obviously important for success. The second quality is conscientiousness. Being organized enough to remember your homework and organize your notes is another clear advantage.

It isn’t hard to see why being smart and working hard would help students get better grades and higher test scores. Students’ IQ scores explain about 15 percent of the differences in achievement. Conscientiousness explains about 5 percent of such differences.

But research shows that emotional intelligence can also give students a critical edge.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions.

Some emotional intelligence tests use rating scales. For example, test-takers might rate their agreement with statements like “I am aware of the nonverbal messages other people send." Other emotional intelligence tests directly measure emotional abilities with skill-based tasks. For example, test takers would have to identify which emotion is expressed in a face.

Our new research paper showed that emotionally intelligent students get better exam results and better grades. This meta-analysis summarized 1,246 research findings on the link between emotional intelligence and academic performance. While these findings could not directly show a cause-and-effect relationship between emotion-related characteristics and performance, they do reveal notable associations between them. Overall, we found that differences in students’ emotional intelligence could account for about 4 percent of differences in achievement. 

But some types of emotional intelligence were more strongly related to achievement than others. Skill-based tasks of emotional intelligence accounted for 6 percent of differences in academic performance whereas self-ratings of emotional abilities accounted for 1 percent of differences.

Carolyn MacCann
Understanding how emotions combine
Source: Carolyn MacCann

But also, some kinds of abilities seemed to be especially significant—including understanding emotions and managing emotions.

Students who can understand emotions can accurately label their own and others’ emotions. They know what causes emotions, how emotions change, and how emotions combine.

Students who can manage emotions know how to regulate their emotions in stressful situations. They know what to do to maintain good social relationships with others.

Emotion management ability accounted for 7 percent of differences in academic performance.

Emotion understanding skills accounted for 12 percent.

That is, measures of emotion understanding skills seem to account for student success to a greater extent than measures of conscientiousness (5 percent), and almost as much as IQ scores (15 percent).

Why would emotional intelligence be important for success in education?

There are three likely reasons why emotional intelligence relates to higher academic performance.

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 when the subject matter is not interesting. Being able to regulate these emotions so they do not interfere with learning helps students achieve.

Second, emotional intelligence can help students maintain their relationships with teachers, students, and family. Maintaining close personal relationships 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.

Third, humanities subjects (like literature or history) require some level of emotional and social knowledge. For example, the universal themes and character development in literature requires understanding human motivations and emotions.

What do emotionally intelligent students do differently that allows them to succeed at school?

Emotionally intelligent students know more about emotions, which makes studying arts or humanities subjects easier for them. But what they do differently is mainly how they regulate their emotions. There are three ways emotion regulation would be different for high emotional intelligence versus low emotional intelligence students.

First, emotionally intelligent students use better processes to regulate their emotions. We know that some processes are more effective than others. For example, concentrating on negative emotions (rumination) is linked to worse outcomes, whereas looking on the bright side (positive reappraisal) is linked to better outcomes. We know that emotionally intelligent people generally report using more of the better processes (like positive reappraisal) less of the worse processes (like rumination).

Second, emotionally intelligent students might pick strategies that are more appropriate or effective for the situation they are in. That is, they may be more sensitive to key details of the situation, and therefore be more flexible in their responses. We know that positive reappraisal is linked to well-being in uncontrollable situations (where nothing can be done about the stress) but not controllable situations (where perhaps it is better to change the situation than change the way you think about it). Perhaps emotionally intelligent people are more sensitive to whether situations are in their control or not, and pick their strategies accordingly.

Third, emotionally intelligent students might implement the strategies better. For example, when using ‘positive reappraisal’, an emotionally intelligent student might be able to think of a feasible positive spin or silver lining. In contrast, a low-EI student might only be able to think a vague or unrealistic positive view of things, which would be less effective for making them feel better.

How could this play out in a student's day?

Consider a hypothetical student Cooper, who is good at maths and science but has low emotional intelligence abilities. 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. A typical day of school for Cooper shows how her low emotional intelligence can interfere with a student's ability to achieve at school.

Cooper arrives at school. Her best friend Alice is staring at the ground with her arms folded. Her eyes are a little red and puffy. Cooper tells her about a cool TV show she watched last night. Alice does not seem interested so Cooper goes to talk to someone else. Because Cooper has poor ability to perceive Alice’s emotions, she has not noticed anything is wrong. Alice is upset that Cooper did not show any sympathy for her. Alice tells Cooper that she is not a good friend.

Cooper goes into class. The class is meant to analyze the motivations and emotions of the characters in the book they are reading. Cooper finds this very hard. She is not able to answer many of the questions. Alice sometimes helps Cooper with things like this, but she is mad at Cooper today and refuses to help. Alice rolls her eyes and says that the questions are easy.

Cooper feels ashamed that she can’t do the work other students seem to find easy. She is also upset that Alice 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, Cooper cannot bounce back from her negative emotions.

This example shows how paying attention to building a student's emotional intelligence can help them learn, achieve, and succeed at school.