Student Well-Being

Students Who Can Manage Their Emotions Do Better in School, Large Scale Study Finds

By Arianna Prothero — December 12, 2019 4 min read
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Emotional intelligence is an important part of academic success—from kindergarten into college—according to a new study.

In particular, students who understand and can manage their emotions earn higher grades and do better on standardized tests.

The findings help bolster the growing consensus among researchers that skills such as emotional intelligence are not just important for future workplace success, but also students’ academic success in the here and now. The results are also likely to help schools make the case that investing in teaching social-emotional skills will bring a payoff in improved student achievement.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, is notable in both its scale and depth.

It’s a meta-analysis of every relevant study researchers could find—162 in all—that cover 42,000 students in 27 countries.

“Because of the large number of samples, I’m really certain of these results,” said Carolyn MacCann, an associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and the lead author of the study. “It isn’t a study about one school in one country.”

While raw intelligence, or IQ, is still the biggest predictor of academic performance, the study’s findings put understanding and managing emotions right up there with it.

The extent of a students’ emotional intelligence can account for 4 percent of the differences in students’ academic performance, said MacCann.

“That doesn’t sound big, but intelligence only explains 15 percent,” she said. “And certain parts of it, like understanding emotions, explains 12 percent of the difference between students.”

MacCann believes this is the first large-scale meta-analysis of studies examining the link between emotional intelligence and academic performance.

“A meta-analysis of such an enormous sample of studies always catches the eye,” said Shannon Wanless, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “What really jumps out at me, which you hope you would see, is that it really tells the story you’re feeling ... the findings do fit a lot of the things we’re seeing in lots of different places but it’s helpful to look at the broader pattern.”

The study also examines different types of emotional intelligence and methods of measuring it to see how these variations impact tests, grades, and success in different academic subjects.

The goal is to determine exactly what parts of emotional intelligence move the needle on academics.

“We try to be very clear about the active ingredient,” said MacCann. “There may be similarities, but if you are designing interventions, you want to know what the active ingredient is.”

For example, MacCann found that students’ ability to read others’ emotions was not as important as the ability to regulate their own emotions.

The way that emotional intelligence was measured also mattered in how much it appeared to affect academic performance. For example, objective tests of emotional intelligence are better at predicting student academic success than measurement tools that rely on people ranking their own emotional intelligence.

All of this means that the better students are at understanding and regulating emotions—based on objective measurements, not self-reporting—the better they will do on tests and the higher the grades they will earn, particularly in the humanities.

That’s not to say that strong emotional regulation skills don’t have an affect on math and science abilities, it’s just not to as high of a degree, said MacCann.

“I think it’s because some of the ability of understanding human motivation and emotion is actually part of the academic skill needed for analyzing literature, or understanding the historical causes of world wars,” said MacCann.

That’s one potential reason why emotional intelligence drives academic performance.

Emotionally intelligent students may also be better at handling negative emotions that come from, say, test anxiety.

Students with high emotional intelligence may also be better at managing their social world—from navigating peer pressure to forming positive relationships with teachers—which puts them in a better position to focus on learning.

But for MacCann, the big takeaway is this: teaching emotional intelligence skills doesn’t detract from students’ academics—it boosts them.

“Teachers are under a lot of pressure to teach to the curriculum or the test, and there is a movement toward social- emotional programs, but it can be seen as taking away from passing their academic tests,” MacCann said. “I just want teachers and educators to know that students’ emotional skills are not in a totally separate bucket from their academic skills.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.