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Emotional Competence Part 1: just the latest fad, or an important new concept?

Emotional life is a domain that, as surely as math or reading, can be handled with greater or lesser skill, and requires its unique set of competencies. And how adept a person is at those is crucial to understanding why one person thrives in life while another, of equal intellect, dead-ends
Daniel Goleman (i)

It probably seems that every time you open your accumulated pile of post or flick through an early years magazine, there is a mention of something new that has the power to send you into a frenzy of panic about what experts say you should be doing. It would therefore not be surprising if an article about 'emotional intelligence' or 'emotional competence' were to be met with a sigh and the response that there is nothing new about the concept. So, is this concept just a 'fad', or is it something that practitioners really do need to actively address?

In fact, in many ways there is nothing new about the actual concept of emotional competence. However - and this is a big 'however' - what is new is that we have finally realised how vital emotional competence is to the future of every child and to society as a whole. Emotionally competent people make wise choices and are better positioned to succeed. A child with a high level of emotional intelligence will be more able to face life's challenges and will be more likely to achieve to his highest potential. In the words of Daniel Goleman:

'At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces'

Quite simply, experts have now realised that the emotional intelligence of a child will have a greater impact upon his future success both academically and personally than his IQ. If we pause for a minute to think, we realise how new and exciting this concept is. If we address emotional development adequately for the children in our care, we can have a far more significant impact upon their future lives than we have ever realised. The focus in British schools has traditionally been upon IQ, academic content, and testing. Early years practitioners are unusual in the way that they address children's social development more directly than most of their colleagues in the later years. What experts are now suggesting, though, is that we do more: that we actively plan and assess how we work to foster children's emotional and social development, and furthermore, that we actually teach for it.

With the publication of work such as Daniel Goleman's on 'Emotional Intelligence' and Howard Gardner's on the 'Multiple Intelligences'(ii) , educationalists have moved on from seeing intelligence as being simply one-dimensional. Many now see it as multi-faceted, with emotional intelligence being an intelligence that can be developed and actively taught, although many British experts prefer to use the term 'emotional competence' rather than 'emotional intelligence'. Laurel Edmunds and Sarah Stewart-Brown from Oxford University recently conducted research for the DfES in which they recommend the use of the term 'emotional competence', which they define as:

The ability to understand, manage and express the social and emotional aspects of one's life in ways that enable the successful management of life tasks such as learning, forming relationships, solving everyday problems, and adapting to the complex demands of growth and development.(iii)

The word 'competence' hands the power over to us to shape our own future and to help to shape that of our children. With this, comes the realisation of how much responsibility lies in the hands of practitioners to foster and promote strong moral and social dispositions in the children in their care. Emotional development needs to underscore everything we do in the setting. In addition to this, comes the realisation that we should be explicitly teaching for it and monitoring its development. When we do this, children will reap the rewards both emotionally and academically, because emotional competence does not operate in isolation. Goleman calls it:

a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

So how do we ensure that we are fostering emotional competence, and how do we actually teach it? Many individual practitioners, schools, early years' settings and LEAs are currently experimenting with these very issues. Katherine Weare and Gay Gray from the University of Southampton were recently commissioned by the DfES to analyse projects on emotional competence by key organizations and individuals, as well as five LEA projects. They stress the importance of taking a holistic approach, and not simply imposing a piecemeal 'emotional literacy' curriculum. Most experts are agreed that emotional competence and morality is learned far more effectively through adult example and guidance rather than from lectures or coercion. One of the most effective ways of teaching morality is by modelling it, and by being explicit about what you are doing as you do so:


We grow morally as a consequence of learning how to be with others, how to behave in this world, a learning prompted by taking to heart what we have seen and heard.
Robert Coles (iv)

Provision for emotional competence needs to be worked into a stimulating, age-appropriate, developmental curriculum for young children. This is something that most early years practitioners would know instinctively, and research would support them on this. It has been shown that the style of educational provision for children as young as three can influence their choices much later in life. A recent study showed that children who attended a preschool with a carefully planned developmental curriculum had a far lower incidence of emotional disorders in adult life compared to their peers who had attended a very formal setting. Incredibly, the impact of their very earliest education meant that as adults they were also far less likely to have been suspended from work or even to have been arrested. (v)



However, we cannot afford to sit back and say that a good setting following the foundation stage curriculum will provide for social and emotional development by default, and that we have it covered simply by providing the high quality education for which we constantly strive. We need to do more. We need to raise the term 'emotional competence' in our consciousness. We need to monitor children's social and emotional growth and plan for its development. We need to speak about emotional competence when we plan, whether we are considering the curriculum for next term, or the practicalities of something like installing a new water cooler for children to use. You might wonder how a new water cooler could be relevant to children's emotional health. To Samir or Elena, the new water cooler might be very relevant! What will the rules be for children using the cooler? How many children will go to drink at any one time? Will children learn to take turns, will they have adult help as they learn to control their impulse to push in the line, and will they have to make choices, for example to sacrifice time outdoors in order to get a drink before story time? These everyday decisions taken in the setting will indeed have an impact upon children's emotional development. Research has shown that if Samir learns to control his impulses now, he will be more likely to be able to control his impulses in the future. For example, researchers have compared groups of children given standard anti-drug teaching to 'just say no' with other children who were taught and given the opportunity to practice specific refusal techniques. The children who experienced the more emotionally engaging programme were later far more successful in refusing drugs. (Jones et al, 1990).

Just as older children need more than being taught to 'just say no' to drugs, Samir needs an adult to explicitly teach him how to behave appropriately when he is tempted to push Elena in the queue for the water cooler. The lesson about delaying gratification and controlling impulse needs to be given in the moment (or as soon afterwards as possible!) The lesson then needs to be revisited in many different contexts, where Samir can be taught and given the chance to practice more appropriate behaviours. To have the maximum impact upon children's emotional development, we need to engage children in exploring issues and practicing appropriate behaviours. We should be specifically planning and teaching for all aspects of emotional competence, and not leaving its development to chance. Southampton LEA advises schools:

'There is a place for a taught emotional literacy curriculum, with schemes of work, lesson plans and using a range of teaching methods, just as there is a need to 'live' the emotional literacy programme.'

Just what this emotional literacy curriculum would look like, particularly for the foundation stage, is something that practitioners need to consider carefully. The answer is going to be different for each setting. A good starting point would be to do an audit of what is already being done, in order to see where changes might be needed and where a more specific teaching approach might be introduced. In concluding their research for the DfES last year, Weare and Gray recommended that:

schools develop and adopt programmes designed to promote emotional and social competence and wellbeing that include the taught curriculum, and which teach emotional and social competences in a comprehensive, organised, explicit and developmental way.(vi)

Children do not need programmes that involve coercion or lectures about good behaviour. Instead, practitioners need to work towards developing a curriculum for emotional development that is exciting, innovative, inclusive, and creative.

Although this might seem to be one more thing to take on board, early years practitioners have a definite advantage over their colleagues who teach older children. They have been paying close attention to children's emotional development for years! Furthermore, they are open to innovation, especially when it involves creative, practical, hands-on activities for children. That is what an emotional literacy curriculum in any type of setting should look like. Just as academic concepts are best learned through play, so is emotional competence. For the next five months, I will be addressing ways that this can be done for each of the five aspects of emotional intelligence as defined by Daniel Goleman: self-awareness, managing emotions, self-motivation, handling relationships and developing empathy. When we help a child to gain emotional literacy in these five areas, we dramatically increase her chances of fulfilling her potential in all aspects of life. These are exciting times, and the potential for positively influencing children's lives is phenomenal.

Exclusively for the Foundation Stage Forum - International copyright Nicola Call © March 2004. All rights reserved

In the next article in this series I will cover the development of self-awareness.



i) Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995


ii) Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind - the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books, New York , 1983



iii) Assessing Emotional and Social Competence in Primary School and Early Years Settings: A Review of Approaches, Issues and Instruments, L. Edmunds and S. Stewart-Brown, University of Oxford , December 2003



iv) Robert Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children - How to Raise a Moral Child, Random House Inc, New York , 1997



(v)Schweinhart, L.J., Barnes, H. V., & Weikart, D. P. (1993) Significant Benefits: the High/Scope Perry Pre-school Study Through age 27; Ypsilanti , Mi: High/Scope Press



vi) Katherine Weare and Gay Gray, What Works in Developing Children's Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? University of Southampton , Research Report No 456, 2003


Nicola Call
Nicola Call is author of The ALPS Approach and The Thinking Child. She is currently working on The Can-Do Club, a series of children's books with accompanying activities for the promotion of emotional competence. More information about Nicola's work can be found at her websites at acceleratedlearning.co.uk and www.candoclub.com

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