Students who understand and manage their emotions, a skill known as emotional intelligence, do better at school, as shown by grades and standardized test scores, according to new research.
“Although we know that high intelligence and a conscientious personality are the most important psychological traits necessary for academic success, our research highlights a third factor, emotional intelligence, that may also help students succeed,” said Carolyn MacCann, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney and lead author of the study.
“It’s not enough to be smart and hardworking. Students must also be able to understand and manage their emotions to succeed at school.”
For the study, MacCann and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 160 studies, representing more than 42,000 students from 27 countries, published between 1998 and 2019. More than 76 percent were from English-speaking countries. The students ranged in age from elementary school to college.
The analysis found that students with higher emotional intelligence tended to get higher grades and better test scores than those with lower emotional intelligence scores. This finding held true even when controlling for intelligence and personality factors.
What was most surprising, according to the researchers, was that the association held regardless of age.
As for why emotional intelligence can affect academic performance, MacCann believes a number of factors may come into play.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Finally, the skills required for emotional intelligence, such as understanding human motivation and emotion, may overlap with the skills required to master certain subjects, such as history and language, giving students an advantage in those subject areas, she said.
MacCann cautions against widespread testing of students to identify and target those with low emotional intelligence as it may stigmatize the students. Instead, she recommends interventions that involve the whole school, including additional teacher training and a focus on teacher well-being and emotional skills.
“Programs that integrate emotional skill development into the existing curriculum would be beneficial, as research suggests that training works better when run by teachers rather than external specialists,” she said. “Increasing skills for everyone — not just those with low emotional intelligence — would benefit everyone.”
The study was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.