What Is Emotional Intelligence?

what is emotional intelligence

There are many different kinds of intelligence.

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences identifies eight types:

  • Spatial (the ability to visualize three-dimensional objects)
  • Naturalist (the ability to understand and read nature)
  • Musical (the ability to discern sound, pitch, tone, rhythm, and timbre)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic (the ability to coordinate the mind and motor movements)
  • Linguistic (the ability to use words to express thoughts and feelings)
  • Logical-mathematical (the ability to quantify, make hypotheses, and prove predictions)
  • Intrapersonal (the ability to understand one’s self, emotions, and needs)
  • Interpersonal (the ability to sense others’ feelings, intentions, and motives)

While emotional intelligence is not specifically named in Gardner’s list, one could argue that it is involved in each of the eight types.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

While graduate student Wayne Leon Payne first used the term ’emotional intelligence’ in his doctoral dissertation in 1985, the phrase did not appear again in academic research until 1990, when two university professors–John Mayer and Peter Salovey–conducted research to measure the difference between a person’s abilities in and around the emotions. The professors developed two tests to measure emotional intelligence, as well. In their original framework, they define emotional intelligence in the following ways:

  • The ability to identify emotions in one’s self as well as in others
  • The ability to integrate one’s emotions into thought processes
  • The ability to process complex emotions
  • The ability to regulate one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others

Perhaps the most illustrious researcher of emotional intelligence is Daniel Goleman, who received permission from Mayer and Salovey in order to write his 1996 book, “Emotional Intelligence.” After Oprah and Dr. Phil used their platforms to showcase Goleman’s work, the phrase–and movement to develop emotional intelligence–took off.

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is a person’s capacity to manage their feelings in order to appropriately and accurately express them. Fun fact: in his book, Goleman states that emotional intelligence is the top predictor of workplace success; specifically, he claims that emotional intelligence accounts for 67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance in leaders, and is 200% more important than specific technical expertise or IQ.

What Are The Five Dimensions Of Emotional Intelligence?

He goes on to name five categories that make up emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

  • A self-aware person knows their own strengths and weaknesses and understands how their words and behaviors affect other people. They are receptive to constructive criticism and typically learn from it.
  • A self-regulated person knows how to exercise restraint and control their emotions when their nervous system is activated.
  • A self-motivated person is resilient and driven to succeed from within, as opposed to being motivated by money, power, fame, or other extrinsic factors.
  • An empathetic person is compassionate and makes an effort to connect with others on a deeper level; they genuinely care about other people and are talented active listeners.
  • A person who has highly developed social skills knows how to establish trusting relationships and gain respect from others.

Emotional Intelligence Shows Up In Many Realms Of Education

Those familiar with CASEL’s framework of social-emotional learning (SEL) will recognize some similarities. At the center are five social and emotional competencies that support learning and personal development: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. These five competencies are encircled within four critical settings inhabited by developing students and the four contexts where those stakeholders can support students as they develop social-emotional skills:

  • Through direct and indirect SEL instruction and climate in the classroom
  • Through schoolwide cultures, practices, and policies
  • Through authentic partnerships with families and caregivers
  • Through aligned learning opportunities in the community

Emotional intelligence also makes an appearance in social/communal constructivism, which asserts that “the level of potential development is the level at which learning takes place…it comprises cognitive structures that are still in the process of maturing, but which can only mature under the guidance of or in collaboration with others). Just as a social context is a pre-/co-requisite to learning in general, Goleman and other researchers who have studied emotional intelligence would claim that the same is true for developing emotional intelligence. Albert Bandura–developer of social learning theory–would share the same opinion. To learn more about communal constructivism and social learning theory, see Teaching The Child Downstream: In Favor Of Communal Constructivism and Albert Bandura’s Principles of Learning Theory.

What Does The Research Say?

Goleman, et al. (2006) published a paper entitled Emotional Intelligence: What Does The Research Really Indicate? Within the paper, they cite the following studies and findings regarding emotional intelligence (EI):

  • Rosete & Ciarrochi (2005) correlate EI and leadership effectiveness in a group of executive-level staff
  • Van Rooy & Viswesvaran (2004) found a correlation between EI and performance outcomes within career and academic domains after examining 69 independent studies
  • Cavalla & Brienza studied over 300 managers at Johnson & Johnson using the ECI (Emotional Competence Inventory) and found the the best performers scored higher than other performers in all domains of EI
  • Bar-On, Handley & Fund (2005) measured emotional intelligence and performance in U.S. Air Force military recruiters and found that high-level performers scored significantly higher on the EI domains than low performers
  • Stone, Parker & Wood (2005) found that above-average principals (the top 20% of the sample) scored significantly higher than the below-average performers (bottom 20% of the sample) on all dimensions of EI
  • Boyatzis & Sala (2004) established a correlation between principals’ levels of self-/social awareness and the schools’ retention rates
  • A meta-analysis conducted by Durlak & Weissberg (2005) found that schools which promote one or more SEL competencies see decreased antisocial behavior and aggression in students, fewer high-level discipline problems, and a reduced number of school suspensions; additionally, they discovered that the same students improved attendance, had higher GPAs, and scored higher on achievement tests

How Can Teachers Cultivate Emotional Intelligence In Their Students?

The best way for teachers to help their students grow in the dimensions of social intelligence is to incorporate collaborative and social learning activities in each lesson.

Discussion-based activities like Socratic seminars, philosophical chairs, Paidea seminars, and fishbowl conversations are great contexts for students to practice the five core skills. For example:

  • Students practice self-awareness paying attention to their body language, showing up prepared, and cognizant of certain biases and preconceptions they may be bringing to the table
  • Students practice self-regulation by refraining from dominating a conversation, being disrespectful if they are offended by someone’s contribution, and listening actively to other speakers
  • Students practice social skills by involving others in discussion, agreeing or disagreeing in a thoughtful manner, and expressing interest in what others have to share

Teachers can additionally foster emotional intelligence by engaging students in inquiry-based learning, which naturally promotes self-awareness and social awareness through curiosity and discovery.

How do you promote emotional intelligence in your classes? At the school-wide level? We’d love to hear your best practices.


Bar-On, R., Handley, R., & Fund, S. (2005). The impact of emotional intelligence on performance. In V. Druskat, F. Sala, & G. Mount (Eds.), Linking emotional intelligence and performance at work: Current research evidence (pp. 3–20). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Boyatzis, R. E., & Sala, F. (2004). Assessing emotional intelligence competencies. In G. Geher (Ed.), Measuring emotional intelligence: Common ground and controversy (pp. 147–180). Hauppage, NY: Nova Science.

Cavallo, K., & Brienza, D. (2004). Emotional competence and leadership excellence at Johnson & Johnson: The emotional intelligence and leadership study. New Brunswick, NJ: Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, Rutgers University.

Goleman, D., Cherniss, C., Extein, M., & Weissberg, R. P. (2006). Emotional Intelligence: What Does the Research Really Indicate? Educational Psychologist, 41(4), 239-245.

Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2005, August). A major meta-analysis of positive youth development programs. Invited presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1995). Emotional intelligence and the construction and regulation of feelings. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 4, 197–208.

Rosete, D., & Ciarrochi, J. (2005). Emotional intelligence and its relationship to workplace performance outcomes of leadership effectiveness. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 26, 388-399.

Stone, H., Parker, J. D. A., & Wood, L. M. (2005). Report on the Ontario Principals Council Leadership Study. Toronto: Ontario Principals’ Council.

Van Rooy, D. L., & Viswesvaran, C. (2004). Emotional intelligence: A meta-analytic investigation of predictive validity and nomological net. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, 71–95.