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Emotional Intelligence, Parenting and Education; Part 1 of Interview with Dr Karen Hansen

Yvette Vignando: I’m at the Swinburne University of Technology with Dr Karen Hansen, a post doctorial research fellow at the Brain Sciences Institute.  Karen coordinates the Emotional Intelligence and Education Research Unit and facilitates workshops, training and accreditation for applying emotional intelligence in school settings.  Karen, could you give us a brief definition of emotional intelligence?

Karen Hansen: As with most psychological concepts, there’s no universally accepted definition of emotional intelligence.  But most practitioners would agree that emotional intelligence essentially measures our ability to process emotions and emotional information.  And more specifically it’s about our ability to recognise and describe emotions to see and even understand emotions in other people and to regulate and manage emotions.  It also involves facilitating the way we think by incorporating emotional information into that process.

So is emotional intelligence something that we’re born with or is something that can be developed?

It’s a bit of both - that’s an ongoing debate in psychology.  It’s always about the balance between nature and nurture.  Our current thinking in terms of emotional intelligence is that we’re all born with a particular temperament which includes our ability to demonstrate emotionally intelligent behaviour.  But our environment plays a huge role in how that that temperament expresses itself. And emotional intelligence is definitely something that can be developed.  

That’s really important for parents to know isn’t it?  I’m a parent of three boys myself.  Knowing that something that I’m doing as a parent, or things my child might be exposed to, may have an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence is quite important information.

Sure.  Actually one of the main ways that our emotional intelligence develops is our observations of other people.  So a lot of how we develop emotional intelligence skills is through our role models…. the people that we’re observing - how do they deal with emotions?  How do they express emotions?  How do they manage their emotions? Children can actually learn to develop these skills through observations.  

So as a parent I can’t influence my child’s IQ but I might be able to influence development of their emotional intelligence?  

Absolutely. So once parents understand what emotional intelligence (EI) is and what they’re looking for, they can start to actually play an active role in developing their children’s EI.

I’m interested to know whether there is a connection between increasing our children’s social and emotional skills and how they do at school, their academic achievements?
 

Yes.  One of the things that we’re interested in at Swinburne is exploring this idea that emotional intelligence is as important for predicting academic achievement as IQ and personalities.  And we’ve started to build up a nice array of research results that actually support that notion.  We have data now showing that at Year 12, students with the same intelligence or IQ will actually have different outcomes depending on their emotional intelligence.  So regardless of IQ, students with low emotional intelligence tend to under- achieve.  This is world-first data and we’re replicating that study at the moment.  And we’ve also got data from our high school population showing that aspects of emotional intelligence impact on achievement at different year levels in different subjects.  So the research is supporting our theory that emotional intelligence is very important for maximising academic achievements.  

So as a parent thinking about my child’s education or which school I should send them to, might I also be interested in whether or not the school has any programs that might develop my child’s social and emotional skills?

Sure. It’s important to look for schools that will nurture that side of a child’s development as well as their academic development.  And what’s quite compelling is the research we have showing what happens to students once they leave high school.  It’s possible that a lack of emotional intelligence can be compensated for at high school, but once students leave then go into the workplace or go into tertiary education, a lack of emotional intelligence may show itself even more in that environment.  Developing emotional intelligence in high school is also about preparing students for life after high school.  

In publications with your colleagues, you have referred to research showing that emotional intelligence may have a positive impact on children’s effort and initiative in class or mean they have fewer social or attention problems?  

Yes.  Students who have well developed emotional intelligence are much better able to form positive relationships with other people because they understand others, they can interpret others’ emotions, their body language.  They’re able to engage with other people more effectively so they have very good social networks and friendship groups.  They’re able to engage with their teachers as well as other adults.  So they typically have very good social networks and that helps them to manage themselves.  So they’re very good at motivating themselves in class; they tend not to get distracted.  They don’t engage in disruptive behaviour because they’re very good at managing their emotions and they understand how to find meaning in what they are doing in class.  They’re also able to ask for help when they need it so they’re much less prone to poor coping skills which in turn relates to better emotional health.  They tend to suffer less from symptoms like depression and anxiety.

Students with poor emotional intelligence find it much harder to regulate emotions.  They don’t understand their emotions.  They can’t express them effectively.  They don’t understand the point of emotions or where they come from so they tend to get distracted.  They don’t interact well with other people. They’re very poor at regulating emotion so they get distracted in class.  If they get anxious or upset or they don’t understand the work they’re doing in class, they don’t have good coping skills to deal with that so they tend to act out and be disruptive as a way of coping with that.  

You mentioned depression as an example.  Is there evidence that suggests that some of these emotional intelligence skills may have a protective effect on children and make it less likely that they suffer from depression?


Yes, we have quite a bit of data now linking depressive symptoms in adolescence to low emotional intelligence. We have recently published some research showing that adults with clinical depression are more likely to have low emotional intelligence compared to the general population, and that that actually persists even when their depressive episode resolves, so even when they’re not actually in a depressive episode they have very low emotional intelligence. We think that predisposes people to depressive episodes.