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Emotional Intelligence, Parenting and Education; Part 3 of Interview with Dr Karen Hansen

Yvette Vignando: Is adolescence a critical period for developing emotional intelligence skills?

Karen Hansen: Yes.  Really important; particularly in light of new research that’s emerging showing new insights about how the adolescent brain develops.  So with advances in technology, we can get a much better idea about what’s happening in the brain. We actually know now that the adolescent brain undergoes a second wave of development; there’s quite compelling research now showing that the adolescent brain undergoes this second period of over-producing brain cells which primes it for learning new skills and laying new pathways in the brain. It’s really a prime time for developing emotional and social competencies. If we teach these skills to adolescents, they have the capacity to lay down these neural pathways in the brain that will serve them later in life.  

It’s not something that happens overnight and so requires a lot of patience and understanding from adult role models but it’s definitely a critical period.  Adolescence in itself is a very emotional period and a lot of changes are happening.  The frontal lobes are starting to develop and the frontal lobes are really where we start to develop the ability to problem-solve, to reason, to think things through.  The brain is starting to form pathways between the more reactive parts of the brain - so adolescents wont become social and emotional experts over night (!) but it’s about practicing and refining and role modelling these behaviours for adolescents so that they can lay those pathways. Because if this does not happen, the brain basically has a “use it or lose it” policy –so that’s one of the reasons it’s really critical that we teach these skills in adolescence because if we don’t it makes it that much harder for them to develop those skills as adults.

So adolescence is an opportunity for teachers and parents to help their children develop those skills. That’s very encouraging and important information.  


So it’s definitely not too late, in fact it’s actually the perfect time particularly to start developing the more advanced aspects of emotional intelligence.  Young children appear to be limitless in their ability to learn, but their brain is still underdeveloped.  There are certain things that they can learn and refine but it’s really once they get to adolescence that the brain starts to kick in with its development of the frontal lobes and the frontal lobes’ connection to the rest of the brain.  That just doesn’t happen in young children so there are certain buildings like, and basic skills we can teach primary aged children but it’s also important to understand that the brain has a lot more potential as an adolescent and that we should maximise that and take advantage of it.

You also have been involved in research with your colleagues following 209 secondary students and you looked at the relationship between their emotional intelligence and their academic achievement. You found that overall emotional intelligence was actually positive related to academic achievement.  But I was also interested to read that there were some specific parts of emotional intelligence that were related to particular sections of the curriculum.  So for example emotional management and control or higher levels of those skills were related to more success in maths but higher levels of the skills of understanding emotions was linked to more success in art for example. What is your hypothesis about why that might be?


They are really interesting results; they indicate that emotional intelligence may be related to academic achievement differentially; that means that different aspects of EI are more important for maximising achievement in different areas of study. For example, to maximise art achievement it might be more important to have high levels of understanding others - which is related to things like empathy and compassion. For success in subjects like maths and physics and chemistry, it might be more important to be able to manage emotionally.  It needs further study but it’s possible that the relationship between emotional intelligence and academic achievement is quite complex.

Is there a “chicken and the egg” argument as well  - we don’t know which comes first, the success in the subject or the emotional skill?

Yes, one thing that we’re pursuing with a school in Melbourne is understanding our personality, our temperament, and our emotional intelligence and how that relates to our careers choice  - using that information to help guide students when they’re choosing subjects and deciding on a career choice. So maybe students with good emotional management and control are actually attracted to maths because it suits their temperament whereas students who enjoy art really enjoy understanding others - they’re interested in other people and exploring that more humanistic aspect of their study.  It’s hard to know whether that particular disposition attracts students to a certain discipline or whether regardless of what discipline they choose, their emotional intelligence profile determines whether they’re successful or not in that type of area.