Friday, May 12, 2006

Don't worry, be happy

Well-adjusted students learn more effectively, reports Margaret Cook.

WHAT'S the secret to doing well at school? A key, but often overlooked, factor is a high level of emotional intelligence, according to new research.

Maree Ryan compared the IQs, emotional intelligence and ENTER scores of 375 year 12 students from four schools as part of her PhD. The students were a mix of gifted (IQs of 121-plus) and mainstream (IQs of 70 to 120).

In both groups, many students with high emotional intelligence gained higher ENTERs - sometimes up to 30 points more - than those with the same IQ but lower emotional intelligence, says Ms Ryan. Some mainstream students with high emotional intelligence did better than gifted students with low emotional intelligence. For example, 32 mainstream students got ENTER scores in the 90s.

"Those students with high EI were very good at controlling and managing their emotions," says Ms Ryan, the head of the vision unit at Kardinia International College in Geelong. "For example, they were able to tell their teachers and parents when they felt overworked and needed help."

The findings raise several issues, she says. One is that some bright students are underachieving because of low EI. Another is that teachers and parents should not set "ceilings" on what students can achieve based on how bright they perceive them to be - for example, saying: "He'll only get an ENTER in the 70s".

Ms Ryan presented her findings at a recent conference conducted by Swinburne University's Brain Sciences Institute. "Emotional intelligence skills - how we understand, organise and manage our emotions - underpin our ability to relate to other people," says institute director Con Stough. People with low EI may overreact to annoyances, feel unnecessarily anxious and have difficulty "reading" other people. It is also related to high levels of occupational stress.

Over the past decade, many companies have introduced training to develop their EI levels in staff, says Professor Stough, but little work has been done in schools. However, research in Australia and overseas has found that students with high EI do better academically, form relationships more easily, are less disruptive and less likely to drop out of university in the first two years, he says. They are also happier, which helps them to learn more effectively. "Often children with low EI don't understand how their behaviour affects other people," explains Professor Stough. "Teachers may label them as difficult or unco-operative, and there is a risk they will not achieve their full potential." The problems are exacerbated when their teachers and/or parents also have low EI.

Ms Ryan and Professor Stough would like all schools - supported by the Education Department - to run programs to develop the EI of students, teachers and principals to cope better with depression, bullying and low self-esteem.

This involves much more than teaching social skills such as sharing, people management and teamwork, she says. "It's about having an emotional understanding of yourself and other people, including how to manage problems and group encounters. It's also different to personality and IQ, but it is influenced by a person's environment, intellect, culture and gender."

Generally women have a higher EI then men, says Ms Ryan, and EI in adolescents is influenced by their stage of development. Her research also found that girls had a better understanding of their own, and other people's, emotions. However, boys were better at balancing their thinking and feelings and better at managing both their own and other people's emotions.

The Brain Sciences Institute is researching the use of EI in teaching and curriculum planning at Balwyn and Sunbury high schools. It has also started a study of students at Presentation College in Windsor.

Balwyn principal Bruce Armstrong says some of his teachers took part in EI workshops conducted by Swinburne. They later reported "different perceptions of the workplace, lower levels of occupational stress and feeling more engaged and positive". The school hopes to introduce an EI unit into year 7 in 2007.

Students with high emotional intelligence will be able to:

· Perceive and express their own emotions - talk easily about their feelings.

· Perceive and understand other people's emotions.

· Balance emotion with reason.

· Manage and control their emotions, and manage other people's emotions - overcome conflict with peers by influencing their moods, remain focused on what they are doing when stressed, and overcome anger by thinking through what has caused it.

Source: Genos Emotional Intelligence, University of Melbourne, modified by Maree Ryan.

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