“Emotional Intelligence” as a concept gained broad public attention with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s New York Times bestseller of the same name in 1995. It entered pop culture as a valuable way of understanding and defining fundamental human capacities and behaviors by playing on the widely recognized idea of IQ.

EQ (as many now refer to Emotional Intelligence but sometimes known in academic circles as EI) is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” EQ is now widely acknowledged as equally important (and many argue, more so) than IQ – and as increasingly key to both personal life and professional success. 

The concept of EQ sprang from the landmark work of Harvard Education Professor Dr. Howard Gardner’s 1983-published theory about “multiple intelligences” humans possess other than IQ.  Specifically, EQ falls into a category he defined as” inter- and intrapersonal” intelligence, Building on this, two researchers – then Yale psychology professor Peter Salovey (now president of Yale) and University of New Hampshire psychology professor John D. Mayer – published an influential paper in 1990 introducing the term “Emotional Intelligence,” which Goleman cites in his work. The term EQ over time often became coupled with the term “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to understand and influence the emotions of others.

From Goleman: “In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.”  Marc Brackett (who now runs Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Susan Rivers, protégés of Salovey, put it this way: “The process of integrating thinking, feeling, and behaving in order to become aware of the self and of others, make responsible decisions, and manage one’s own behaviors and those of others.”

Psychology Today dives in with this definition: “The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving….[and] the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.”

Youth-focused approaches that combine skill building in emotional and social intelligence have now come to be defined by the term Social and Emotional Learning by educators and in child development and psychology realms, as well as in certain business quarters. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, the nation’s leading practice, policy, and research organization

(described in more detail below), organizes SEL into five core competencies: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

A defining characteristic of SEL is that it empowers children to manage their own behavior in positive and productive ways, shifting the control to the child. This counters the “compliance model” widely used in U.S. schools, where adults hold all the power in classrooms and children are passive participants, not drivers of their own development and learning. 

(In seeking to build intrinsic motivation in students, SEL programs should not be confused with what educators call “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS),” a widely implemented system based on “carrot-like” tangible rewards.) 

(One other aside: Education is littered with competing terms for EQ development programs, among them such terms as emotional literacy, non-cognitive, non-academic, pro-social development, character education, ethical and moral development, and the like. Moreover, some SEL programs are lumped under specific goals such as violence prevention, and anti-bullying. There are also subsets of SEL skills or capacities that have recently drawn public attention, among them grit, growth mindset and mindfulness.)

Obviously, fundamental to Social and Emotional Learning is the ability to manage one’s emotions, which is hardly a given for a large segment of the population. Almost all of us experience more emotional upsets and the consequences of them than we prefer would be the case – in relationships, work, friendships, and in the everyday course of business.

At the extremes there is a populace beset by remarkably high numbers of people suffering from anxiety or depression, or with anger issues, and a culture marked by high degrees of interpersonal conflict and violence. This may be good for the bottom lines of pharmaceutical companies and therapists…and is certainly not beneficial – and is hugely costly in infinite ways – to the common good and the pocketbooks of the society as a whole.

Neuroscience readily supports the positive effects of promoting social and emotional learning. Studies demonstrate that emotional reactions are located in the primordially-earlier lower brain around the amygdala while more sophisticated learning, thinking, and creativity occur in the later-in-evolution frontal lobes or “higher brain.”  Brain biofeedback scans show that when the lower brain is activated by emotional upset and lights up, the higher brain literally goes dark in activity. The implications for students cannot be overstated – all learning stops until they can calm themselves if agitated, scared, or angry, with their minds either distracted, numb, or full of negative thoughts about themselves, others or the situations they are in.