Thoughtful Learning Blog

Insightful articles about 21st century skills, inquiry, project-based learning, media literacy, and education reform.

Developing Students' Social and Emotional Intelligence

Developing Students' Social and Emotional Intelligence

By Tom McSheehy MSW, LSW

Social and emotional intelligence allows us to negotiate our own and others’ emotions and feelings. No wonder it is vital to success in relationships, academics, jobs, sports, and other life activities. Employers, for example, have discovered that 67 percent of the skills they are looking for in new employees are directly related to social and emotional intelligence (Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence). Yet schools spend only 1.6 percent of the school week developing these skills in students.


Research highlights the importance of teaching students social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Here are some interesting findings:

  1. Fear and anxiety interfere with learning, while safety and security support and facilitate learning.
  2. Emotion plays a major role in every intellectual process and affects the organization of children’s brains.
  3. Children who can learn by age 10 to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate expression become healthier, wealthier, and more responsible (Terrie Moffitt of Duke University and a team of researchers who followed a group of 1,000 children for 32 years).
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Test Your Social and Emotional Intelligence

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Social and emotional intelligence refers to your ability to understand and manage your own emotions and recognize the emotions of others. A few free, quick online quizzes can give you a beginning insight into your social and emotional intelligence. The first two quizzes listed below connect to university research projects, and both measure your ability to recognize emotions and facial expressions. The latter two quizzes measure your understanding of emotions in everyday life and in your classroom.

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Teaching Innovation and Problem Solving

Business leaders are calling for workers who can solve problems and innovate solutions, but how can educators teach such abstract skills? After all, isn't every problem unique? Doesn't every solution differ? Yes. But the fundamental tools of problems solving are common to all situations, and they can be taught. The two most important mental tools are critical thinking and creative thinking.

Critical thinking is convergent. It focuses intently on a topic, paying careful attention to logic and rules. Critical thinking breaks a subject into its parts and investigates how the parts relate to each other: categorizing, sequencing, comparing, ranking. It is in-the-box thinking.

Creative thinking is divergent. It sees a topic as a whole and imagines it as an analogy for something else: envisioning, improvising, riffing, wondering. Creative thinking reaches out to explore possibilities and defies convention and rules. It is out-of-the-box thinking.

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Critical and Creative Thinking: Lessons from Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin's twisted take on traditional snowpeople shows his creative thinking.

When I write the first draft of a novel, I'm Calvin from the classic comic series Calvin and Hobbes. Brimming with imagination and life, I don't care what may be sensible, realistic, and conventional. I'm full of passion, flying in many different directions. Sure, there'll be plenty of mistakes, but at least they'll be big.

When I revise and edit a novel, I'm Calvin's parents. I have to look dispassionately and critically at what the child mind has created. I have to analyze and evaluate. Patience, persistence, and a kind of longsuffering skepticism must prevail.

To put it another way, the parents' job is to make the child's life safe, and the child's job is to make the parents' life dangerous.

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5 Questions to Analyze Any Communication

Communication is complex. Students need to be able to write to different audiences. They need to create an appropriate voice for each topic and purpose. They need to understand how to get their point across in a larger context. All of this complexity can be bewildering. When I help students analyze communication situations, I use a simple graphic:

Communication Situation Graphic

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Deeper Thinking for the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards require students to think more deeply in all classes. But what counts for deeper thinking? Bloom’s revised taxonomy lists thinking skills in order from superficial to deep:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy List

For many years, we’ve done well teaching and testing the top half of the taxonomy. After all, multiple-choice, true-false, and fill-in-the-blank items do an excellent job of measuring what students remember, understand, and can apply. On the other hand, they don’t easily measure what students can analyze, evaluate, or synthesize. What is tested is taught, so our inability to test these skills has meant that they were not getting taught.

However, the new assessments for the Common Core will test the full range of skills required. These tests combine new strategies, interactive environments, simulated research situations, and good-old essay responses in order to assess how well students can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. Of course, now that these skills will be tested, they must be taught.

How can I teach analyzing and evaluating?

Start by teaching thinking strategies. One strategy that most educators already know is using graphic organizers to stimulate thinking:

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