Students know many factors can affect the grades they earn, including their natural intelligence, how hard they work, their test-taking skills, their sleep habits and even their diet.
But new research suggests there’s another component to academic success — emotional intelligence. Students who are better able to understand and manage their emotions earn higher grades, on average, than their less emotionally aware peers.
“It’s not enough to be smart and hardworking,” Carolyn MacCann, lead author of the study and associate professor at the University of Sydney, said in a news release. “Students must also be able to understand and manage their emotions to succeed at school.”
To conduct the study, MacCann and her colleagues looked at data from more than 160 studies covering more than 42,000 students — ranging from elementary school to college — from around the world.
They determined that students with higher emotional intelligence tended to get higher grades and better scores on achievement tests than their peers whose emotional intelligence wasn’t as developed. Even when controlled for intelligence and personality factors, the finding held true.
What’s most surprising to the researchers, however, is that the results stayed the same, regardless of age.
“Previous research has found that psychological qualities like conscientiousness are more important for younger students than college students,” said MacCann. “We thought this would be the case for emotional intelligence.”
“However, what we found was that there was no difference in the effect of emotional intelligence from kindergarten to college students,” she continued. “It was important for academic achievement at all levels. Perhaps college students have higher skills than young children, but the college environment requires more skills, as it is more socially and emotionally demanding.”
As to why emotional intelligence impacts academic success, MacCann points to a few factors.
Students with high emotional intelligence may be able to manage emotions better, including emotions that have been known to negatively impact grades such as anxiety, disappointment and boredom, she explained. And they may also be able to form better relationships with their teachers, peers and family, which are also important for academic success.
Additionally, some of the skills needed for emotional intelligence, including understanding human motivation and emotion, may also be needed to master certain subjects, such as history or language.
The researchers also concluded that strong emotional intelligence is a better indicator of success in the humanities than in math and science.
How can students learn to manage their emotions better?
MacCann suggests a few strategies to help students regulate their emotions and, in turn, perhaps see their grades rise.
The first is “perspective taking.” To overcome what they’re feeling, students can try to change their perspective about the emotional situation, MacCann explained.
The second is “social sharing.” Students may feel relief by finding someone to talk to about what they are experiencing.
And lastly, she said students should try to distract themselves from the emotional situation.
“If the emotions are overwhelming, it is important to seek help from professionals such as a psychologist or doctor,” said MacCann. “It is also important to remember that emotions are a response to the situation one is in. Sometimes feeling overwhelming emotion is a sign that the situation needs to change.”
For schools that want to help students better manage their emotions, MacCann warns against singling out students who have low emotional intelligence, as it may stigmatize the students. Instead, she recommends intervening with solutions that involve the whole school, such as including additional teacher training.
“Programs that integrate emotional skill development into the existing curriculum would be beneficial, as research suggests that training works better when run by teachers rather than external specialists,” she said in a news release. “Increasing skills for everyone — not just those with low emotional intelligence — would benefit everyone.”
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.