Emotional Intelligence: the essential subject missing on the timetable

I’ve worked with a lot of young people who cared little about the leaving certificate and I’ve worked in schools where the importance of the leaving cert weighs heavily on young minds who do not have the psychological ‘muscle’ to carry it – so something usually gives way in an effort to cope. Their ‘all or nothing’ ideas of success was suffocating them. 

What both these types of schools need when it comes to leaving certificate reform is a new subject called emotional intelligence and trust me there are enough resources to take you from first year to sixth year. Minister for Education Norma Foley missed an opportunity when she announced long-awaited reforms: to promote, nurture, and improve student’s EQ: their emotional quotient. Whilst IQ is nearly ‘set in stone’ – genetically speaking, our EQ can be raised. And increasing grades in the latter actually determines more successes in life: professionally and personally. One might say it is a ‘level playing field’ subject: grinds make little difference to success. I often think how unfair it is: students sitting the same exam when some have had additional intense grinds or attend a ‘spoon-fed’ school that solely focuses on maximising points. 

Two new subjects are now being introduced to senior cycle: Drama, Film and Theatre Studies, and Climate Action and Sustainable Development. Yes, to be welcomed but what the world needs more of today is emotionally intelligent/literate young people. And that is not achieved with one SPHE class a week. 

As a guidance counsellor in secondary schools I witnessed more emotionally intelligent students in DEIS schools, whilst in a hard to believe comparison, when I worked as a Guidance Counsellor in a fee paying school I saw so many students who were actually extremely emotionally poor. And I’m not exaggerating. It was shockingly painful to work there and the person who replaced me lasted two weeks when he couldn’t cope with the culture of emotional coldness and ballsy boldness there. And in this case, sadly a generalisation is apt. 

I have such fond memories of one designated disadvantage school I worked in. It broke my heart to witness the complete hardship some kids existed in, and yet, they could demonstrate so much care and love – in indirect ways. Yes, many a handful in the classroom setting but they would get A1s if they sat an exam in emotional intelligence. Of course there were the colourful challenging students. One boy who passed away was (after time) a dream to work with one to one. His school file was not one you could carry under your arm. Known to the Guards, the boy I knew Monday to Friday was not the boy they often took to the station at the weekend. He was often very violent and that was my starting point with him: get to know that side in order to find the non-violent young man. It turned out he was highly emotionally intelligent but it was simply an intelligence that was smothered by one primary emotion: anger. He was so angry and couple that with drink and drugs and you have a killing machine in a fist. He was given set times every week to attend guidance counselling and we looked at what it must be like for the young person he would pick on and subject to his harm. He was both other harming and self-harming. In time his language shifted from ‘he deserved it’ to ‘I don’t know why I hit him’ to ‘I just walked away…’ to ‘I need to change…’. He started thinking about his ‘whys’ and ‘what next’ and other agencies worked with him on that. Imagine if other students like him had two or three classes a week in emotional intelligence – learning how to manage emotions and how to cope with other people and difficult emotions. Life changing! Other changing!

And then when I fell into feeding hungry horses, I fed in two areas that proved difficult for me. To go into one of these areas, I had to do a lot of licking up and turning a blind eye. Not easy. One day when I was dropping hay I drove in to see some younger boys hitting an already fearful pony. They wanted her to move by roaring and hurting her. And so my policy of get in and get out fast was ignored that day. The boys wanted the pony to move but her fear had frozen her. So I asked them, what would they the pony to do? And what do you think she is thinking right now. Will she move feeling like that? Some of them didn’t care but two admitted she must be afraid. So, I handed them a bucket from my car with some feed, and showed them another way to make her move. One of the boys, told me a few weeks later that he wanted his pony to have a better life. And because he thought about her, he demonstrated huge emotional intelligence. Today that pony is living the dream because he allowed her. 

Working with students taught me so much but they are not being taught what they need most: emotional intelligence. The absence of it leaves a void where other forces can take over. 

Years later, after I finished my feeding programme, I was invited into a school as one of the boys had made a poster for me and raised money. He was doing it for Hilltop, unaware it was me. It was a special moment for me. In front of me was a student who was one of the boys who wasn’t very nice to the pony that day. I’m sure the ponies in their care have a hard life still but at least I showed them another way to try get a pony to move! Sometimes these kids just need to be given other options. 

And like any other school subject there will be students who just won’t get it, will have no interest and possibly fail. But failing any leaving certificate subject is really not a disaster (even though in the mind of most students it is) but by failing to make emotional intelligence a subject is failing not just students but all these future adults: grown-ups who will be workers, partners, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. Now imagine if they were all emotionally intelligent because their schools helped them not to be afraid to ask and answer, ’what’s really going on?’ 

As a rescuer now, far removed from the classroom, I often think of a first year student who told me how she risked her life, crossing a fast-moving river, to save a cat in the water. She waded through it because…well, no one saved her, she told me She didn’t want that to happen the cat. Little did I know twelve years ago…that a thirteen year old first year who had so little in life – would go on to teach me so much. 

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