January 2002 • Volume 33 • Number 3 • Pages 55-58
Research on Middle School Renewal
Tommye Lou Richardson
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence During Transition into Middle School
Emotionally literate students have mastered the emotional abilities that inoculate them against the turmoil and pressures they are about to face during life transitions.
Daniel Goleman, 1995
Jim and Heather were just beginning the sixth grade. Both students were entering a large middle school after completing the K-5 experience in a small rural elementary school. When asked to write of his first day experience, Jim wrote, "My teachers are mean except for mrs. B shes cool. And I didnit get the team I wanted." Heather wrote, "At first I thought middle school would be hard, and I was dreading the locker room. But, by the end of the day I was cangeing my mind. The seventh and eighth graders are to busy to pick on you, and I found I had all the nice teachers. Even if I do get home later, that's okay, because everyone can watch me walk home and know I am in middle school."
Students experiencing transition from the elementary school are faced with challenges of the new environment as they adjust to middle school. These challenges are academic as well as interpersonal. Some students get lost, forget their locker combination, or both. They have conflicts with authority or face academic pressures. I have defined these and other negative outcomes experienced by middle school students during the sixth grade year as transition trauma. It may be manifested in the form of undiminished concerns during the year, role strain, lower than their normally expected grade point average, and negative social behavior ratings by their teachers.
These two students had very different perspectives of their initial middle school experience. What is it that made these two students react so differently to the transition experience? Cobb and Mayer (2000) suggested that children make sense of things by correctly perceiving emotional information. Coping, emotional autonomy, and socially responsible behavior are traditional and valued objectives in education. The move to a new school creates new social challenges for students. The ability of adolescents to cope, to develop their emotional autonomy, and to behave in socially appropriate and responsible ways enables them to more easily accept the social challenges of transition. In this article I will review the small body of literature based on emotional intelligence and make applications to schools attempting to assist incoming middle school students.
What the research says about emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence became a popular concept when Goleman's (1995) book, Emotional Intelligence became a best seller. Goleman indicated that emotionally literate students have mastered the emotional abilities that inoculate them against the turmoil and pressures they are about to face during life transitions. He theorized that emotional intelligence focuses on a timetable for emotional growth and he believed that school transition was a major part of this timetable. It seems reasonable to assume that emotional intelligence enables students to cope and adapt to the emotional experiences of role strain and their concerns as they transition from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school.
Emotional intelligence is not something that researchers just created. When Gardner (1993) challenged the idea that there is only one way to be smart, he discussed seven distinct intelligences. Among them were interpersonal intelligence which is the ability to understand other people, and intrapersonal intelligence which is the ability to understand yourself. Goleman (1996) credited Salovey and Mayer with considering and expanding Gardner's personal intelligences when coformulating the theory of emotional intelligence. They believe there are three areas of emotional intelligence: understanding and expressing emotions in one's self and others, regulating emotions in self and others, and using emotions in thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and creativity. Schilling (1996) suggested that an individual's emotions rapidly organize the responses of an individual's biological system and put the individual in an optimum condition to respond. She further suggested that emotions establish the individual's position relative to environmental events, guiding toward some situations and repelling from others.
Emotions also allow for individual defense, love, protection of values, mourning of loss, and overcoming difficult obstacles in pursuit of goals. All areas of life (i.e., health, learning, behavior, and relationships) are influenced by emotions. Several authors (Elias, 1993; Goleman, 1995; Jensen, 1998) advocated emotional intelligence as an important factor in predicting success and the capacity to solve problems. Emotional intelligence focuses on the individual's ability to recognize and use his or her emotional state to solve problems and may very well be the key to an individual's survival. Emotional intelligence is viewed by advocates as a different way of being smart.
Goleman explained that strong emotions are the basis for the impulse to action. The management of those impulses is the basis of emotional intelligence. An emotionally intelligent student would tend to seek mature and rational solutions to problems. Emotional intelligence is a driving factor that can contribute to students' success. Conversely, a lack of emotional intelligence tends to lead to anger and defiance, loneliness and depression, impulsive aggression, and a worried and nervous outlook.
Elias (1993) indicated that the transition into middle school required students to be capable of accepting many social challenges. Students need to be able to communicate, participate and work cooperatively, to have self-control, and to be able to resolve conflicts thoughtfully without resorting to avoidance or aggression. In other words, students need to be emotionally intelligent.
Cobb and Meyer (2000) discussed two measures of emotional intelligence: the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and its precursor, the Multifactor Emotional Intelligence Scale (MEIS). The scientific community is examining these tests carefully and there is some question about their validity. However, these measures seem to provide strong evidence of the existence of an emotional intelligence and the fact that it looks and behaves like other intelligences as well as appears to be discrete enough to stand as a separate mental ability.
In a dissertation study of 196 students transitioning from fifth to sixth grade, emotional intelligence was negatively correlated to the variables of transition trauma (student concerns and role strain) (Richardson, 2000). Analysis indicated that at least to some degree, emotional intelligence played a part in easing transition trauma more for girls than for boys. The patterns of emotional intelligence levels did not vary much over the transition period, and girls seemed to indicate higher levels of emotional intelligence than boys. Emotional intelligence made a contribution to academic performance for girls even when prior achievement and socioeconomic status were taken into account.
A growing literature base could lead educators to conclude that the transition period may or may not be difficult for many students, depending on the characteristics and temperament of the child. Transition trauma may become manifested in students, and how they cope during the transition experience may depend on emotional intelligence. The idea of emotional intelligence and its measurability is beginning to receive attention in the literature. This comes at a time when middle school educators would like to know viable reasons for poor conduct, behavior conflicts, and the violence afflicting the learning process in some schools.
Little empirical research exists about how diverse populations perceive the daily activities of the transition period or why different students respond and interact with teachers and classmates in various ways. Research attention seems to be moving toward an interest in the distinguishing emotional characteristics of students who are most susceptible to transition trauma, whatever the source.
The usefulness of emotional intelligence during transition to middle school
Middle school educators would be reasonable to assume that students with higher emotional intelligence would have greater capacity to cope and adapt to transition trauma. Goleman (1996) and Elias, Ubriaco, Reese, Gara, Rothbaum, and Haviland (1992) asserted that emotions would affect learning. Students who have the skills to use their emotional abilities appropriately would be capable to address the emotional challenges of entering a new school environment and successfully adjust to the basic differences between elementary and middle school. Students who are emotionally competent will manage their own feelings well, recognize and respond effectively to the feelings of others, tolerate frustration better, and be less impulsive and more focused.
The transition into middle school characterizes the end of childhood and presents an emotional challenge, especially when coupled with the natural changes that occur with adolescence. If the transition to middle school is conceptualized from the perspective of the students' adaptation to social and academic tasks, then the transition process can be considered an event that taps the students' resources for adaptation. Emotional intelligence can be considered an underlying reason why some students would be more successful than others through the transition period. If transition trauma is manifested during the transition period, then students with more emotional intelligence skills will be able to cope and adapt more easily, resulting in stronger abilities to succeed both academically and socially.
What can educators do?
If we are to understand the schooling of young adolescents, then we must understand how they respond to their learning environment, and we must be aware that there are reasons why students respond differently. Jim and Heather responded to a similar set of circumstances in very different ways. They both ended their sixth grade year successfully, but there were more bumps along the way for Jim than for Heather. Could this have been different for Jim?
Educators should be aware of the existence of transition trauma and its sources and develop a method of communication to become more attuned to students' concerns. They also should be aware of the existence of emotional intelligence and how important it is to incorporate emotional reasoning and emotional development into the understanding of young adolescent learning.
Activities that involve students in common workplace ethics and enable students to identify, organize, plan, and allocate resources like time and money are also important activities for transition success. These activities are not necessarily designed to teach emotional intelligence directly, but they have components of emotional intelligence that many teachers simply intuitively teach. Emotional intelligence is a characteristic that can be nurtured and developed in a person. Teachers and other adults need to gain more information about emotional intelligence and through their influence develop emotional intelligence in the children. Teaching young adolescents how to use coping strategies, how to acquire and use information, how to work with others, and how to manage personal growth are components necessary for transition success. Ironically, these skills are also components of emotional intelligence.
Cobb, C. D., & Mayer, J. D. (2000). Emotional intelligence: What the research says. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 14-18.
Elias, M. J., (1993). Social decision making and life skills development guidelines for middle school educators. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.
Elias, M. J., Ubriaco, M., Reese, A. M., Gara, M., Rothbaum, P. A., & Haviland, M. (1992). A measure for adaptation to problematic academic and interpersonal tasks of middle school. Journal of Middle School Psychology, 30, 41-57.
Gardner, H., (1993). Multiple intelligences. The theory in practice. New York: HarperCollins.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. Why it matters more than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 49-50.
Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Richardson, T. L. (2000). Emotional intelligence as a mediator of transition trauma in students progressing from elementary to middle school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.
Schilling, D., (1996). 50 activities for teaching emotional intelligence. Level I, elementary school. Torrance, CA: Interchoice.
Several Web sites address research on emotional intelligence and its usefulness in the workplace, in schools, and in parenting.
www.eiconsortium.org – This is the Web site for the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. You will find the latest research findings, articles about emotional intelligence, and more information.
www.casel.org – This site is produced by the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning.
www.EQParenting.com – This site is for parents and centers on the book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting by Maurice Elias, Steven E. Tobias, and Brian S. Friedlander.
A videotape on the topic is useful: Goleman, D. (1996). "Emotional intelligence: A new vision for educators" [Videotape]. Port Chester, NY: National Professional Resources.
Tommye Lou Richardson is a former middle and high school science teacher and middle school administrator. She is now the district administrator for professional development in Bay County Schools, Panama City, Florida. E-mail: email@example.com
Judith L. Irvin is a Professor of Education at Florida State University, Tallahassee. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002 by National Middle School Association