> Improving Emotional Intelligence (Essay)

By Nigel F Huddleston

The following is an essay on the above title that was written for an M.A. module on emotional intelligence in the context of teaching and working with young people. I acknowledge my Tutors Miranda Preston and Anthony Bignell for their inspiration and Anthony for his feedback.

The following are the titles for the topics covered within this essay:

What is meant by Emotional Intelligence?

The following definitions come from the Collins Dictionary:

Emotion is any strong feeling [as defined comes from the latin root word emovere to move].

Intelligence is the capacity for understanding; the ability to perceive and comprehend meaning.

Emotional Intelligence: The complex whole behaviours, capabilities, beliefs and values which enables someone to successfully realise their vision and mission, given the context of their choice. (Merlevede 2003). This can be broken down into Intrapersonal Intelligence and Interpersonal Intelligence.

Intrapersonal Intelligence: determining moods, feelings and other mental states in oneself and the way they affect our behaviour, altering or managing these states, self motivation.

Interpersonal intelligence: recognising emotions in others, using this information as a guide for behaviour and for building and maintaining relationships. (Merlevede 2003)

The definition for emotional intelligence varies amongst writers and the one above encapsulates the meaning from my viewpoint.

Emotional intelligence has reached the classroom and the work place Goleman

(1999). From my experience those who have Emotional Intelligence succeed and those who don’t end up at my door as Deputy Head of House in the pastoral system for a 16 to 18 Secondary school. This is supported by Goleman and others who have concluded that “academic intelligence contributes to only 20% of the success a person can achieve”. A lot of time is spent in education trying to help those students who have poor emotional intelligence. I intend in this paper to give structure to how emotions work and can be influenced in the mind body by explaining why certain techniques work, so that as teachers we can be more effective more of the time in helping students with various aspects of their emotional intelligence.

Back to top

The Project

During the Summer Term of 2005 I took more notice of my interactions with the students who I had to deal with and my own experiences. I also worked with a year 7 tutor group of 26 pupils for 4 sessions out of a potential program of 6. The aim of the project was to help a colleague with a difficult class and to give me a more experiential insight into emotional intelligence to base the essay on.

With the year & Tutor Group I conducted the following sessions during 15 minutes of Tutor Time:

1. An introduction on Emotional Intelligence and a questionnaire Appendix 1

The aim of this was to see where the pupils were in their emotional intelligence and to inform me as to what I should cover over the remaining sessions. I was also framing the context of the work to bring them on board.

2. A session to boost their self esteem using multiple intelligences Appendix 2

3. Exploration of the ‘anger family’ of emotions (irritation-frustration-anger-rage). This session was aimed at raising their awareness of the variations within an emotion and that emotions have meaning.

4. Discussion on emotions using a sheet of emotions Appendix 3

The aim of this session was to raise there awareness of just how many emotions there are via a sheet of emotions. The students then added others that they knew.

If I had not run out of term time I would have undertaken at least two more sessions:

5. Irritation using Appendix 4 as a basis for discussion and raising awareness.

6. A questionnaire to test for change in attitudes and if possible behaviour.

From the questionnaires the number of emotions that they could name ranged from 3 to 19. Four students named 3 or 4 emotions; these students’ behaviour correlates with poor emotional intelligence, anger, inability to solve disagreements.

The results to the questionnaire were subjective and depended upon each individual student’s judgement. The results were informative as I have taught the group for the academic year 2004-2005. This allowed me to make intuitive choices for working with the group but not scientific ones. It also reinforced in my mind the amount of emotional literacy work that needs to be done and that the whole education system needs to identify strategies that really work most of the time for most students.

Future work with this group or the group of four would be on recognising emotions and what they mean, giving them tools for gaining different perspectives, developing their planning and a sense of time.

Back to top

The Mechanism of emotion

(see Appendix 5 for scientific definitions) Emotions can come and go in a matter of seconds or minutes, but a mood can last a whole day. Moods are produced by internal changes that do not relate to what is happening outside (moods can also occur from a dense emotional experience). The minds reasoning power via the frontal lobes can control the emotional state, unless the mind body is overwhelmed by the chemicals of emotion.

An emotional stimulus, e.g. an angry face, becomes a signal which is sent from our visual cortex to the limbic system. The amygdala acts as a tagging system for information coming directly into our senses – this also involves consultation with our memory banks of the hippocampus, thus events are tagged with an emotional value. This process can operate entirely out of our consciousness, i.e. in our unconscious mind. The assigned emotional value then allows us to assess the event and to react accordingly. As part of a loop between the amygdala and the hypothalamus, signals are sent on to the body. The hypothalamus also sends signals to the pituitary, the master gland of the body. Hormonal secretions from the pituitary gland, quickly direct the heart rate, blood pressure, levels of tension in the muscles, alertness. This level of alertness is then fed back into the hypothalamus which then signals to the higher cortex, which then concludes the meaning. (Goleman2004)

Back to top

The brain and developing positive emotions and moods.

diagram of the brain


Positive emotions are more likely to arise from deliberate thought, whereas negative emotions are more likely to arise spontaneously (or out of conscious thought).

Neuroscience has discovered that the frontal lobes, the hippocampus and the amygdala change in response to experience due to our ’emotional environment.’

Very active reasoning will activate the frontal cortex and inhibit the amygdala, the very act of reasoning should actually reduce destructive emotions.

The amygdala is important in the detection of signals of fear as well as the generation of fear itself. A fearful face is enough to activate the amygdala. When a person is provoked by threatening pictures, people who come back to the baseline are those who have less activation in the amygdala and whose activation is shorter. They are also people who show more activation in the left prefrontal cortex, the area for positive emotion. These tend to be people whose everyday experience is one of vigour, optimism and enthusiasm. People who recover quickly also tend to have better function in certain measures of immunity.

The amygdala has projections all the way back to the primary area in the brain where visual information is first received. This provides a mechanism through which our negative emotions can influence our perception of visual information from the first moment. The amygdala is next to the hippocampus which is involved in aspects of memory, therefore when we see an object that elicits some emotion; it is invariably the case that it also triggers associated memories.

One study shows that people with a severe history of aggression have a severe shrinking of the amygdala. The amygdala is needed to anticipate negative consequences and people prone to extreme rage are unable to foresee the consequences. This gives a possible explanation for the behaviour of one or two students.

Under normal circumstances the brain areas that initiate an emotion and those that regulate an emotion are all activated simultaneously, i.e. when an emotion is triggered the mechanisms involved in regulating it are also triggered.

The hippocampus has an important role in emotion because it is essential for our appreciation of the context of events and memory. In both depression and post traumatic stress disorder it has been found that the hippocampus shrinks. Cortisol is produced under stress, at high levels over a long period of time; it may kill cells in the hippocampus.

The frontal lobes, the amygdala and the hippocampus are all extensively connected with the body, in particular with the immune system; with the endocrine system, which regulates hormones; and with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate, blood pressure and so on. This indicates how the mind can influence the body and how emotions can impact on our health (synthesis of Pert 1999,Winston 2004 and Goleman 2004).

Back to top


Young children have their emotions framed for them, e.g. a Mother will label a state, I see that you are tired you need to go to bed. Therefore the emotional vocabulaury is gained from the people around us during our formative years. Football coaches and teachers also try to frame what could happen, which allows the individual to cope with the emotional turmoil of a football match or school life. It is important that those of us in charge see the overview, for example the emotional stages that pupils go through in a GCSE or A level course and prepare them for these. This can lessen the negative emotions experienced as the fore brains reasoning power lessons the emotional intensity through being forewarned.

There are according to Paul Ekman ( Golman 2004) emotions expressed in all cultures that are universal: Anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust, surprise. (Ekman 2003)

Each emotion has its own family of subtle differences with the one emotion, e.g. the anger family, from my view point, contains in increasing intensity irritation, frustration, anger and rage. Therefore one strategy is to help children to be aware of the differences and to start to label them.

In my work with the year 7 group I built on the work by Anthony Robbins (Robbins 1992) where emotions have a particular meaning by using the following definitions:

Irritation: something is bothering me and I need to take action.

Frustration; I’m being blocked from doing what I want to.

Anger: a rule or standard that you hold has been broken by someone else or yourself

Rage: occurs where the rule has been broken to the point where the person is overwhelmed by the feelings of anger (At this stage the mind cannot reason).

The idea is that with emotions where the mind is not overwhelmed, reasoning can help the person understand what is going on and to take appropriate action. In my experience where a child has only the word anger or upset they tend to lash out rather than being able to negotiate through an emotional problem.

Another method from NLP is that any upset is due to one of three things:

An expectation not met, a thwarted intent, or a communication not met (either by being misunderstood or by not expressing verbally what they need to. (Elson 2003)

Framing and asking the questions for an upset need the person to ask themselves the question to solve their own problem and initial training and reinforcement would help install them in the mind.

A technique that I use is to thank the feeling or emotion and ask for the positive intent behind it. This works and brings up some interesting insights, e.g. I was marking a set of year 10 books rather slowly and so I used my technique. I discovered that I felt and behaved the way I did because I was upset that they were not fulfilling their potential and that there was too much to annotate. Without emotions, marking for me would be so much simpler!

Back to top

Changing Beliefs & Values

Neurological Linguistic Programming is used to model human behaviour and one of the tools is the network of logical levels Appendix 6; Dilts, 1994. When modelling change it is important to look at the influences at all levels and to initiate change at the level that is likely to have most effect. In relation to emotions this is from experience at the beliefs and values levels. A change at any level can affect the others. Change in a person’s beliefs and values can affect their identity or capability. Having studied the work of C Pert (1999) I believe that, to model change, emotions need to be taken into account hence I produced my own version, ‘Levels for potential change’ Appendix 7. An event such as the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9-11 can have such an emotional effect that the emotion overwhelms the whole mind body and the conscious mind does not initially take part. The emotion is so strong that this causes a re-evaluation of some values and beliefs in the process of coming to terms with an event.

Changing a belief will also change the emotional response. Like many teachers I have to deal with difficult pupils. After taking a course in ‘Managing Difficult Behaviour’ I came up with the following metaphor:

I am like two long arms (the flippers of a pinball machine). Pupils come into school and their journey through school is certain, they enter and years later they leave. Some will walk a straight line and others will ping back and forth as I and others nudge them back on track.

The effect of this has been to lower my stress levels and not to take their antics personally, i.e. changing the belief has altered my behaviour. Metaphors and especially those told as stories are a powerful way to initiate the possibility of change as the unconscious mind thinks in visual metaphors ( Lawley and Tompkins 2000).

From the age of about 10 pupils tend to listen to their peers more than adults especially those in tight knit friendship groups. Here the bonding and survival of the ‘clan’ is of utmost importance. This is why when ‘working’ with a difficult pupil it is best if they are on their own. On the other hand if their peers can be used to influence or teach them any results are likely to be far quicker. Spiral dynamics is a spiral of values that models what is important to people. Appendix 8. Many teenagers are frequently in the tribal and egocentric levels. Their friends are the most important value in their life and so is doing what they want when they want, right now in the moment. The way forward to the next level of meaning is through helping students to find meaning and purpose. I propose that helping a pupil to find a meaning and purpose to life would have the knock on effect of helping their emotional states in a positive way (particularly in year 10 & 11).

Teachers too often need to reframe a situation for a pupil who is ‘off track’, NLP offers precise tools for reframing and in my view should be part of a teacher’s training.

For many pupils their particular values of what is important to them, holds them back academically. One 15 year old pupil was sent to me to help optimise her learning performance. I asked her what was most important about school. As a streetwise pupil she told me what she thought I wanted to hear first: good grades, enjoying the subject and her friends. I then by precise questioning helped her to reorder her values in order of her priority; my friends, enjoyment, good grades. The value of friendship was so out of proportion that it had been seriously affecting her work. By discussion this clarity of information hopefully allowed her to reassess her priorities. Any change will depend upon her motivation, finding a new meaning and purpose, and how strong the reward is of her current friendship patterns compared to the new purpose.

Another method that is used to help younger pupils is circle time. It can help them to gain insight into their emotions and behaviour. At present I have not had the chance to run one of these.

Back to top

The Chemical reward & risk taking

Dopamine, a neuro transmitter plays an important role in the functioning of the amygdala. The levels are relayed to the amygdala and there are changes in its supply in response to pleasurable or painful stimuli. The higher the levels of dopamine the greater the pleasure (Goleman 2004). The key thing here is how the individual perceives and tags the stimuli. This will depend upon the perceived threat or pleasure, which can also depend upon their personal values and beliefs. With teenagers who are less inhibited due to the smaller frontal lobes and the general hormonal changes, repeating unusual stimuli to get the reward of the dopamine explains some aspects of antisocial behaviour, i.e. joy riders high, or flouting the rules in front of their mates, The greater the risk the greater the high after the ‘event’. This is a reinforcing effect, which causes people to return to patterns of behaviour that give them pleasure.

It is therefore important to help teenagers find meaning and purpose in their lives, something that will get them the reward without being hedonistic. (See spiral dynamic value sheet Appendix 8, also Beck and Cowan 2004). Most teenagers want to be with their friends, i.e. that is on the tribal level of the spiral and then move into the power stage in certain aspects of their lives, i.e. sex, drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll. Helping them to find meaning & purpose is a powerful way to move them on into the next stage of development. One way to do this is to give them responsibility. Taking on a responsibility especially an organisational one brings in the frontal lobes reasoning and therefore the potential to control the emotions.

Back to top

Facial expressions

Paul Ekman ( Goleman 2004) has shown that the facial anatomy allows about 7000 visually distinct combinations of those muscles. So perceiving an emotion correctly in a short time frame is not as easy as might at first be thought. Paul Ekman found through his research that “By making the correct expression, you begin to have the changes in your physiology that accompany emotion”. In other words putting the face into a smile drives the brain to activity typical of happiness.

Using Paul Ekman’s CD (Ekman 2003) to recognise emotions and subtle emotions, I tried the calibration task and only achieved about 20% and I am used to watching micro responses as a teacher and Master Practitioner in NLP. After training using the CD I improved to 67% after about an hour. The pictures appear for between a second down to one-twenty fifth of a second for the micro expression training. I propose that the use of this sort of CD or an adaptation could be useful in training pupils in emotional literacy. This training would be good in helping students to recognise emotions in others and themselves.

During puberty (see Appendix 9, Timeline of changes in the Human Mind Body.) the body puts a lot of its energy into growth and the reproduction system, consequently the frontal lobes shrink. As a consequence of this, teenagers are even more likely to misread another’s intent as there is less control by the frontal lobes. This often leads to such expressions as “he was giving me the evils” which too often leads to confrontation. It has been shown that children before puberty (Winston 2004) are better at reading emotions than those who are experiencing the hormonal changes.

Back to top

Triggers & Pattern Breaks

Some students bring their life experiences into school. I have worked with at least two male 15 year old students who have lost their fathers in the last 5 years. Both of them are in fight or flight mode a lot of the time. Repeated anger or a ‘chip on the shoulder’ can give students an outlook on the world that means their anger will be triggered easily. Helping them to elicit particular triggers and then to reframe them, i.e. bringing in the reasoning power of the forebrain can start to help. So circle time, emotional (anger) management courses or therapy are required if the students want help to move forward in life. One lad on being told by me to sit in my office stated: I’m angry and I’m not going to calm down”. I used an NLP technique and said to him, “For what purpose are you not going to calm down?” This broke his anger state and we had a useful discussion.

A trigger can be any particular sight, sound, touch or smell (less common is taste). When a trigger is fired off a whole state of experience re-occurs, including all the original emotional intensity. Much of this is due to the chemical brain which is the peptides and neuropeptides flooding the body Appendix 1. They can be stored in the cells of the body from the original event. So to cleanse and balance the body can involve mental and physical healing techniques.

One of my personal triggers has been a computer not functioning, commonly called computer rage. Using reframing techniques, I now have the belief that if it is not doing what I want that it is because I need more information on what to do or that it takes time to process, rather than my previous expectation that it should occur quickly.

A pattern break is anything that ‘breaks’ a person out of the mind body state they are in. One year 7 male came to me saying that he was being bullied. I listened to him and found out that they were calling him a penguin. I broke his state and re-framed him by stating that, “penguins are excellent biscuits”. At this point he started to talk about the excellent qualities of the Emperor penguin. After taking him through another technique he left my office full of confidence. Another lad in year 8 was being verbally abused out of school by a younger lad, who would then get his parents involved if the year 8 retaliated. I taught him the following pattern break: apples fall up down they. This nonsensical statement takes the mind in two directions and causes confusion and leaves a bully confused (or possibly thinking they are mad). I have used this technique with several selected students to good effect.

Back to top

Enhancing our quota of happiness

The brain is plastic, and our quota of happiness can be enhanced through mental training. The frontal lobes through high activity control the amygdala and the emotions produced. Laughter in the classroom and staffroom are important for generating or maintaining a mood. At the school where I work, for at least the last ten years the morning briefing has normally been punctuated by various colleagues cracking a joke at the expense of some colleague’s notice. This frequently sends many of us off in a good mood to work with the pupils. Laughter therapy (I took a course in the sacred art of clowning with a French clown called Didier Danthois) is great fun and would be a fun way to explore as a way of helping students whose mood is predominantly negative. The following science explains why (Goleman 2004):

The left pre-frontal cortex shows high neurological activity when people experience feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness. The right pre-frontal lobe shows high activity when people experience sadness anxiety and worry. People with a more active left frontal lobe set up a feedback loop between themselves and positive stimuli around them, ensuring a more constant positive mood. Right frontal lobe people do the opposite. The ratio of right-to-left prefrontal lobe activity is a barometer of the moods that we are likely to feel.

Back to top

Meditation & Visualisation

I have run some meditation sessions with pupils from year 7 to 12, normally some form of creative visualisation on a spiritual or relaxing theme. I often teach them how to use their imagination to find a safe relaxing place in their mind and then ‘be there’ for up to 15 minutes. The idea is that the more they know how to relax the easier it is to relax and therefore calm down or cope with disturbing emotions. Meditation also has the effect of helping to improve the ability to concentrate, and mindfulness meditation has scientifically been shown by Richard Davidson (Goleman 2004) to improve the functioning of the immune system. Mindfulness meditation involves being aware of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. As thoughts or emotions arise into consciousness they are noted and then let go of. This has the effect of allowing a person to be more detached from the emotional content of life. 14 hours training can alter the mind permanently into a more relaxed way of being. I hypothesis that meditation does this by reducing activity in the right frontal lobe, and increasing it in the left frontal lobe causing a feedback loop of positive emotion. In my experience it gives me the ability to think things through more as I notice earlier and earlier the first signs of emotion. The mind body does not differentiate between an imagined event and a real one, i.e. watching TV can still set the heart racing and all the other effects on the body. Therefore using visualisation techniques to prepare for an event that normally produces negative emotions by ‘experiencing it differently’ is a technique that is used by sport psychologists and one that I intend to investigate this coming year.

Back to top


Using the model explained with the current understanding of the brain, the chemical brain, NLP and Spiral Dynamics it is now possible to see why some interventions with pupils work and others may not. This model of emotional intelligence still needs refining and has also opened up many avenues of research for working with my students. In my view the success of helping pupils to improve their emotional intelligence will depend on the education system taking onboard new knowledge and techniques currently outside the experience of many within the education establishment and to the individual students themselves. I particularly believe that NLP (particularly the use of language, changing perspectives and reframing techniques) could have a great impact on how the interactions with and the training of students develops.

Back to top

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *