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Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, and manage feelings. Because it is a relatively new area of study in psychology, we know less about it than about more traditional types of intelligence. However, what we are learning is exciting and gives us new ways to think about children’s abilities.

Views of Emotional Intelligence

Howard Gardner includes two personal intelligences among the seven he describes in his pioneering book, Frames of Mind. Interpersonal intelligence is social intelligence. Children with high levels of interpersonal intelligence are good at reading people’s expressions, empathizing with them, and developing friendships, and they may have leadership talents. Intrapersonal intelligence comprises abilities like self-awareness and emotional expressiveness. Children with high levels of intrapersonal intelligence know their strengths and weaknesses, can interpret complex and contradictory emotions, and may have talents in areas like the visual arts and creative writing.

The emotionally intelligent child has a greater capacity for sorrow, disappointment, and joy.

In the past two decades, several theorists have developed more detailed models of emotional intelligence. Some of these theorists describe emotional intelligence narrowly, as the ability to understand and manage emotions, while others believe that emotional intelligence includes a broad set of skills and personality traits associated with success.

Narrow Models

The best-known narrow model was designed by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. It includes four sets of skills:

  • The ability to perceive and express accurately one’s own emotions and those of others. For example, a small child who tells a parent, “I feel sad because Grandpa died; I miss him,” and an adolescent who tells his girlfriend, “I am angry that you broke our date Friday night,” demonstrate this level of emotional intelligence.
  • The ability to use emotions to facilitate thinking. One of the most important functions of emotions is to prioritize thinking and decision making by directing one’s attention to important information or by aiding certain activities. Some research suggests that joyful or expansive moods make creative tasks like story writing easier and that neutral moods are best for analytic tasks like memorizing math facts. Hence children who apply this type of emotional intelligence at a high level have learned to alter their moods to match the activity in which they are engaged.
  • The ability to understand emotions. This involves recognizing complex emotional states and interpreting the meanings that emotions convey in relationships. Children with this ability may be insightful in interpreting the feelings of characters in stories. They understand that it is possible to feel sad and angry at the same time and that it sometimes takes time to sort out one’s feelings.
  • The ability to manage emotions. This requires the most refined emotional skill. Individuals with this ability can stay open to their emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, and can monitor and manage emotions in themselves and others. Emotionally intelligent adolescents may have felt and expressed a complex mix of sorrow, anger, helplessness, and pride when watching the news following the attack on the World Trade Center. They may have managed those feelings constructively by raising money for the families of firefighters who lost their lives or by expressing their feelings in poetry.

The Mayer and Salovey model is helpful because it differentiates four levels of emotional skill, focuses on the roles that emotions play in guiding thoughts and actions, and offers insights to help children develop emotional competence.

Broad Models

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, has developed the best-known broad model of emotional intelligence. Because it focuses on success, it has much in common with the concept of successful intelligence, which Robert Sternberg defines as the intelligence people use to achieve important goals. People who have successful intelligence capitalize on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.

Goleman’s model has four components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. For each component Goleman identifies particular competencies. For example, self-management includes emotional self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, drive, and initiative. The model is not “pure,” because it includes personality characteristics like conscientiousness and adaptability, motivational skills like drive, and social skills like collaboration and visionary leadership. It is also more applicable to adults than to children.

Emotional Intelligence and Gifted Children

Like Mayer and Salovey, I prefer to reserve the term emotional intelligence for the narrow set of skills involved in perceiving, understanding, and regulating emotions. Having a high IQ does not necessarily mean that a child will have high levels of emotional intelligence. A gifted child can have high, moderate, or low levels of it. Since emotional intelligence facilitates important life skills such as developing friendships and making good decisions, a gifted child who has moderate to high levels of it will have an easier time in life. Emotional intelligence improves one’s well-being and achievement and enables one to manage moods, recover from setbacks, and build supportive relationships. It helps individuals make good choices, defer gratification in the interests of long-term goals, and work effectively with others.

Gifted children who have low levels of emotional intelligence are at risk of social or emotional problems. Children with ADHD are usually low in emotional intelligence because their disorder affects the areas of the brain that manage emotions. They tend to experience greater frustration, lower self-esteem, and more peer rejection than most gifted children. Their low emotional intelligence makes life harder for them both at home and at school.

At the other end of the spectrum, gifted children with high levels of emotional intelligence may have difficulty managing the intensity and complexity of their feelings. They can be overwhelmed by their emotions unless they are in supportive environments that help them develop competence in understanding, interpreting, and coping with their feelings. If they do receive such support, they are likely to be unusually emotionally mature as adults.

What Parents Can Do

Parents are influential in the development of their children’s emotional intelligence. Parents of young children can help them develop a large emotional vocabulary and learn social skills like sharing and using words instead of fists to express anger. Parents of elementary-school children may want to focus on helping them learn to understand different viewpoints and master conflict resolution skills. Parents of adolescents can model honest, authentic emotional communication in their relationships with their teens.

All parents need to encourage independence and autonomy in their children while providing the security, warmth, and closeness to nurture their optimal emotional development.

—Sidney M. Moon, PhD

Sidney M. Moon is executive director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute and professor of educational studies at the Purdue University School of Education. Her research interests include social and emotional issues of gifted students, families of the gifted, gifted education, and the development of personal talent.


  • Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Educational Implications, by Peter Salovey and David J. Sluyter,
    Basic, 1997

  • Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Bantam, 1995

  • Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner, Basic, 1993

  • On the Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted Children, by Tracy L. Cross, Prufrock, 2001

  • The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know? edited by Maureen Neihart, Sally M. Reis, Nancy M. Robinson, and Sidney M. Moon, Prufrock, 2002