Emotional competence is just as important in education and learning

Emotions are just as important in education

Competence is the desired outcome of professions such as medicine and all forms of learning. To become competent often involves more than thinking: You have to acquire motor learning or skills training, and emotional and social learning (or affective learning).


Competence is the desired outcome of professions such as medicine and all forms of learning. To become competent often involves more than thinking: You have to acquire motor learning or skills training, and emotional and social learning (or affective learning). Most educational institutions, schools and colleges emphasise the thinking aspect, or cognition. Less attention is paid to the emotional aspects. Yet, emotions are important as they play a vital part in learning, and can help or hinder a child’s academic commitment and success in school. Positive emotions directly relate to interest and self-motivation, which drive the attitudes critical for acquiring knowledge; negative emotions like depression are linked to the converse.In fact, neuro-imaging studies of the brain illustrate the critical link between emotions and the working memory (memory for transitory information): If a person is in a depressed mood, even if transient, it leads to more problems with working memory.

We do not need imaging to show this to be true, as all of us would have experienced this. When we feel down, our attention and ability to perform are impaired. Sadness, fear, anxiety and apathy reduce our attention so that we learn less, engage less and deal less effectively with decisions and tasks.

Positive emotions and motivation increase our attention at a task. We have all had instances where we were so involved in an activity we like, such as reading a book, playing a game or solving a difficult problem, that time stands still and we become disconnected from the clamour of everyday life.


So emotions affect learning, but more importantly, emotional development is critical to succeeding in life.

There are many elements of emotional competence. The first and an indispensable aspect is our willingness to hear what others have to say. In other words, we have to be good listeners. From one’s early school days to one’s professional life, this is an essential skill and a determinant of emotional quotient (EQ).

The second crucial component is our ability to perceive emotions in individuals. This plays a major role in modulating interactions and conversations. This perception of emotions has to be extended to ourselves.

The third and equally important point is to use this awareness of emotions in responding to people and events or what is said, in an appropriate manner. This may be in the context of participating in discussions in a polite manner, learning to assert or disagree, to reason, argue or persuade without getting personal. This is strongly related to empathy.

Empathy is best assessed as our ability to feel and see another person’s viewpoint, especially in the context of making decisions. For a doctor, this domain is critical: If one has excellent medical knowledge but poor empathy and communication skills, one would be a poor doctor indeed.

A natural consequence of these skills is the development and organisation of values, which include being sensitive towards others. Values are exemplified not by words, but by actions, such as ethical behaviour, respect for others, commitment and accepting responsibility.


Some aspects of emotional development could be genetic. Others are learnt in the context of the environment of the growing child.

For example, some people have a difficult time perceiving emotions in themselves and in others, an inability called alexithymia. It often manifests as a dearth in appreciating the feelings of others, and leads to difficulties with regulating emotions and socialisation. The results of a study involving Danish twins suggest that genetic factors are central in the development of alexithymia.

But emotional development is not just genetic. In fact, the first five years of life present an irreplaceable prospect to lay the groundwork for healthy emotional and social development. Research has shown that negative early experiences impair this in children. Maternal attachment is important: The amount of quality time mothers spend with their children relates to the children’s emotional development.

Early recognition of problems in pre-school is key to preventing future emotional and social problems. Students who suffer from inadequate social-emotional development are less connected to school as they progress from primary to secondary school, and exhibit lower academic performance.

For students at risk, a Social and Emotional Learning or SEL approach taught at school could improve, albeit in a limited way, the chances for the children’s success in school. This involves training in processing, assimilating and appropriately using social and emotional skills contextually and in suitable ways.

Emotional development is important, and both the home and school environments are critical not just for good grades but also in nurturing success and happiness in life.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

* This is part of a series on the way we learn. To read the other articles, (GET SHORTLINK/QR CODE: http://www.todayonline.com/authors/k-ranga-krishnan )

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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