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Nursery Management

Why emotional intelligence matters

Why emotional intelligence matters

Author: James Boddey

Subject: Staff

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Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the need for early years practitioners to hold academic qualifications. I’ve just finished reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (a fantastic book that I’d recommended to anybody). It highlights the fact that academic ability and IQ are by no means the only measure of someone’s intelligence. In fact, Goleman says, people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70 per cent of the time. While reading this book I had a very interesting supervision meeting with a member of my team. She expressed to me her concern that she did not have the GCSE results to embark on the Early Years Educator Level 3 qualification. She went on to tell me that due to being dyslexic, and having had bad experiences related to this at school, she did not want to attempt her exams again. This member of staff is excellent at her job, has a very high level of emotional intelligence and knowledge of children’s development. I could really empathise with her and felt concerned that there may be other excellent early years practitioners in the country who were not achieving a higher level of qualification for this reason.

For the uninitiated, Early Years Educators are required to have GCSE English and maths at grade A–C, with Early Years Teachers also requiring GCSE science. My question is… why? How does one’s ability to solve simultaneous equations, or discuss the plot of Hamlet, affect one’s ability to work in an early years setting? Okay, these might be silly examples, but it’s a very serious point.

Schools do, of course, teach us skills that we use in early years settings – we learn to write, to communicate, to research and more; however, in my opinion, much of our schooling involves lesson after lesson of copying down facts, remembering them accurately and reproducing them when prompted. In short, it’s the skills of notetaking and memorisation that we are practising and judged upon. As such, I’m unsure as to how one’s ability to gain a GCSE at grade C or higher links to an outstanding ability to educate and care for young children. I can see that having these qualifications would be essential to primary school teaching assistants and professionals working with children learning to spell, etc., but are they so important in nursery? I understand that the government wants to up skill the workforce, to bring our qualifications more in line with teachers, but if this comes at the expense of people with excellent emotional intelligence, then this is wrong.

So what is the standard against which we should measure someone’s ability to care for children? In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have selfawareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” I agree, and would suggest that emotional intelligence is far more important than exam results for those working in early years settings.


To understand why emotional intelligence is so important, we need to look more closely at what it actually is. In an article on website PsychCentral.com (viewable at ow.ly/yUAVK), Michael Akers and Grover Porter identify the five categories summarised below. In my opinion, numbers three to five are the most vital for early years practitioners, and ability in these three areas is, I would argue, more important than a C in English, mathematics and science.

1. Self-awareness

The ability to recognise an emotion as it ‘happens’, made up of emotional awareness (an ability to recognise one’s own emotions and their effects) and self-confidence (sureness about one’s self-worth and capabilities).

To be an effective early years practitioner, you need to be self-aware and self-critical, and be able to reflect on yourself. Being aware of our own strengths, areas to develop, biases and experiences enables us to continue to improve and develop – as Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” It also reminds us that everybody is unique and different, and should be celebrated and recognised as such. A key aspect of strong leadership is confidence and self-worth. A confident leader instils confidence in others and ensures everybody has a great sense of self-worth.

2. Self-regulation

We often have little control over when we experience emotions, but we do have some say in how long an emotion will last and how we react.

In my setting I want early years practitioners with emotional literacy and control, who are adaptable and able to handle change.

3. Motivation

Motivating ourselves requires clear goals and a positive attitude. While we may have a predisposition to either a positive or a negative attitude, we can learn to think more positively.

As a leader of an early years setting I want my team to be motivated, in their element at work and flourishing as individuals. Because of this, motivation is one of the key attributes I look for in a member of staff.

4. Empathy

The ability to recognise how people feel; the more skilful we are at discerning the feelings behind others’ signals, the better we can control the signals we send them.

Empathy is an essential skill when working with others. The best early years practitioners can empathise with the children, their parents/carers and other members of staff. They can ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of others and see things from different perspectives. In my setting, relationships are key. Each key person needs to be able to make a strong, equal relationship with each child and his/her family members. This can only be done effectively if the member of staff has good empathy skills.

5. Social skills

For example, ‘influence’, ‘communication’, ‘leadership’ and ‘conflict management’. A nursery is a very social environment, so the more skilled you are socially, the more effective you will be. It’s important to remember that every individual communicates differently, so it is the key role of an emotionally intelligent individual to identify the best way of communicating with each person.


Next time you interview somebody for a job, or are in a position to mentor a student, remember the importance of emotional intelligence. The skills described above play a vital role in the day-to-day life of a setting, the relationships we make and how we communicate with each other and are, I believe, more important than academic intelligence, particularly in our sector. Emotional intelligence comprises a flexible set of skills that can be acquired and improved with practice. So although some people (like the member of my staff) are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, you can develop high emotional intelligence even if you aren’t born with it.

In my setting, my aim is to ensure each child has a strong foundation of selfawareness (what makes them unique and special), self-confidence and self-worth. We talk regularly to the children about emotions, and want all to be able to express themselves and communicate how they are feeling to us. In this way I believe we are doing our best to promote emotional intelligence in the children who attend the setting, too. I am unsure how this is continued in primary education and beyond, but in my opinion, emotional intelligence is the foundation for success in life. So, I’ll finish on the advice I started with, which is… If you haven’t already, please read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman!

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