Emotional Literacy

Understanding Emotional Literacy:

Emotional literacy (EL) is used to explain the ability to understand and express feelings, that is being able to identify, appreciate, manage and appropriately express emotions and to distinguish, comprehend and appropriately respond to the expressed emotions of others. EL is useful in developing good communication skills and enhancing our relationships with others. Although emotional literacy is rather an abstract concept, it helps to move away from the negative associations of emotional intelligence (Faupel, 2003).

EL signifies a shift in emphasis from cognition and behaviour in education, and also alludes to the idea that, like reading and mathematics, it is a concept that can be taught. EL has two dimensions: personal competence, (i.e., self-awareness, self-regulations, motivation and social competence, that is: empathy and social skills. This is similar to the five interrelated core competencies that the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning model (CASEL, 2005) suggests may provide a foundation for better school adjustment and academic achievement.

The understanding and management of emotions is increasingly viewed as fundamental to the growth and development of learners. There are many who question the usefulness of academic attainment and achievement without the foundations of intra- and interpersonal skills and competencies (Robinson, 2010; Zhao, 2009; Zins & Elias, 2006). Within an increasingly globalised world, rapid advances in technology and the ever-present social media, EL has been said to be even more important in helping learners adapt to constantly changing circumstances and society.  The two key dimensions of EL, personal competence and social competence, will be explained below.

Personal Competence

Personal competence consists of three main aspects, i.e., self-awareness, self-regulation and motivation. This is distinct from social competence, which includes empathy and social skills.


This refers to being able to recognise and understand one’s own emotions, personal preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness represents the foundation of EL because without this awareness and understanding, it is not possible to move on to other competencies such as self-regulation, motivation and social competence. In addition to recognizing our emotions, we also need to understand how our emotions affect our thoughts, behaviour and actions. Self-awareness requires an accurate assessment of self, knowing our strengths and weaknesses and understanding what is within our competence and what is beyond us. It is a realistic and balanced appraisal of our skills and competencies, which is seems easy to describe but is more challenging to attain.


Self-regulation refers to being able to effectively regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviour in different situations: successfully handling stress, managing impulses and self-motivation. This also includes being able to establish and work toward personal and academic goals (CASEL, 2013). Self-regulation is dependent upon the physiological maturity of particular brain structures and the interaction of these brain systems with experience.


Motivation concerns both the goals we select and the resolve to accomplish these goals. Ryan and Deci (2000) noted two types of motivation, extrinsic (outside) and intrinsic (inside). Extrinsic motivation refers to the motivation to execute a behaviour or engage in an activity in order to earn a reward or avoid punishment, while intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in a behaviour for the associated personal reward; doing an activity for its own sake.  Motivation is a complex issue with some research proposing that extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are not contradictory and can coexist.  Successful learners are able to discriminate between when to work for which type of reward, since both types of motivation interact (Lemos & Veríssimo, 2014). While extrinsic motivation is helpful in some situations, it is argued that the most successful learners are those who are intrinsically motivated; those who enjoy what they are learning (Schunk, Pintrich, & Meece, 2008). Ryan and Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that when a learner’s basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are met, the learner will be intrinsically motivated, which then results in optimal learning and engagement. Intrinsic motivation has also been shown to correlate positively to more effective coping and problem-solving skills, greater persistence, improved confidence, communication, collaboration, stronger relationships and ultimately better performance.

Social Competence

Social competence refers to the ability to be aware of and to understand and to react to the emotions of those around one; and is demonstrated by empathy and social skills. Although personal and social competences are separated from a construct perspective, it should be noted that intrapersonal and interpersonal development are inextricably intertwined and influence each other (Myers & Twenge, 2013).


Empathy can be defined as being able to experience and appreciate the emotions of others (Vossen & Valkenburg, 2016). The way in which we understand those around us, why they behave in the way that they do, is influenced by our own life experiences and will strongly determine the quality of our relationships. Thus the first undertaking of social competence is being able to notice, read and be considerate of the thoughts and feelings of others; listening and being attentive to the signals that others are sending us form the basis of empathy . Empathy is useful in building and strengthening positive group dynamics by learning to understand, appreciate and communicate cross-culturally. Empathy also prepares learners to be better leaders, if they need to take up such roles, as they need to understand those that they lead and demonstrate through their decisions and actions that they care.

Social Skills

Although empathy is principally about understanding how others view the world by paying attention to the messages being conveyed, the second component of empathy is being able to communicate to others that they have been heard and appreciating that their interpretation of a situation may be very different from ours.  There are various levels of social skills; some are discreet, such as using appropriate facial expressions, eye contact, tone and volume of voice and body language. Others are more generalised like smiling, laughing, using humour and seeking/offering help when required. As an ideal, adolescents should be learning to resist inappropriate social pressures, to negotiate conflict in a constructive manner, to communicate effectively and cooperate with others. As well as developing the competence at taking the perspectives of others, appreciating diversity and respect others, another important aspect of social skill is the ability to understand the social and ethical norms for behaviour.


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